‘Ye’ shall not pass: When an artist’s music is their persona

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I remember the first time I listened to Yeezus by Kanye West. Not having had much prior experience with Kanye’s music outside of hit songs such as “Stronger” and “Gold Digger,” I was thoroughly confused with this fleeting, abrasive, jarring record. For the first time in my life, I genuinely didn’t know how to feel about the art presented to me. I was so challenged by these 10 tracks that I decided to go back in time and listen to the rest of Kanye’s supposedly flawless albums.

I immediately fell in love; the rest of my high school career was soundtracked by Kanye’s discography. I incessantly replayed 808s & Heartbreak while trying to get over a crush. I motivated myself by listening to “Good Morning” off of Graduation every morning on the way to school. I listened to The College Dropout and Late Registration to stay grounded while applying to college, and I celebrated each college acceptance by playing The Life of Pablo at full volume in my house — to my mom’s disgruntled indifference.

Aside from his perfect albums, Kanye’s constantly evolving persona spoke to me as a teenager whose outlook on himself and the world changed with every waking moment. His unapologetic egotism has been central to his music and personality since the College Dropout days and only became more underscored as he delivered albums that bolstered his claims of being this generation’s Michael Jackson. By name and by content, Yeezus is a brash, glorious statement of self-determination. So, I hate it when people say they “miss the old Kanye.”

Up until this year, I was able to shrug off criticisms of Kanye and defend him against detractors because the quality of his music remained intact; outside of music, his personality, mental health struggles and platforms always spoke to me. Then Kanye — in the midst of a public mental breakdown — infamously met with Donald Trump after the 2016 election. I became wary of my biggest hero’s association with a public figure who represents everything I detest about American politics and culture.

In the months after this incident, Kanye deleted his Twitter account, stopped releasing music and disappeared from the public eye for the remainder of 2017. From my perspective, it seemed like Kanye needed time away from the throes of celebrity and correspondingly removed himself from significant media attention. Understanding that celebrities are humans who also make mistakes and need personal space, I respected his decision but still longed for my role model to return with more cocky, divisive tweets and more masterful music to back them up.

I felt like I was slapped in the face when Kanye’s “triumphant return” to the public sphere consisted of his unfounded, outspoken support of “free thinkers” such as Trump and Candace Owens, who surpass the typical conservative standpoint by forgoing the truth to enable groups such as the “alt-right” and neo-Nazis. There may be more to Kanye’s beliefs than what he is showing the public — this may all be a marketing scheme for his record label G.O.O.D. Music’s weekly album release strategy this month, but the fact that he is amplifying the voices of downright ridiculous individuals such as Alex Jones is inexcusable.

I have always respected Kanye as a creative visionary — I still feel his legacy makes him unmatched in the avenues of music, art and fashion. However, the statement that slavery was “a choice” is unjustifiably offensive and absurd regardless of its source. In a 2013 interview with Zane Lowe for BBC, Kanye famously said: “Look at (Lady) Gaga — she’s the creative director of Polaroid. I like some of the Gaga songs. … What the fuck does she know about cameras?” The same logic could be applied to Kanye and politics. I feel it is no longer possible to separate Kanye’s brilliant artistry from his unapologetically contrarian persona.

Although I respect his positive, optimistic approach to solving social issues and his tendency to walk the line between two wildly different political ideologies, the fact that Kanye publicizes his affiliation with the “Make America Great Again” slogan is deeply disturbing simply because of the movement’s inextricable association with a nationwide undercurrent of vitriolic racism and ethnic nationalism. Although Kanye may not completely agree with Trump, I’m disappointed that the voice of a generation is using his platform to spread hate, regardless of his intentions. Kanye’s confidants claimed that his follow-up to 2016’s beautifully chaotic The Life of Pablo would elucidate his recent politics and quell frustrated fans such as myself.

Kanye dropped his eighth studio album, Ye, this past weekend. On the seven songs that constitute this project, he unsurprisingly shied away from the topics he has been so vocal about on social media and delivered a project that echoes his recent behavior. Ye is brimming with great ideas and positive vibes but just falls short of justifying the astronomical self-confidence that made me fall in love with his persona way back in high school. I can no longer defend Kanye against his detractors because for the first time, I find myself agreeing with them.

Contact Justin Sidhu at [email protected].