“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
When Kanye West uttered those words on September 2, 2005—on national TV, and much to the surprise of Mike Myers, who was standing next to him—he instantly became a representative of anti-establishment hip-hop in the vein of Public Enemy and Ice Cube. Eleven years later, he stood on his floating Saint Pablo Tour stage and told his fans that he would have voted for Donald Trump—"I told y’all I didn’t vote … but if I would’ve voted, I would’ve voted on Trump”—and that black people need to “stop focusing on racism.” This has caused me to ask a question I’ve been asking myself pretty frequently over the last 10 days: how in the hell did we get here?
From the moment Kanye West became a major figure in rap, he’s seemed to be about those of us who feel alienated from some of the genre’s more extreme lifestyles of excessive bling or mythical shootouts—who are politically aware but who can’t relate to some of the violence and drug raps of Kanye’s elders and contemporaries. Sure, we will always enjoy Jay Z and Young Jeezy, but Kanye’s accessibility arose from the fact that he spoke about issues most of us came in contact with on a regular day. Kanye was originally ostracized from his Roc-A-Fella records cohorts because he wore colorful clothes and was nerdier than the rest of the crew, and there’s a wide swath of people who felt marginalized by the cool kids in much the same way. Kanye spoke directly to those listeners. His first album, 2003’s College Dropout, featured songs about not spending money on frivolous hip-hop accoutrements, picking up girls on Myspace and wearing regular old Ralph Lauren shirts.
By the time Kanye called out George W. Bush for his unwillingness to provide necessary help to a largely black population of people displaced by Katrina, he had inserted himself at the top of hip-hop’s pantheon. Rap fans lived and died by his every release, no matter how far left-field his creativity took him. (We were bumping his sophomore album Late Registration when he made his Bush comments, despite the album’s reliance on uncool elements like live orchestras and songs dedicated to aunties.) The Bush comment only made West more of a cult icon. But for some reason, the promise of an ensuing run of more politicized music from Kanye never came to fruition.
Instead, Kanye West’s politics turned toward… Kanye West. When he felt like he was being discriminated against in the fashion industry, he went on long rants about racism and released the searing Yeezus album, featuring songs like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” and lyrics like this:
You see it’s broke nigga racism
That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”
And it’s rich nigga racism
That’s that “Come in, please buy more.”
Even then, Kanye’s racial politics were self-centered. Yeezus is mostly about what it’s like to be rich and black and infiltrating various white-dominated spaces. He went from rapping about lacking funds for a pair of Jordans in 2003’s “All Falls Down” to the racism of being expected to buy a Bentley on “New Slaves.” Yes, Kanye’s brand of racial discussion is an important one, especially in light of how black celebrities are treated. But it seems like it’s only something he cares about because it affects him directly. Now when Kanye discusses race, it’s about racism he personally feels he faces whenever he can’t excel as a celebrity.
As for the rest of us? Kanye’s public persona suggests that he’s not that concerned.
Some attribute the shift to the passing of his mother, Donda, who died following a liposuction operation in 2007. She was a grounding figure in his life, and there was certainly a change in Kanye’s message following her death. But I think there’s more to it. I don’t know what caused it, but these days West is as detached from his fans as his elevated stage is from the floor seats. Maybe he sees himself in Trump: a loudmouthed cult-of-personality star with a following that will apparently support him no matter what. Whatever the case, he should know the impact that endorsement will have on so many people who contributed to his ascent in the first place.
There’s still hope that old Kanye lingers under the pro-Trump rhetoric and respectability politics. Earlier this month, he and Kim Kardashian met with Cameron Sterling, whose father Alton was gunned down by police in Baton Rouge in July. The couple had been vocal about the killing, with Kim Kardashian writing a passionate statement about it. In fact, Kardashian is the one who has vocally supported Hillary Clinton and Black Lives Matter. She’s shown an empathy for people suffering in this country that her husband’s latest outburst seems to indicate he’s missing. Oddly enough, it’s become clear that Kim Kardashian cares about black people even if, in moments like last night’s Trump endorsement, her husband doesn’t seem to anymore.