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‘White Lives Matter’ Kanye is a provocateur who dismisses Black pain

‘Kanye is not a brother, he’s a brand’

Ye, the man formerly known as Kanye West, might have taken off the red Make America Great Again hat, but he isn’t done peddling tropes of white supremacy.

In just the past week, Ye’s antics included wearing a “White Lives Matter” shirt during Paris Fashion Week and spewing antisemitic conspiracy theories that resulted in his Instagram and Twitter accounts being restricted and an appearance on The Shop getting abruptly pulled. His partnerships with Adidas and Gap are in trouble, too.

For those who acknowledge his musical genius — especially when he digs in the crates to breathe new life into samples — and how it has allowed him to transcend the stage, we know this is a familiar pattern whenever Ye feels slighted. He lashes out, gets incredibly petty and then claims his reaction is based on some highbrow reference the public is too pedestrian to understand.

The stage may be different this time, but the performance, which always revolves around the Black experience in America, is the same.

Even if we wanted to argue there is a point to the performance, it’s hard for most people to go there with Ye. While he prides himself on being a provocateur, digging his fingers into the wounds of Black existence, he refuses to acknowledge the pain it causes. Instead, he dismisses it. Repeatedly.

Long before that red hat and “White Lives Matter” T-shirts, Ye said “racism is a dated concept,” and used painful relics to make misguided statements about race. For example, merchandise from the 2013 Yeezus tour featured the Confederate flag and his pop-up store in Los Angeles included a Confederate flag with the words “I ain’t coming down.”

“React how you want,” he told Los Angeles radio station 97.1 AMP at the time. “Any energy is good energy. The Confederate flag represented slavery in a way. That’s my abstract take on what I know about it, right? So I wrote the song ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag now.

“I just think people look cool in it,” he continued. “They look nice. And it’s colorless also. It’s super ’hood and super white boy-approved at the same time. That’s really what my style has always been.”

While other artists such as Kara Walker or Dave Chappelle try to use the symbols of white supremacy to try to subvert its power, Ye has been less successful in using the shock value of those symbols to confront their continuing role in the oppression of Black people.

Jeffrey McCune, a professor of African American literature and culture at the University of Rochester, once taught a course called The Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics. He said Ye positions himself outside of Black community, even as he pretends that he’s positioning himself within it.

“He benefits from Black people’s purchasing and investments in his creativity while demonizing Black people and departing from what we call Black cultural ideals,” McCune said. 

Ye’s recent YZYS9 presentation in Paris illustrated both his creativity and his clumsy appropriation of white supremacy: There were full bodysuits mimicking bug-eyed aliens, an oversized puffer coat that at first glance looked like the model was in the palm of someone’s hand, and hoods that felt like a futuristic take on HBO’s Game of Thrones

But it was impossible to focus on those pieces because Ye wore a black T-shirt with a photo of Pope John Paul II and the words “Seguiremos tu ejemplo” (“We will follow your example”) on the front. On the back was the phrase “White Lives Matter,” which the Anti-Defamation League has identified as a symbol of hate. He sent one down the runway on late reggae musician Bob Marley’s granddaughter, 23-year-old model Selah Marley. Conservative political commentator Candace Owens was there wearing one of the shirts in white.

Obviously, Ye is being a provocateur. Vogue fashion editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson was at the show and compared the shirt to the work of Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, who famously submitted a porcelain urinal to an artistic exhibit in 1917.

“I guess I get what he tried to do — he thought it was Duchampian. It wasn’t. It didn’t land and it was deeply offensive, violent, and dangerous,” she wrote on Instagram.

“What I feel is that he is not fully aware of the difference between appropriating Black Lives Matter and subverting the ‘Make America Great Again’ hat,” she wrote.

“I understand his idea that the hat was a readymade. And its value was intrinsic to context … When it’s worn by Trump, it’s racist, when worn by Kanye, it’s about liberation.”

But that approach failed when it was applied to the White Lives Matter slogan, she argued.

“… the idea that white supremacy is in danger of extinction is what justifies mass incarceration, murder en masse, indeed even the advent of slavery,” she wrote. “And it’s hugely irresponsible to furnish the most dangerous extremists with this kind of fictional narrative.”

Despite Karefa-Johnson’s elegant read on his sloppy idea of performance art, Ye attacked her on Instagram. 

In a since-deleted post, which featured a photo of the fashion editor, wrote, “This is not a fashion person You speak on Ye ima speak on you.” In a separate post, on a photo of Karefa-Johnson knee-high, high-heeled Timberland boots, Ye wrote “I KNOOOOOOW ANNA HATES THESE BOOTS,” referring to Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour.

Lisa Lipinski, a professor of art history at George Washington University, agreed that if Ye was trying to channel the spirit of Duchamp with the shirt, he missed the mark. Duchamp used irony, puns, alliteration and paradox in his art to playfully challenge and undermine pretensions in art and elitism in the art world, she said. Duchamp “questioned the nature of art, that it must be beautiful, and that art must be well-crafted and handmade.”

“​​Kanye West’s ‘White Lives Matter’ T-shirts offended people who believe that Black Lives Matter,” said Lipinski. “It did not subvert systemic oppression, and could be seen as reinforcing the status quo, which is social inequality and lack of justice for people of color.” 

Ye’s always been a troll, but his relationship with the Black community has grown increasingly contentious. We’re often the butt of some inside joke he’s having with his art and it begs the question of who is allowed to critique the troll.

Black women certainly have spoken their piece about him. We spoke out against him when he said “slavery was a choice”; his anti-abortion rant; his preference to cast “multiracial” women instead of Black women for his fashion shows; his partnership with artist Vanessa Beecroft, who thinks her work with Ye makes her Black; and when he complimented Owens in 2018 after she said Black Lives Matters supporters “are pretending to be oppressed for attention.”

Back in 2004, Ye described his music to Rolling Stone, saying: “My niche is that I’m the funny version of Dead Prez. I’m the rap version of Dave Chappelle. I’m not sayin’ I’m nearly as talented as Chappelle when it comes to political and social commentary, but like him, I’m laughing to keep from crying.”

It’s an interesting comparison. Pre-Netflix Dave Chappelle was arguably white folks’ favorite Black comedian until he stepped away from his highly-acclaimed Comedy Central sketch series Chappelle’s Show. Chappelle told Oprah Winfrey in 2006 that he was growing concerned about how popular his comedy had become and the shifting racial dynamics of his audience.

“I was doing sketches that were funny but socially irresponsible,” he told Winfrey. 

He gave an example of a sketch he wrote for the show about a pixie that would appear whenever racist things would happen, like, “whenever someone would make you feel like they were calling you that N-word but they don’t say it.”  The premise of the joke was that every race had this racial complex, but in the sketch the pixie was in blackface to be the visual personification of the N-word. When a white person on the set laughed too hard, Chappelle had second thoughts. 

He didn’t want to disappoint Black people. Or himself, as Winfrey prompted him.

Artist Walker’s work also sits at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, violence and identity. A lot of the time, Walker’s work is ugly and painful because she appropriates racist imagery. As the curatorial note for her giant “sphinx-turned-mammy” at the Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn in 2014 points out, “As she herself has said, she likes her work to produce a sense of ‘giddy discomfort.’ ”

This might be what Ye is aiming for but he’s failing. There is no giddiness in the discomfort, no reason to laugh. Artists have a responsibility to actually say something, not just inflict pain. Ye isn’t the same man making a cultural critique in his music to and for a Black audience. He has a much wider fan base now and when he appears on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show spouting nonsense and conspiracy theories, there is a percentage of his fans who hear confirmation of their beliefs. There are real-world consequences to Ye’s behavior, making it hard to take him seriously as a performance artist.

“We see him acting out in a way that we might see a young child acting out, even,” said McCune.

Just last month, Ye compared reading to eating Brussels sprouts on an episode of the Alo Mind Full podcast. “I actually haven’t read any book,” he said. Now, that’s an incredibly socially irresponsible thing for a Black man to say.

“The problematic formula is when the provocateur meets impulsivity,” said McCune. “So, he wants to be provocative and impulsive at the same time. And we know that his creative work, there’s great intentionality in what he does, but when he moves to the political sphere or the cultural sphere, unintentionally he’s like, ‘I don’t care how this impacts people.’

“Because Kanye has such a big platform, [the fact] that he proliferates so much negative speak and so much anti-Blackness, inadvertent anti-Blackness or even unconscious anti-Blackness, we have to counter it with heightened degrees of pro-Blackness,” McCune said.

“Because someone like this who’s messaging to a particular white supremacist base, we have to counter his rhetoric because there is a base that really is thirsty for this rhetoric.”

McCune thinks it’s not productive to banish Ye to a corner where we never address him again, because he’s not an individual but an entity.

“Kanye is not a brother, he’s a brand,” said McCune. “Brands have more power. They travel further and they stay in the air longer. And so in order to fight the brand, we have to rebrand and we have to actually critique the brand.”

Channing Hargrove is a senior writer at Andscape covering fashion. That’s easier than admitting how strongly she identifies with the lyrics “Single Black female addicted to retail.”