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Letter to a Camper

Thoughts on Kanye's Trump Rant

· Kanye West,Donald Trump,politics

Hey X,

I’m doing great, and England is great, if a little boring. I’m anxious to get home and have more discussions like this. As for playwriting, I’m certainly feeling very inspired with all the fervor in the air. I’ll send you some stuff soon, I’d love to get your opinion.  As for your thoughts on Trump, I hear you, and can empathize with your fear. Not many people will deny it’s a scary time, but the precipice of all great change is often fraught with fear and confusion. Your disgust with the man may be warranted, but don’t be disgusted with the country. If anything, I think this election proves that we still have a vocal and engaged political community who cares deeply about issues. And there are plenty of people who feel just the same way you do. 

Of course that’s not to brush over the hate and violence that has been breeding under Trump’s banner. With this, I urge you to pour your full disgust out. Let it stir you to action. Let it lead you to find strength in your community and share its values with other people, and investigate the historical momentum that lead to this moment. Let it motivate you to call out those who fill the air with hateful and insensitive speech for those less fortunate than you, and those more fortunate than you as well. Turn your disgust into compassion and empathy. Seek to understand, a directive I’ll echo in my answer to your question “Is it ethical to listen to and support Kanye West after what he said about Donald Trump?” 

Kanye speeches are not the simplest to decode, and this one in particular is perplexing. While Kanye’s most recent comments may be hard to hear, I don’t think they negate everything Kanye’s said before in his music about race and art…it simply makes him more complicated. To begin with, we’ve got to actually look at everything Kanye said, not just his headlines. For what it’s worth, having read the entire rant transcribed on Genius (http://genius.com/Kanye-west-i-would-have-voted-on-trump-annotated), I think there’s a lot more nuance to what Kanye is saying than internet soundbites are making out. In my opinion, any endorsement of Trump's victory, no matter how intellectual or abstract it is, still feels like support of the xenophobia, homophobia, racism, hate and lies that fueled it. I don’t think Kanye’s rant did much to illuminate a new understanding of Trump, yet at the same time, I don’t believe it was an automatic endorsement of Trump’s conservative political platform. Kanye himself says:

“That don’t mean that I don’t think that Black Lives Matter. That don’t mean I don’t think that I’m a believer in women’s rights. That don’t mean I don’t believe in gay marriage. That don’t mean that I don’t believe in these things because that was the guy I would have voted for.”

Of course it doesn’t mean that Kanye DOES support those things, but I think Kanye is reaching further than supporting Trump the Man. What Kanye is supportive of is Trump’s methods, the methods of a celebrity, the methods of an internet star who rode his non-political experience and personality into the White house, something I believe Kanye intends to do himself.

It’s certainly hard to hear Kanye say “black people should stop focusing on racism.” Keep in mind, this is the same rapper who’s been rapping about race and racial issues his entire life. This is the same rapper that said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on live TV after hurricane Katrina!  As someone who identifies as white, I can’t speak to the truth of Kanye’s statement. However, I can present a possible reading.

To “stop focusing on racism” means that one issue—regardless of how pressing it is—shouldn’t tip the people in one direction exclusively; the problem of discrimination is one tied to institutionalized deception, distraction and disenfranchisement on a still larger scale. Not even a president claiming to address racism specifically will be able to handle the matter adequately by themselves. Kanye is not saying that racism or other forms of bigotry don’t exist, but rather that oppressed groups must continue moving forward and making progress, just as his saying that he would have voted for Trump does not mean that he agrees with Trump’s policies. Towards the end of this rant, Kanye says that sometimes something bad has to happen in order for something good to happen. I believe what he means by that is that now that Trump is president, racism is out in the open, and nobody can deny it, and we can finally work to address the issue at its core. For years, America has fooled itself into thinking it was a progressive nation up until this point, but now no American can deny that the U.S. is still extremely oppressive to various minority groups. Trump’s election not only exposed all of that racism, but it also brought together thousands of people together to fight against all forms of bigotry. The ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center have received tons of donations since the election results came out, and multiple politicians have also come out and vowed to fight against racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc. West himself says “It’d be like white people that’s racist running around saying “niggas” now. If people are racist and they feel more inspired to say how they feel then they exposing themselves, bro. This is what I’m saying. It’s already the beginning of change. Sometimes things that you might think are bad have to happen in order for change to fucking happen. Sometimes you might have to not get your way to really understand what to do in the future to be able to get your way.”

If your reason for qualifying listening to Kanye as a breach of ethics is because he is saying something controversial, I think it’s important to look deeper at Kanye’s own legacy. Kanye is an artist who has always said extremely controversial and political things. If you’ve listened to Kanye’s music up to this point, in spite of the controversial things he has said before, are you now going to be a hypocrite by refusing to listen after these comments? Are you “allowed” to listen to the old Kanye, but not anything new he puts out? Can you just pick and choose which songs or which “Kanye’s” you agree with, but not listen to the others? A number of arguments can be made for why any choice is ethical or unethical, at which point you may begin to see just how subjective, arbitrary, and ever changing the conversation of ethics and art gets.

I like how in your question you made a distinction between “listening” to Kanye and “supporting” Kanye. Many people believe that listening to artists like Kanye is the same thing as a public vote for everything they stand for. I don’t think this is true. To refuse to watch or listen to something on the grounds of ethics is to cut yourself off from a different kind of ethics: the ethics of communication, the necessary part of understanding just what someone is saying.  

            The question ultimately is, do you think it is ethical to be communicated with? Do you think it is ethical to sit and listen to what a person is saying whether you agree with it or not, in order to fully understand it? This is not a simple yes or no answer. It requires consideration, and it’s a question we’re all going to need to ask ourselves soon: Can we listen while disagreeing, or do ethics permit us to only hear what we already agree with? 

It is not the purpose of the artist to be a moral agent. It is my belief that in a functioning democracy, art does not need to come into existence for any reason other than to exist. And especially now that Trump is our new president, it’s up to us to uphold that democracy, and with it the space in which art need not answer to anyone. That is the power of free speech and that is the power of provocation that the artist holds.

You don’t need to support Kanye. You don’t even need to listen to Kanye (though I think everyone ought to). But do not stop engaging with Kanye.

Do not fear that engagement with this kind of art and speech will make you somehow “unethical.” If other people believe you are supporting something by engaging with it, let them. Instead of listening to their noise, listen harder to the art you’re trying to decipher. Listen to all the people that are saying things like this. Pick out the nuance in their words, and try as hard as you can to look for the deeper reading of absolutely everything. Engage. Engage, even if people harangue you for supporting the wrong people. Engage, even when people equate it with an endorsement. Engage, because it is the only thing that breeds true understanding. 

These are my thoughts. At camp, we were taught when a hard question was asked by a camper to turn it back on them and ask them how they felt. I’ll do the same for you. To quote Yeezus himself, What do you really believe? What do you really believe? What do you really believe? What do you really believe? What do you really believe? What do you really believe?

Warmly,

Jake

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