“All of The Lights:” The Moral Responsibilities of Artists and Their Fans in 2019
Any Kanye fan knows one absolute truth: Kanye West is a beacon of controversy. After West said that President Bush “doesn’t care about black people,” Bush called it an “all-time low” in his presidency. President Obama has described him as a “jackass.” How can a man responsible for garnering such scrutiny ever be taken at face value? Is it even worth it to take what West says seriously?
Yes. Yes it is.
We must take the influence of celebrities seriously. Recently, both Kanye West and Taylor Swift—enemies within pop culture—have waded into politics. Swift endorsed a politician for the first time in her celebrity career, and West, in front of a crowd of reporters, spoke with President Trump in the Oval Office. In the 24 hours after Swift posted an endorsement of a Democratic candidate in Tennessee in October, Communications Director of vote.org Kamari Guthrie cited a surge of 65,000 registrations among new voters. For perspective, only 56,669 new voters registered in the whole month of August, while September brought 190,178. A direct link between Swift’s endorsement and the spike in voter registration is impossible to confirm, but very likely. West, on the other hand, has a fan base with cult-like devotion and millions of Twitter followers. Reporters will write about anything he tweets or says. While his White House visit was billed as a chance to discuss criminal justice reform, West monologued for ten minutes about replacing Air Force One with a hydrogen-powered plane called “iPlane 1,” running for President in 2024, and seemingly everything in between. Regardless of what commentators or political analysts say about whose voice affects change or not, Swift and West have power, wide platforms, and millions of open ears.
While West is entitled to do and say what he wants, he has begun to take part in a dangerous kind of provocation that does not transcend criticism. In an interview with TMZ, he implied that slavery was a choice: “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … for 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” West challenged the usefulness of history on Jimmy Kimmel Live when he stated that Americans have become “so focused on history that … we can’t advance as a race of beings.” West has also embraced Candace Owens, who claimed at one of her public speaking events that black protestors are “not living through anything” and “love being oppressed.” At the end of the day, West enjoys being provocative. However, this provocation is no longer playful. Words matter, especially from those with a platform as great as West’s. When he utilizes this power to perpetuate the anti-historical, the fans who support him have a responsibility to speak-up and push-back.
These words demand backlash. Immediately after West’s controversial interview, TMZ reporter and Kanye fan Van Lathan said,“Frankly, I’m disappointed, I’m appalled and, brother, I am unbelievably hurt by the fact that you have morphed into something, to me, that’s not real.” West’s claims ignore, as history professor Ibram X. Kendi said in a video piece for the New York Times, that “the enslaved Africans resisted persistently in a number of different ways.” It maintains a false narrative of the “docile enslaved African” that existed before and after slavery. This myth perpetuates the idea that if West—or someone else—were in the shoes of a person who was enslaved, things would have been different. West’s message of individualism allows him to claim responsibility for his own success, but in doing so ignores institutional factors that perpetuate racial discrimination and oppression. Both West and Candace Owens take part in revisionist history when they imply that slavery has no legacy in 2018. It is deeply concerning and problematic when anyone puts forth this narrative, but especially so when West, such a famous celebrity and influencer, tries to redefine the past.
While I love West’s music and have been a fan of his for a long time, no one is beyond reproach—not even our favorite artists. There was a time when West positively challenged the status quo. Before he entered this new territory, West’s unrestrained self-love, his critique of racism in Hurricane Katrina television coverage, and willingness to speak out against homophobia in hip-hop was admirable. He exemplified a kind of self-love that is so rare in public life today. West’s music used to speak against police brutality and racial discrimination. He went from “Racism’s still alive, they just be concealin’ it,” to “Weigh all the options, nothing’s off the table,” referencing his willingness to re-imagine history. As a fan, I am not trying to be “holier-than-thou.” West will always speak his mind. I only want to challenge his narrative of slavery that is both false and harmful. Kanye West must be criticized when the moment calls for it.
Even though West eventually apologized in an interview with Chicago’s WGCI-FM and has recently distanced himself from politics on Twitter, his apology does not justify his previous words. I still have more questions about this moment where history, politics, and pop culture intersect. These comments, and the backlash that arose in response, deserve a closer look. What is the moral responsibility of artists in 2019? What is the responsibility of the fans who support them? In moments like these, taking time to consider the role of the artist with a new lens can redefine how we consume art and culture itself. Questions must lead the way. Ultimately, love for an artist should not silence fans, especially when that artist fails to live up to moral expectations. Fans should use such love to encourage a more thoughtful, ethical way of engaging with the world.