I found out about Kanye West’s October 2018 meeting with Donald Trump through memes on social media. At first, I denied that it would have any major social impact, holding out naively that people might ignore him. However, seeing him in a MAGA hat enjoying himself across the desk from Trump while advocating the construction a wall, driving home Fortress America, left me disgusted. I, along with many others on social media, was struck by the absurdity of it all. In supporting Trump, Kanye took a stance against the tradition of hip-hop itself, having come from urban youth resisting poverty. Hip-hop historically possessed a radical potential for resistance, world-building, and creativity that is uniquely rooted in the struggles of ordinary Black people. I am a hip-hop studies scholar, a fan of the genre in part because of its radical origins, and even a fan of an earlier iteration of Kanye. But what does this state of affairs, one in which hip-hop artists go to Trump’s White House (or any president’s White House), betray about the development of the genre?
Kanye’s visit invokes comparisons to Eazy-E’s support of former President George H.W. Bush in 1991 during a Republican fundraiser. E, the NWA, Snoop, and other artists who embraced gangster rap narrated facing the police and the violence of poverty in addition to the everyday strategies of resistance for ordinary people. Yet, E didn’t take his gangster critique with him to the White House. Kanye, like E before him, demonstrates the perils that run alongside the radical potential in a genre susceptible to commodification and political distortion. Kanye deliberately took hip-hop to Trump’s White House, affirming the racist, sexist, and xenophobic ideas of the current administration. Can hip-hop continue to map the world many youth of color face in our devastatingly unequal society while one of the most important artists of our time is using his public platform to support the establishment itself?
When I first listened to Kanye’s debut album The College Dropout (2004), I fell in love with the sound. The album was electrifying for several of its elements from the beats to the artwork. Kanye’s lyricism and aesthetics vividly invoked the world of a student who was questioning the influence of educational institutions like schools and colleges in relation to all aspects of life. This resonated with me in part because I thought Kanye’s acknowledgements of Chicago’s Southside equaled a critical relationship with public education coming from the vantage of ordinary people. I listened to and through the album because it validated the adversity towards school as an institution and towards power and authority within those spaces that were central to who I was then.
Perhaps ironically, given Kanye’s transformation, the album helped me realize the revolutionary potential that is inherent to hip-hop music: the potential to give voice or illuminate and center the everyday experiences of working-class Black and brown communities facing racist discrimination, poverty, crime, drugs, and violence in areas ravished in late twentieth century by disinvestment and now by the return of capital and radical displacement. Like the Blues tradition before it, hip-hop has historically centered these experiences, inspiring an ongoing national subversive discourse centered on a renegotiation of the daily terror of this country and sometimes outright liberation. This tradition of social engagement with the everyday experiences of ordinary people in hip-hop has revolutionary potential for listeners facing the dread of these conditions. In this way, Kanye’s first album helped me to draw meaning and radical consciousness out of my own experiences directly in contrast to my formal education.
After his first three albums, commonly referred to as the Education Trilogy due to the album and track titles, Kanye’s career and work began to take a different path, changing both his course as well as the development of the hip-hop genre after them. First there was the 2007 feud that developed between Kanye and 50 Cent to determine who was more influential in the music industry. Instead of making a diss-track, according to hip-hop tradition, the two stars decided to challenge one another in the market, debating publicly about who would sell the most albums. With Graduation (2007), Kanye successfully outsold 50 Cent’s The Massacre (2005). Graduation was significant for hip-hop and music overall. The beats Kanye sampled on the album as well as in his junior work mixed electronic, dance, and other forms of music uncommon to hip-hop’s dominant sound at that time. Most other contemporary albums were shaped by the sounds of Bling era or the gangster rap tradition and had taken on a club-friendly sound, but Kanye’s third album began to chart a new course for music. West is a force to be reckoned with, whether you enjoy his music or not, because of the ways he has shaped the sound.
When I heard about his pro-Trump rant after watching a Saturday Night Live skit, I wondered: how did we get here? Where is the Kanye that had spoken to my own experiences with negotiating the uneven terrain of this country while holding onto my roots?Kanye’s genre-shaping work began to negatively affect his artistry, taking him away from the kind of music with which he began and which had initially drawn me in. Kanye’s music became increasingly self-consumed. His hits centered him and his experiences as celebrity. My interest in his music declined as his career soared because his stardom made him increasingly out of touch. The aesthetics and the sounds began to reflect his commodification.
Though Kanye does not resemble the positions of all hip hop artists, his impact is one of historical significance in the form of hip-hop and the national culture overall. The parallels of Eazy-E’s early 1990s politics and Kanye’s early 2010s politics have made engagement with anti-Black presidential administrations a thread tangling up the history of hip-hop. Kanye does not intend to be a loudspeaker for the oppressed, nor does he have plans to champion anybody else’s struggle. I identify his actions as a point of analysis and critique because of the impact his career and presence alone have made on young people and the national popular cultural consciousness, including through his wearing of the odious and offensive MAGA hat. Visibility and acceptance of the genre as a national phenomenon has at least since’s E’s visit shown the corrosiveness of banal celebrity culture to the form. Kanye’s political and musical evolutions suggest that we live in a world where the revolution can be bought and sold like a pair of Nike shoes or Kanye’s next anticipated album.
How does the commodification of hip-hop’s radical potential shape and inform the ways we organize in cultural movements against racism or mobilize for Black liberation in America through performance? What new forms will emerge in this ongoing struggle to subvert and avert the dangers of commodification on our daily lives and in our shared culture? Where do we go from here?
In an era in which banal celebrity culture now resides in the nation’s highest halls of power, social justice and cultural movements must retain a sense of autonomy from the capitalist society in which we are all entrenched. We must continue to create spaces and forms that resist and antagonize oppressive power structures over a fiery beat.
*This piece grew out of a workshop on blogging organized by graduate students in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass who met with editors of Black Perspectives to craft these pieces.