Kanye West is the United States. This one man (or “God,” as he refers to himself) somehow perfectly embodies the vast array of places, values and people in the U.S. All of it. Just like the U.S., he has shown passion and dullness; he’s courageous but has been a complete coward. More than anything, he’s spoken with damning honesty right before lying through his teeth. He is the human incarnation of a contradiction, and nothing makes him more American than that.
The U.S. is anything but consistent. The Civil Rights Movement was incredible, but it only existed because of the abominable racism upon which the country was structured. We built grand metropolises while pioneering revolutionary styles of architecture, but that was only possible because of underpaid and abused laborers — often immigrants — whose lives were quickly forgotten. Even natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains can hardly be brought up without noting the prior denizens of such beauties and the ugly, genocidal process through which we acquired the land. For all of the brilliant aspects of this country, there is an underbelly full of rampant immorality and exploitation, hatefulness and self-absorption.
I bring up this duality in the United States not to condemn the country by praising the good and criticizing the bad. Achievements should be appreciated for what they are, while the problematic histories that undergird them are acknowledged and used to inform us on how to approach things in the future. Americans should learn about the civil rights movement and recognize all the positive change that it brought. At the same time, we need to learn about how systems of oppression work and what role white supremacy plays in upholding such systems. To me, that’s the only way to truly comprehend a country with so many internal contradictions — a country that could somehow vote in a president who was relatively progressive, followed by a president like Trump.
West’s inner schism can be reconciled in a similar manner. His musical brilliance during the vast majority of a career which produced a prodigiously deep and revolutionary discography must be cherished in its own right before considering his support of President Trump and other problematic tendencies — such as stating that slavery was a choice. As an African-American man, it seems egregiously incorrect for West to endorse a president who has been criticized for inappropriate racist comments. To say that the violent institution of importing and enslaving a people was a choice simply ignores the truth of the immense moral transgression that is slavery. It also overlooks the life-threatening efforts to abolish and repair the damage caused by it.
Excluding his obvious personal flaws, he really is defining artist of his generation. Think about how many young people his music has deeply touched. Right now, there is probably a student who had the burden of their insecurities lessened when Kanye rapped about his own struggles on “All Falls Down.” Another student has probably been wonderstruck by the lyrical ingenuity and sensitive consciousness Kanye shows on songs like “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)” when he raps “Over here it’s a drug trade, we die from drugs, over there they die from what we buy from drugs.” Or maybe yet another student experienced pure bliss dancing and partying to “Gold Digger.” All of these moments aren’t too different from the highlights of the U.S. experience.
Becoming one of the most famous and influential people in the entertainment industry while struggling with several mental health issues was only ever going to affect West negatively, especially when so much of his fame was driven by his personality and tastes. But West has revealed, time and time again, new ideas that contradict his previous ones. He’s still just a man — not a god. While an entire country can handle the pressures of social upheaval, West cannot.
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Email Mitch Bedows at [email protected]