Kanye West, False Prophet: On the Folly of Celebrity Idol Worship
The young cats don’t know how to face the fact that their hero is a fading hypocrite. It’s a tough thing to admit.
As Kanye West took a proverbial blowtorch to his fan base and image this week by proclaiming via Twitter his love for President Donald Trump in a MAGA hat, I watched as fellow hip-hop stars rushed to throw themselves on the latest Yeezy grenade of nonsense in an attempt to preserve the cultural standing of a guy who was once That Guy. I’ve stated already that I believe this is who Kanye is and don’t need performative celebrity apologies—people who are disgusted at his latest display have to leave him in his narcissistic fantasyland.
But as Cyhi the Prynce and Kanye’s fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper threw their own reputations on the fire to follow Ye into the flames of far-right rhetoric, it made me think of how hard we sometimes fight for heroes before we demand they fight for us. The “us,” in this case, is the audience who made Ye one of the most important figures in contemporary music. Before the Yeezy fashion shows and before the endless Kardashian antics and before Twitter, Kanye appealed greatly to kids who were fighting to find their way—both in a racist system and as awkward adolescents. He seemed like the oddball kid who always wanted to be cool then grew up to be the coolest guy in the room. It made him a hero to millions of fans even as he behaved like a petulant asshole.
Cyhi, 32, and especially 25-year-old Chance are right in the age group of those who would’ve been most affected by the 2004-2008 ascension of Ye. And Kanye has a hand in both of their careers directly: Cyhi is signed to Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music and Chance was featured prominently on Kanye’s 2016 album The Life of Pablo, which elevated his profile considerably; in turn, Kanye appeared on Chance’s acclaimed album Coloring Book. And they both drew the ire of fans this week.
“Black people don’t have to be democrats,” Chance tweeted in the middle of one of Kanye’s pro-Trump tweetstorms. “Next President gon be independent,” he added in another tweet. Chance also offered insight into Kanye’s state of mind: “Talked to him two days ago. He’s in a great space and not affected by folk tryna question his mental or physical health. Same Ye from the Vmas, same Ye from the telethon,” he tweeted, referencing the infamous 2005 moment when Ye exclaimed “George Bush does not care about Black people” on live television during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief.
For his part, Cyhi defended Kanye’s “love” of Trump. “Why is everybody so scared of Trump,” he tweeted. “I bet you right now I can look up a thousand songs, TV shows etc where his name is mentioned before he ran for office y’all scared of a man that tells y’all how he feel about you smh y’all to sensitive most of y’all talk behind people back lol.”
“Y’all do know Martin Luther King was republican,” he continued, to growing dissent among his followers. “So he wasn’t before Kennedy was in office?? Please inform see man it’s sad that I’m trying to put on the game congress really plays and y’all acting like we tripping we know the president it’s who runs the world it’s the congress behind them and those are gangsters.”
It can sometimes be hard to admit that someone you regard as a genius is behaving like an idiot. Cyhi has taken aim at Kanye before (see 2015s “Elephant In the Room”) but it’s easy to shame the devil when he’s holding your career hostage. Might be a little harder when you yourself are invested in the idea that his contrarianism represents something necessary. You find a way to make whatever he says further evidence of his individuality—as opposed to affirmation that he is detached and careless. You’re still looking for the “genius” in everything he does. “I’m literally Kanye’s biggest fan,” Chance stated during a 2016 Billboard interview.
That particular kind of fandom, often born of our most impressionable and highly creative adolescent years, shapes the way we see these figures. The generation that grew up watching firsthand as Bill Cosby changed the landscape of American television will always view him through that lens—even if it doesn’t prevent them from dismissing Cosby in the wake of his now-widely-known sexual assaults. The same goes for a generation that grew up identifying with Kanye West as he presented his uniquely relatable perspective in a rap game dominated by G-Unit, Lil Wayne and Dipset. He was a part of some people finding themselves, and they can’t admit that he lost who he was in the process.
“Living long enough to see yourself become the villain” is something many beloved figures and their fans have had to contend with, but when you’re still so in need of a hero—or so close to your would-be hero—that you can’t see how they’re drowning in hubris, you’re just another enabler of their vanity. What Kanye has done over the past week flies in the face of so much work that Chance in particular has done to address violence in Chicago and police killings in Black communities. Kanye was much more muted as young Black people were marching around the country than he is now while on his current Trump wave; it was Chance who made sure his voice was heard via antiviolence initiatives and support of Black Lives Matter. Now he stands with a guy who inspired him creatively as that guy throws his allegiance behind a president that embodies the hate his people still face all over this country.
Most of those who have attempted to save Kanye from himself over the years have been old friends like Rhymefest and John Legend. But you don’t see Kanye around the old guard so much anymore. In the past few years, you’ve seen less of Kanye’s “big brothers” in his circles—Q-Tip, Common, Jay-Z, et al. were once pillars and now they’re peripheral in Kanye’s orbit. He’s replaced them with younger artists like Chance, Vic Mensa, and Teyana Taylor. Maybe keeping new blood around keeps Kanye’s ideas fresh. But it’s also likely that his more ego-driven tendencies prefer acolytes as opposed to elders. Maybe he’d rather have artists that grew up on him surrounding him as opposed to vets who would call him on his shit. The young cats don’t know how to face the fact that their hero is a fading hypocrite. It’s a tough thing to admit.
Especially when you’re a fan.