I am a child of ubiquity.
I am a child of more-than-infinite knowledge at the fingertips of my touch-screen gloves. I am a child of rapid-fire information, of neurons that shoot off like fireworks one after the other after the other, of what I want exactly when I want it.
In this way, Kanye is my brother. I’m not talking about Kanye Omari West, the kid from Chicago. I’m talking about Ye, Kanye, Yeezy. For better or for worse, Kanye will be one of the faces atop the Mt. Rushmore of artists that define this generation. Not just of rap; Kanye transcended being “just another rapper” a long time ago, but of Art.
There may not be a better idol for the Information Age than Kanye West. Think about it: Kanye climbed to the top of the charts with lyrics that were real and emotional, using hip-hop (undeniably the music of our generation) to reach the Mount Olympus that is modern day celebrity; he married not just any Kardashian, but The Kardashian, creating a power-couple surpassed only by the likes of his friend and mentor Jay-Z and Beyonce (who’s certainly deserving of her own monuments); and just a few weeks ago, Kanye shared his support through twitter for President Donald Trump, the first (but likely not the last) Celebrity President.
While I wish there was a way to discuss this without bringing politics in, by nature this is a political issue. When you have a figure like Kanye West, again, not just a boy from Chicago, not just a wealthy black man, but Kanye West supporting a character like Donald Trump, some complications arise. The same man who once said that “George Bush does not care about black people” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina has also just called Slavery a choice. The same black boy from Chicago who was alive and present during the Obama administration has also just said that Trump, not Obama, has inspired him and shown him that he, too, could be president of the United States of America. This means that Kanye supports a president who has mocked disabled people, insinuated that immigrants are not people, and uses the POTUS twitter account like an Alt-Right teen on Adderall.
And aside from this, Kanye has songs in his most recent solo outing ye that feature some disturbing lyrics, including references to pre-meditated murder.
So, what now?
I’m currently on my third listen through Kanye’s most recent project Kids See Ghosts. This album is a collaborative effort with Kid Cudi, an artist who has always brought issues like mental health at the forefront of his music and his life. The album is produced by Kanye, and the two share songs and verses throughout.
If I’m being honest, Cudi is one of the reasons that I finally decided to seek help for the mental health issues that I was experiencing. I’ve always been a fan, and decided to make a change, just as he did, after seeing him ask “if other people can be happy, then why not me?”
Kids See Ghosts, which is, by most accounts, a good album, is the apex of what I’m going to call The Kanye-Problem. Here we have two artists, both of which are larger than life (and at least one of which is even larger than that) who have had problems with mental illness, and who have each chosen to handle it (or not handle it) in very different ways.
I’ve always been a strong advocate that the artist and the art are completely separate entities. Until now.
The past year or so has made this increasingly difficult, with scandal rocking nearly every type of art there is. This began to make its way into the forefront of my mind about 4 months ago. I was writing my Master’s thesis on the works of two amazing ethnic writers, and about how their identities as ethnic people affected their work. And then this happened. Sherman Alexie, my first and biggest influence when it came to writing, was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. Alexie has since denied the claims, but aside from his denial letter (which is fraught with vagueness and apologies more half-baked than store bought fry bread) Alexie has gone virtually silent.
Rock band Sorority Noise has had it’s own issues, announcing a hiatus with the lead singer facing rape allegations.
But does being a problematic artist mean that I should not engage in your art? As a human, my answer is an emphatic yes. But as an artist, the answer gets a bit more muddled.
Now, I’m not talking about contributing to an artist financially. It seems pretty obvious that giving your money to someone who has done harmful things, or supports people who have done harmful things, is bad. But in this Age of Ubiquity, everything I want, I can have, and I can have it for free. So, this comes down to supporting a legacy. But what about artists like Kanye, or Woody Allen, whose legacies are, for the most part, already defined. Am I, as a writer and filmmaker, not morally obligated to watch Annie Hall, the greatest rom-com ever made? Does what I can learn from Allen as a writer and director outweigh the gruesome and disgusting acts he may have committed?
The short answer is no, no it does not. The lives of other people who have been affected by these problematic artists are worth infinitely more than the quippy dialogue of my next screenplay. However, I do think it’s important to understand these issues and these artists in the larger context of the Information Age.
Louis Armstrong famously kept quiet on political issues until much later in his life. But today, keeping thoughts and opinions to yourself is not a luxury that celebrities like Kanye can afford. The Information Age doesn’t care how personal that information is, and in order to stay relevant, you’ve got to keep that information coming. That means that we know more things about the thoughts, lives, and inner-workings of our heroes than we ever did before. This has a great affect when it comes to topics like transparency, as well as creating venues for victims to make the crimes of these individuals known.
On the other hand, however, we have to ask ourselves whether our Celebrity Complex is growing out of control, and if the expectations that we create for these people (yes, these are people, we can’t forget) and artists foster an environment that leads to mental and spiritual sickness.
“But what,” you may ask, “of the things that we don’t know? What about the closeted racism of the old Rock N’ Rollers? What about the rampant spousal abuse committed by the heroes of the jazz era?” I hear your question, and it’s one that’s kept me up, as well. The answer, as I’ve come to reach it, is one that may be hard to swallow: we simply have to do what we can with what we’ve got. Maybe there’s no way to know if every musician we listen to, every artist whose canvas locks eyes with our own, every author whose words fill pages and minds alike, is a good person. But when we do know, we have to do something about it.
We have to try.