Kanye West, arguably the most influential figure in pop culture today, recently announced his intention of running for President of the United States this year.
We must now realize the promise of America by trusting God, unifying our vision and building our future. I am running for president of the United States 🇺🇸! #2020VISION
— ye (@kanyewest) July 5, 2020
This isn’t the first time that West has made such ambitions public. The rapper and producer has hinted at the possibility of running multiple times (usually for 2024). West is far from an unusual presence in the political sphere, and he is certainly no stranger to controversy. In 2016, he sent shockwaves through the left when he declared his support for Donald Trump, which culminated in his 2018 visit to the White House and the release of his single “Ye vs. the People,” in which he raps: “I know Obama was heaven-sent, but ever since Trump won, it proved that I could be president.” The single also features fellow black rapper Clifford Joseph Harris Jr.—known as T.I—who responds: “You representin’ dudes just seem crude and cold-hearted, with blatant disregard for the people who put you in position, don’t you feel an obligation to them?” This exchange highlights the fact that the Democratic establishment tends to take black people’s votes for granted. As Kanye puts it: “See that’s the problem with this damn nation, all Blacks gotta be Democrats, man, we ain’t made it off the plantation.”
Much of the left was bewildered by Kanye’s remarks. As Ben Sixsmith observes the mob holds no terrors for those who can afford to bear the consequences—“the uncancellables.” With his tens of millions of followers and multi-million dollar empire, Kanye isn’t someone who can be easily bullied into submission. Like Elon Musk (who immediately endorsed Kanye on Twitter) and J. K. Rowling, West is part of that handful of individuals who can afford to swim against the tide, without fearing repercussions from the social justice army of ultra-progressives. Some of Kanye’s cultural battles might not be genuine. His fondness for controversy could be a form of self-conscious marketing, the creation of an alternative image to contrast with the profitable virtue-signaling wokeness of his peers. Reports indicate that West might even have already been forced to drop out of the presidential race, having missed the deadline in several states—even though he seems to have fully intended to run and had even hired 180 campaign staff. Yet given his egocentrism and grandiose ambitions, to picture West as a kind of Trump 2.0 isn’t too far-fetched. To understand why, we need to look at his chosen musical genre: rap.
So how could a reality TV show host end up beating a lifelong politician like Hillary Clinton? The black hip-hop community knows the answer. The rap world has never hidden its obsession with the current US president. Most rappers have been looking up to Trump for decades—check out this video to see how many times he has been mentioned in rap lyrics over the years. The archetype of the wealthy, powerful, hyper-masculine, womanizing tycoon, who lives at the top of a luxury skyscraper and brags about his social status—Trump is the culmination of the yearning for power and status from which the genre emerged.
But money and power weren’t Trump’s only strong suits in 2016. As Steven Watts has pointed out, his rough, unapologetic masculinity appealed to what Walter Lippman calls “the public’s tendency to vote the picture in our heads.” Watts compares Trump to JFK, a man whose “striking celebrity appeal was tailor-made for a modern American culture,” which—like the current hip-hop scene—“saw entertainment, leisure, and self-fulfillment (as opposed to self-control) as the keys to achieving happiness and success.” Watts argues that, by associating himself with a constellation of assertive masculine cultural figures, such as Frank Sinatra, Ian Fleming and Hugh Hefner, Kennedy reaffirmed a old-fashioned admiration for masculinity among a public who were beginning to feel uncertain about the wisdom of traditional gender roles—an uncertainty that would lead to the devaluation of traditional masculinity that has reached its apogee today. That was in 1961.
Despite clearly lacking James Bond’s sex appeal and JFK’s charm, Trump was able to run a successful campaign by exploiting the demand (already widespread in the 50s) for the revalorization of masculinity in mainstream culture. His juvenile gestures, bombastic utterances and crass rhetoric—very similar to that of rap lyrics—were music to the public’s ears. At a time when every manifestation of assertiveness in men is increasingly considered blameworthy and treated by academics like an infection that must be eradicated, the childish, irresponsible, hyper-masculine Trump gained public approval as quickly as a Jay-Z single mounts to the top of the hip-hop charts. His victory represented the rough, unrestrained, unapologetic comeback of an instinct repressed for far too long and now satisfied via the voting booth. This same yearning motivated an entire generation of young rappers and hip-hop artists.
Rappers channeled their desire to be masculine into their music, giving birth to hip-hop: an art characterized by excessive displays of material wealth and high social status and crude language (all characteristics shared by the president). So, in retrospect, why was the left so surprised to see Kanye endorsing Trump? The similarities between them are striking. In a culture free from ideological pressures, the entire rap industry would probably publicly avow their support for Trump. Hence Kanye—who is unaffected by politics—is no anomaly.
You don't have to agree with trump but the mob can't make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don't agree with everything anyone does. That's what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.
— ye (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018
When he says “Trump proved that I could be president,” he’s simply admitting what most black (and white) rappers know: he’s acknowledging the connection between his artistry and everything progressives hate about Trump. No wonder the left was so shocked.
While progressives are always bitterly disappointed when black celebrities reject their dogma, conservatives get very excited when popular figures (like Trump) endorse Republicanism. The right seizes on such celebrities’ supportive tweets at every opportunity because there aren’t many popular figures ready to speak up for conservatism. When someone like West deviates from the liberal consensus, conservatives are happy to forget the entertainment industry and hip-hop scene’s hostility to the great tradition (decried in articles like this one, tellingly entitled “Rap Is Crap”). But, unlike Trump’s, West’s conversion to conservatism—while probably in part a postmodern stunt, has been accompanied by moments of authenticity. In his 2004 track “Jesus Walks,” for example, Kanye raps: “God show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’ to break me down.” In his single “Selah,” he strikes an equally humble note: “[Christ] saved a wretch like me.” So, despite the fact that rap is known for its glorification of violence, objectification of women and opposition to law enforcement, West has managed to accumulate fans outside the left. In his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West often goes beyond hip-hop’s traditional boundaries, with attempts to integrate his more classical instincts into the music. As James McElroy writes: “Kanye’s self-awareness allows him to use this to deliver quick moments of real beauty … Like when he places a quiet and sad violin arrangement between two bombastic rap tracks. And when he lets silence speak, the listener is reminded of all that is missing from baroque hip-hop.”
West is far from perfect. He has probably been guilty of succumbing to propagandistic impulses in the past. But “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude,” as George Orwell has written—and Kanye’s words, whether expressed on social media or in his lyrics, have generally originated from a genuine wish to make sense of the world. His political utterances have seldom been conformist. His loyalty to his art was evident in mid-2018, when Candace Owens unsuccessfully attempted to entice him into mouthing TPUSA talking points after he tweeted out his sympathy with her in her courageous refusal to enjoy the benefits of playing the victim card. His statement: “I love the way Candace Owen thinks” didn’t mean I’m ready to endorse free-market capitalism. When T.I. asked him why he was wearing a MAGA hat, Kanye said that his choice was more like “a feeling”: “Man, my subconscious spoke to my conscious and it just moved me to wear the hat,” he recalled. In what more authentic place can an artist search for inspiration than in his subconscious? Whatever his political motivations, Kanye is not an ideologue.
But West has one major disadvantage. His history of mental instability (Kanye is outspokenly bipolar)—which has probably made a major contribution to his music—might be his greatest barrier to becoming the second black president of the US. Many of his controversial stunts, political utterances and pseudo-philosophical ramblings may be due to his mental condition, and it isn’t hard to imagine how his opponents could exploit that. Then there’s his personality. West isn’t a rational man. His behavior is manic, erratic, unpredictable. Such attributes—while perfect for turning a fanbase into a cult-like following—aren’t very useful in high-stress environments. The same concerns the public had when Trump first burst upon the political scene are likely to re-emerge in a heightened form if Kanye ever seriously follows up on his promise to run for office in the future. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to understand why some people on both sides of the aisle see Kanye West as an attractive candidate for the White House, and have even encouraged him to make a last minute run.
Kanye West is no politician. Asked about his foreign policy in a recent interview, his answer was: “I haven’t developed one yet.” But Trump was no politician either, and his popularity across ideological lines should not be underestimated. The fact that West resonates with so many people could be a sign that our cultural needs have shifted. Many on the liberal-left see Kanye as better equipped to bridge America’s racial divide in the post-Floyd world than Biden or Trump. And—like JFK in 1960 and Trump in 2015—Kanye’s pop culture status seems tailor-made for current cultural demands: he is masculine but compassionate; famous, but skeptical of stardom; egocentric but often genuine; highly entertaining; capable of reaching out to both sides.
Four years after a reality TV show host was appointed to the highest office in the world, the public has been growing increasingly aware of the president’s limitations. West’s unideological, artistically driven involvement in politics contrasts starkly with the increasing ideological fanaticism of many Americans. His flawed yet genuine conservatism provides a possible antidote to both Donald Trump’s opportunism and that of the power-hungry Democratic party. Furthermore, Kanye’s controversial new-found faith in Christianity reflects the spiritual yearning felt across the Western world. His attempts to integrate religious values into a genre characterized by self-indulgence and materialism could unite two dominant worldviews: those of the traditional religious right and the hypersexual left. To some, Kanye seems like the right man for the job. Like Trump’s, his popularity is self-explanatory. In a culture more obsessed by celebrities every day, addicted to entertainment, in search of an identity and desperately longing for meaning, a man who claims to be our generation’s Shakespeare and vows to submit himself to Christ sits at the intersection of its needs.
Image by Pieter-Jannick Dijkstra