For the Culture: Making sense of the new Kanye

William Evans

My favorite meme to come out of the recent implosion of Kanye West depicted actress Stacey Dash and Kanye side by side with the caption, “We need to find out what happened at that airport.”

The meme alludes to the video for West's song “All Falls Down,” which helped launch him into stardom. In the video, Kanye's dogged pursuit of Dash through an airport is the perfect picture of an established black icon giving rise to another.

In recent years Dash has become known for her conservative and anti-black rhetoric, which has been surprising mostly because we didn't know her on any personal level. But it's hard to say we haven't known Kanye over the same stretch of time. It's the unabashed proclamations and divergent perspectives on almost everything that has built a trust not in Kanye, but in Kanye being honest to himself.

In September it will be 13 years since West — famous, but not yet untouchable — uttered on live television to a national audience, “George Bush doesn't care about black people.” All these years later, people still point to this TV moment (not his discography) when trying to assess Kanye's social awareness. His second album had dropped only days earlier, and some assumed this was a publicity stunt and an outright tragedy of opportunism during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief.

Many of us felt differently, though. Kanye was saying what many of us felt and almost none of us had the stage for. This was not 2018, when Beyonce can dominate Coachella with a thousand different spectrums of blackness despite her mother's fears of white misunderstanding. Back then, it felt like there could be real consequences for Kanye's career if there was a backlash to his live TV actions.

Years later, I ponder if calling all of that into question is fair. Kanye's recent cuddling up to the starkest conservatism isn't so much the issue; the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality has been a conservative talking point spouted by everyone from your local grocer to white nationalists. But fewer are those who carry a willful ignorance to promote that slavery was a choice — a belief West espoused in a recent tweet.

To say that slavery was a choice is to state that the people of an entire diaspora just weren't strong enough to free themselves from bondage or resist tyranny — the same tyranny that built the foundation on which Kanye has become rich and famous.

As we chart Kanye's path through fame, it's reasonable to question how much Kanye himself cares about black people. There are times when I agree with those who say we should be less wrapped up in what celebrities do and say. But at least for a moment in 2005, Kanye invited us onstage with him, and whether we've been escorted off that stage or we left of our own volition, it's still hard to leave it.