Well, what do we do with Ye now?
The artist formerly known as Kanye West is one of music’s most ferocious talents, one of the few artists currently working who is just as likely to be dubbed a genius by the New York Times as by himself. His cultural dominance isn’t just musical: He’s spent the past decade as a fashion influencer par excellence, turning his monochromatic sweatsuits and Yeezys into the default uniform of hypebeasts everywhere. Ye is very, very good at what he does. And he’s been making it very difficult, lately, to call yourself a fan.
There was last week’s spree of anti-Semitism and racism, which culminated in Ye getting condemned by the Anti-Defamation League. There was the torturous Tucker Carlson interview, and the worrying outtakes from the Tucker Carlson interview. And then before that: the violent threats to Pete Davidson, the creepy possessiveness of Kim Kardashian as she divorced him. The time he said slavery was a choice. The Trump stuff. The “white lives matter” shirt. Jesus, the “white lives matter” shirt.
Since the Me Too movement exploded in 2017, the big question haunting pop culture has been, “An artist you liked did something terrible. So now what?” Ye, never one to do things by half, has fully embraced a number of terrible ideologies, and he’s using his platform to promote them. So — now what?
How can we square Ye’s increasingly troubling public behavior with his formidable artistic legacy? What are the responsibilities of those who work with him and share in the profits of his talent? And what are our responsibilities as a public to a talented artist who is actively using his enormous platform to steer his impressionable young audience toward hateful conspiracy theories?
The issue of whether we can or ought to separate art from artist is an old and thorny one. Over the past few years, we’ve discussed how the warm nostalgia of The Cosby Show can feel less comforting in the wake of Bill Cosby’s rape conviction; how the self-skewering narcissism of Louie can feel less subversive after Louis CK admitted to masturbating in front of unwilling women. Even when a work of art still feels vital and accomplished despite the misdeeds of the artist, we might still choose to withhold our money and support from the artist in question — admire Annie Hallsay, but choose not to watch it and send Woody Allen royalties for it.
Ye’s case muddies these waters. Unlike CK or Cosby, Ye has not been accused of any physical transgressions. His misdeeds are less personal, more abstract: using his enormous platform and influence to proliferate hate speech and racist conspiracy theories, to dabble irresponsibly and ignorantly in politics, to harass his ex-wife in public, to threaten his boyfriend. It can be easy to sigh and dismiss the whole thing as Kanye being Kanye, to pull an Obama and call him a jackass and keep playing “Gold Digger” on a loop.
Ye also tends to benefit from what we might call the genius loophole. Ye is considered a musical genius, and common wisdom has it that geniuses behave erratically. So fans tend to be willing to look the other way when he acts out, considering it the price of doing business when you’re dealing with a genius. The fact that few other stars of Kanye’s caliber ever act out in quite the way he does (imagine Beyoncé posting hate speech on Instagram!) somehow comes to serve as further proof of how exceptional he is, rather than as a sign that it is perfectly possible to be a genius without misbehaving so badly that people like me get assigned to write think pieces about the bad things you’ve done.
Ye’s apparently deteriorating mental health, too, can make it uncomfortable to talk about his erratic behavior. Ye has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and although he has said that he sometimes doesn’t take his medication, he’s also made the fair point that it’s “cheap and dismissive” to say he’s off his meds every time he does something controversial. Still, especially after a public reckoning around the mockery of Britney Spears during her downward spiral in 2007, there has been a vague sense that it is perhaps unfair to condemn a public figure in the midst of psychiatric distress, that to do so would be in some way to kick him while he’s down.
Yet that attitude is offensive to all the people with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses who don’t spend their days going on long antisemitic rants (to be clear, that’s most of them). Being bipolar can make a person paranoid and prone to conspiratorial thinking, but it does not make a person a bigot. It is possible, and indeed preferable, to separate Ye’s bigotry from his mental health problems when talking about his recent outbursts.
What if we try to separate Ye’s art from his misbehavior? What if we say we are going to put Ye and his bigotry aside and focus purely on the music he gave the world? That’s a stance many of his fans are already comfortable taking. Ye has been so publicly outrageous for so long that plenty of people are used to disliking Ye the man and focusing all their attention on Ye the musician or Ye the fashion icon. Choosing to denounce Ye’s hate speech and still appreciate his music might not feel all that different from saying he was wrong for storming the stage at the VMAs but knowing you’re still going to buy his next album.
That a split can exist between an artist and their art is also the stance of two of the 20th century’s major literary schools: the New Critics of the 1930s, who held that in order to be evaluated scientifically a work of art had to be able to stand on its own, outside of history; and the postmodernists of the 1960s, who famously argued that the author was dead. A Ye fan following one of these schools of thought might decide that “Runaway” was a gift from Ye to the culture and that he no longer gets to dictate or even affect how they view it.
Judging from Ye’s continued omnipresence, this is the path quite a few of his fans are choosing to follow. Ye is still played in clubs, by the biggest DJs in the world, on the radio, at the gym.
For other listeners, though, this might be a case where it gets difficult to separate art from artist because Ye has always put his own outsize arrogant, abrasive persona at the center of his music. Often, the results can be brilliant: The egotism on display in his brutal one-sided feud with Kim turns playful and funny with lyrics like “I am a god, hurry up with my damn croissant.” But when Ye tried building music around his support of Trump, the result, “Ye vs. the People,” was a slog of a song, dull and meandering, full of empty half-baked arguments about how Ye was transforming the MAGA hat into a symbol of empathy just by wearing it. “It’s malformed, thoughtless, unfinished — a contrarian stance to take at the worst time to be taking a contrarian stance,” wrote Tom Breihan at Stereogum. “West is just rapping in circles.”
Good art or bad, plenty of critical schools will tell you that thinking about the artist is part of interpreting a work of art. Most prominently, the New Historicists who rose to prominence in the 1990s argued that all works of art were embedded in the time and place in which they were created. That might mean, in this case, that you decide that understanding “Runaway” means understanding Ye and all his bigotry, too — and you might decide that you don’t want any part of either.
This is a personal decision. No one else can decide for you how you feel about the art that matters to you and the person who made it. These questions are subjective.
There are two issues in this whole mess, though, that strike me as fairly straightforward. One is that Ye is actively using his platform to spread hateful, dangerous propaganda to his millions of fans. Before Instagram restricted his account over the weekend, Ye had 18.1 million followers there, and 31.4 million on Twitter before his account went into “Read Only” mode. Any support of Ye that might strengthen that platform is, in that context, irresponsible at best.
The second is the issue of money. When you play Ye’s music, you are sending him royalties. So one very simple step you might take is to think about how much of your money you want to give Ye. His collaborators appear to be thinking along those lines already.
Ye’s relationships with his musical peers are chronically strained, sometimes but not always for political reasons. While he appears to have reconciled with mentor Jay-Z and protege Drake following long and public estrangements, the singer John Legend, whom Ye signed and produced, says Ye broke with him after Legend wouldn’t support his run for president. (Disclosure: Legend is a Vox Media board member.) “Weird how all these ‘free, independent thinkers’ always land at the same old anti blackness and anti semitism,” Legend tweeted after Ye’s antisemitic Twitter spree this month. In 2018, rival and collaborator Questlove performed in a T-shirt that said “Kanye doesn’t care about black people.”
The bulk of Ye’s fortune, however, comes from the Yeezy clothing brand, which he established in collaboration with Adidas and which Forbes estimates to be worth $1.5 billion. Adidas has stood by Ye and their very lucrative partnership through past controversies, but the “white lives matter” shirt appears to have been a bridge too far. Days after Ye debuted the shirt at Paris Fashion Week, Adidas announced that it would be reviewing its business deal with Ye. The bank JPMorgan Chase also recently ended its relationship with his businesses, it was revealed on Wednesday.
Ye might be a musical genius, and your relationship with his music is your business. He’s definitely a bigot, and this month, because of the power of his influence, his bigotry was as inescapable as his music. So maybe the question isn’t what you ought to do about Kanye but what you ought to do about a bigot. That answer is clear: Walk away.