“I’m not wearing the sneakers, I’m not wearing the clothes, I’m not listening to the music. I’m definitely taking a step back—indefinitely,” said DJ and former Yeezy enthusiast Jerome Baker III to GQ, when asked how Kanye West’s recent antics affected his feelings about the Yeezy merchandise he owns.
For months now (or years, for some of us), we’ve once again been faced with the conundrum of whether an artist can or should be separated from his art—in this case, the still-coveted line of clothing known as Yeezy. For those of us who take issue with the stance West has taken on several major issues of late, is wearing his merchandise implicit approval? That was the question posited by writer Julian Kimble:
T-shirts adorned with a symbol of the Antebellum South’s racist history presented an ethical bind, but his fans could convince themselves they’d reappropriated the symbol and wore their Yeezus tour merch with pride. Still, none of West’s previous actions have elicited as much furor as his recent support of Donald Trump, his assertion that four centuries of slavery sounded like a choice—by the enslaved, or his cozying up to right-wing charlatans. At this point, it’s worth serious consideration that West might unveil red-pill-inspired attire in the future. And his recent behavior has created a quandary for even his biggest fans: What’s to be done with their assorted West-related apparel?
JaVonte Harris, another Yeezy owner interviewed by Kimble, didn’t feel conflicted at all.
“I feel like there’s probably tons of people who make clothes we wear who have probably said and even done worse,” he told GQ. “So when it comes to clothes and stuff like that, if I’m wearing it, I don’t really see it as a representation of his thoughts or feelings. It’s just ... clothes.”
And thousands of fans would seem to agree, as Yeezy resales inexplicably increased after West’s endorsement of Trump, and $500,000 worth of his recently released Wyoming merchandise sold within 30 minutes (though sales have been lackluster overall). Clearly, there’s no crisis of conscience for the avid consumer of the brand (either that, or the right wing has suddenly gotten very fashion-forward), but as Kimble aptly noted:
[T]here’s no way to uncouple Kanye West and his work, not when his brand is semi-eponymous. Everything he puts his nickname on is imbued with his thoughts, feelings, and energy; the art is entangled with the artist. You can’t distance yourself from his opinions the way you might with an unpopular or flat-out obtuse team owner because West is simply too close to his merchandise. And given the relationship between merch and fandom—merch being an extension of the artist, and buying it a display of support—wearing the clothes can be interpreted as a ringing endorsement, especially when a cult of personality helps drive sales.
As for the larger-than-life personality known as Kanye West, despite his lengthy and enthusiastic participation in the cult of personality, he seems less interested in the responsibility of being anyone’s role model than in enjoying the privilege of artistic freedom, telling the New York Times: “We need to be able to be in situations where you can be irresponsible. That’s one of the great privileges of an artist. An artist should be irresponsible in a way—a 3-year-old.”
If West is simply feeling entitled to sometimes be irresponsible, where does that leave our responsibility? His support of an agenda that has been increasingly unsupportive of his core demographic has rendered the Yeezy brand more than “just clothes” to DJ Heat, who told GQ that he’s now uncomfortable wearing the brand.
“When you put something on, walk out of the house, and have a shirt or whatever on with a brand name on your back, you’re representing that brand for the moment,” he said.
But while West walked back his slavery comments ever so slightly in his Times interview (emphasizing that he’d said “sounds like a choice”), perhaps what was more telling was that for all his irresponsibility, he’s also clearly aware of his still-immense influence, going on to say: “But also I’m not backing down, bro. What I will do is I’ll take responsibility for the fact that I allowed my voice to be used back to back in ways that were not protective of it when my voice means too much.”
And legions are still listening, as evidenced by the performance of West’s latest release, Ye. The irony wasn’t lost on West, who told the Times that he feels no fear of losing his black fan base.
“It’s not going to happen. ... You’re not always going to agree, but they’re not going to leave,” he said, later adding, “Half the people that are listening to the album are supposed to not listen to the album right now. I’m canceled. I’m canceled because I didn’t cancel Trump.”
So perhaps the Yeezy empire is secure simply because, for all his faults, West is too much of a fixture in our collective consciousness to ever truly be canceled.
“My existence is selvage denim at this point; it’s a vintage Hermès bag,” he told the Times. “All the stains just make it better.”