This weekend, while driving with my windows down in 86-degree, sunny springtime weather, my car’s playlist (mostly comedy, hip-hop and old-school R&B) shuffled randomly to a 26-minute story from a 1968 comedy album. As a lover of storytelling, I couldn’t bring myself to hit the skip button as the winding, 26-minute story from the album, To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, played.
As a preteen, I remember taping a penny to an insert from Ebony magazine and, in exchange, receiving three of the greatest works of art I ever heard: Prince’s Purple Rain, Richard Pryor’s Bicentennial Nigger and Bill Cosby’s Himself. As someone for whom stand-up is only outranked by hip-hop as his greatest artistic influence, if I were to list the comedians on my Mount Rushmore of comedy, they would include Pryor, George Carlin, Doug Stanhope and a convicted sexual abuser.
Bill Cosby is one the greatest comedians who ever lived. Even though I never considered The Cosby Show hilarious, as someone who grew up in that era, I recognize its importance to people of my generation. He brought historically black colleges into the mainstream consciousness. He donated millions to African-American educational efforts. He personally financed the first black IndyCar driver.
He also sexually abused women.
As America discovers that people we now find deplorable have been masquerading for years as artistic phenoms, the absolutist culture of the internet has almost unanimously decided that the art created by despicable men should be discarded along with their legacy. According to the prevailing narrative, it is impossible to separate the art from the artist; the two are inextricably intertwined, and consuming the product of these unimaginably vile human beings implies that you agree with everything they have ever said or done.
Truthfully, that is hard for some of us.
Long before Kanye West came out of the closet as a Donald Trump-supporting advocate of “free thought,” I had deemed him an insufferable fuckboy. Almost two years ago, I wrote:
Even after his mother’s death, Kanye’s music was still thoughtful, and grew increasingly revolutionary, but his douchebaggery grew to epic proportions. Because we are a sympathetic people, we ascribed all of his tomfoolery to the grieving process, but it might have been Fuckboy-ology all along…
The dilemma is—in which box do we place Kanye? I have long been an advocate of the principle that simplicity equals unintelligence. Two things can be true at once. A man can be both an extraordinary talent and have overwhelming bitchlike tendencies. Which is Kanye? Is he a misunderstood genius who won’t allow himself to be defined by our pedestrian thinking? Or is he a petty, insolent, entitled celebrity who wears his immaturity on his sleeve?
I am not equipped with the expertise or training to determine whether Kanye West suffers from a mental illness possibly triggered by the death of his mother more than a decade ago. While many suspect that this latest rant episode is part of one big publicity-hungry act of trolling, I think we are beginning to see the person Kanye always was. I believe this new iteration of Kanye is the old Kanye.
But, like many others who are caught between the oxymoron of “Make America great again” Kanye and the “George Bush don’t care about black people” Kanye, I still love his music.
Even though I believe almost all of the contemptible actions that R. Kelly has been accused of, it does not negate the fact that the remix to “Ignition” slaps harder than a motherfucker. It is easy for me to never buy a ticket to an R. Kelly concert or purchase any of his music because I find him disgusting as a human being and I wouldn’t support him.
This is not a black thing. Woody Allen is thought by many to have married his adopted daughter. Yet Caucasians regularly applaud him for his interminably boring, angst-ridden films. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist won three Oscars after he pleaded guilty to raping a 13-year-old. Some people, including white women, are advocating for the return of Louis C.K., who has been accused of sexual misconduct.
While I do not weep for Cosby, Kanye or Kelly, I also recognize that I enjoy the privilege of having already laughed, danced and consumed the work that these men created during their artistic heydays. I can’t go back and change the fact that I bought Kanye’s The College Dropout.
And just as I found it surprisingly easy to cut off the NFL even though professional football is my favorite sport, I don’t find it incredibly difficult to not listen to these men’s products. Just as I don’t find it necessary to delete my dreams of throwing the winning touchdown for the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl, I don’t think listening to “New Slaves” makes me a Kanye West enabler.
Furthermore, as someone who abhors censorship and champions artistic freedom, I found myself conflicted when radio stations pulled Kanye’s music because they disagreed with his vapid political stance and misunderstanding of history. If I were a DJ on a pop radio station, I wouldn’t play his music. But then again, I’d put Kanye’s music on the same banned list as Post Malone’s and Taylor Swift’s.
To be clear, I don’t support these artists. But I also think it is too simplistic and a little disingenuous to retroactively declare that the music, film, television and comedy we once revered are now worthless. It is more complicated than the Twittersphere hive mind would have us believe. I know Michaelangelo’s Pietà is part of the Catholic church’s whitewashing of the history of Christianity. I also think it is one of the most beautiful sculptures ever created.
One day soon, maybe even as early as today, I will hit the shuffle button on my car’s “Music 2 Ride 2” playlist. What emerges from the speakers might very well be Kanye’s original version of “Homecoming,” which I love. Maybe it will be Cosby’s retelling of “Noah’s Ark” or R. Kelly’s “Fiesta.”
Or maybe it will be a song by an artist whose despicable actions have not yet come to light. In either case, I will not feel guilty that I can enjoy the music. I am able to separate the art from the artist.
Even though I hate the player, I can appreciate his game.