The Conundrum of Kanye - "Separating the Art from the Artist" and Privilege
The new Kanye album just came out. And I want to preface this by just saying...yes, I am going to talk about Kanye West on our comedy-themed blog...
1. ...because I talk about Kanye in all settings that comprise my life, so I’m just being consistent.
2. ...because the lines between genres and mediums are continually blurred and I don’t believe they’re necessary distinctions. The successes of Donald Glover and Lil Dicky, for example, demonstrate that crossover is possible.
3. ...because what I’m about to talk about regarding consumption of Yeezy’s music applies to all other forms of commercial art.
The new Kanye album just came out. It is objectively pretty good. His bars are tight and the production is as soulful as anything he’s put out at the soaring heights of his career.
But this isn’t an album review. Ye is a good album, but I can’t love it. I was actually planning on summoning all my willpower as a die-hard Kanye fan and not listening to it.
It’s not because I was fearful of how this album would turn out, because across his entire discography, he has never put out a bad album. We all knew this would be at least good. We knew because each album he’s ever put out has served as a profound, illuminating entry in the public record of Kanye’s life.
In fact, a month ago, I was so, SO curious to see what this new entry would look like given Kanye’s recent behavior. He’s not immune to public scrutiny or stranger to scandal. But his recent actions have deviated so strongly from his prior outbursts, which were usually tactless but almost always politically progressive. His recent support of far-right pundits and our current president confused people who had loved Kanye for decrying institutional racism and calling out George Bush on live TV. I was confused, and hurt by his Trump support, but also curious to see further into the current state of Kanye which would inevitably bubble forth on his latest album.
However, a line was crossed. His support of political figures emboldening white nationalists combined with his claim that 400 years of slavery “seemed like a choice” made me walk back on the fierce defense I have always had for Kanye.
In choosing to stream his album, you’re choosing to embolden his behavior, too. I caved, and I chose to listen.
That’s the problem with “separating the art from the artist” when it comes to people who create commercial art. I would love to just listen to the album in a vacuum and love it for what it is. But when you choose to engage with the art of a musician, or a filmmaker, or an author, or a comedian, you’re putting your money behind them and providing them the resources to continue to do what they do. If they do great things, that is awesome, and you’re supporting the creation of great things being put out into the world. If they are heavily conflicted in the way that Kanye is, you’re empowering all those behaviors, both good and bad. Because in this capitalist country, money is power.
To be clear, I’m not comparing the magnitude or nature of Kanye’s actions to those of other artists with whom I had to wrestle with a similar decision, like Louis C.K. or Woody Allen. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that Kanye’s comments were hurtful, and even more hurtful to members of the black community that made Kanye the god he boasts he is today. In this way I find a striking similarity between his recent controversies and the story that came out about Aziz Ansari - just because there are others who have caused much more harm doesn’t mean that they both didn’t cause a degree of harm as well.
We can’t paint Kanye as an explicitly bad figure, because he has done so much good for art and for music, and even for society as a whole. But he’s incredibly flawed and contradictory, and lacks the ability to apologize for his mistakes. And we need to consider that when we choose to financially back him and other artists, in any genre and any commercial art form. He hasn’t done enough to make me want to permanently withhold my money from him, aiding in killing his career, but perhaps I was coming from a position of privilege when I made the decision to listen to his album.
You must possess a certain level of privilege to decide to separate an artist’s work from them as a person, and to overlook the harm they have inflicted. You have the privilege of not having that harm directly affect you, and with the knowledge that it has affected others around you, decide to give them your money anyway. And while it’s not always possible or even productive to make a sweeping judgement about whether a person is good enough for your money, it is important to consider the power you give them when you decide to do so.
This is especially important given how music and comedy have both historically acted as powerful political forces. Both have the ability to inspire movements, satirize corrupt administrations and institutions, and speak truth to power. We’re in a dangerous time, a time where we can’t be thoughtless about what media we consume. Because at the end of the day, comedy and music have been the things that have helped me and countless others get through the age of Trump, and will ultimately be the forces that help us topple it.
So...I caved. I listened to the album. I liked it, but I can’t love it. Was I wrong for listening to it? Did you listen to ye, and what did you think? Are you able to separate the artist from their art, and do you factor in your own privilege when you make that choice? Let me know in the comments below.