As long as we’ve known Kanye West, he’s been a wild card. From telling the world that “President Bush doesn’t care about black people” on live television to interrupting Taylor Swift at the Grammy’s, the prolific rapper and producer has always kept us guessing.
But I think even those of us who have come to expect the unexpected from Mr. West were pretty shocked when, right after the 2016 presidential election, he called then President-elect Donald Trump “his brother” and said that if he had voted, he would have chosen Trump.
It’s hard to know what’s going on inside Kanye’s mind—probably a lot—so I can’t say for sure what is influencing his views and decisions. But he’s given us some material to work with, namely a new track titled “Ye vs. the People” in which he debates his politics with T.I. and his voluminous and verbose Twitter feed.
After listening to the song and reading through the lyrics carefully, along with all of his tweets since the song’s release came out on April 28, I have a few key takeaways.
Kanye’s thoughts are pretty jumbled and many of his arguments are bullshit; he makes one or two valid political points, though that feels more like a happy accident than the result of patient logical thought; and underneath all of the nonsense, he has some interesting ideas that we shouldn’t immediately write off.
First, the elephant in the room. Donald Trump is either a white supremacist or doing a really good job pretending to be. Kanye West is black and and has used his music and platform over the years to speak out against white supremacy. This fact alone makes his support for Trump both confounding and harmful.
In “Ye vs. the People” Kanye tells T.I., “You just readin’ the headlines, you don’t see the fine print / You on some choosin’-side shit, I’m on some unified shit.” Here Kanye is trying to explain his disdain for the polarized nature of American politics today—he doesn’t like that everyone has to be either a Republican or Democrat with little room for compromise. It’s a reasonable critique, but given that Donald Trump is one of the most divisive political figures in American history, by supporting him Kanye is hardly “on some unified shit.”
Kanye also likes to cloak his support for Trump in the language of “free thought.” While he, like all of us, does have the right to think whatever he wants, it’s kind of beside the point. He is a hugely influential person, so it matters what he thinks. And though I don’t think he’d disagree with that statement, by invoking his right to “free thought” it almost feels like he’s trying to abdicate the responsibility that comes with that influence.
Kanye’s one valid political point comes out mid-way through the song, when he raps: “See that’s the problem with this damn nation / All blacks gotta be Democrats, man / We ain’t made it off the plantation.” Because the Republican Party is associated with racism, Democrats tend to take the support of black Americans for granted. This has led to a less than robust anti-racist agenda, stunting the momentum towards racial equality generated by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. So on this one I’d argue “Ye” is more or less spot on.
But the most interesting part of his argument, in my view, he articulates towards the end of the song, in the following lines: “Y’all been leadin’ with hate, see I just approach it different / Like a gang truce, the first Blood to shake the Crip’s hand.” In other words, deep-seated conflicts never end unless someone is willing to be the first to try to reconcile their differences.
In a kind of twisted way, Kanye West has taken Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan—Love Trumps Hate—too much to heart. He is so caught up in this idea that he can heal the nation by leading with unconditional love for all people, he is blind to Trump’s bigotry. Or consider this: if you make a small change to Clinton’s slogan—Love Trump’s Hate—you end up with a formula for Kanye’s behavior. Since he’s decided that the solution to the nation’s problems is to love everything, he has to love the hate pouring out of the White House too.
I’m wary of sounding like I’m defending Kanye because it would feel too much like I’m defending Trump. But I also believe that though Kanye may sound crazy, he’s proved time and time again that he’s worth listening to.
And he’s still one of the greatest musicians of our generation, Trump-loving or not.