Five years ago I wrote to a friend about Kanye West’s well-reviewed but (in my opinion) emperor-has-no-clothes, comically awful album Yeezus: “I’m not sure what Kanye even does musically anymore except be Kanye, similar to Donald Trump’s name being used by foreign firms being used to market products because it’s recognizable,” I noted.
Those shocked by Kanye’s embrace of Trump and endorsement of Candace Owens haven’t been paying attention. This isn’t a betrayal of his personal integrity or a drastic shift in perspective. Kanye and Trump have long been simpatico. Chance the Rapper reassured us, “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 didn’t mean that as an indictment of Kanye West. But it’s damn sure an indictment of the rest of us.
Kanye didn’t sneak up on us any more than Trump did. He hasn’t changed. He was hiding in plain sight all along.
The wonderful, indefatigable Sarah Kendzior wrote of our president, “Trump demands attention but shuns scrutiny. He needs to be a brand because he’s terrified of being a person.”
The same goes for Kanye. The target market might shift, but the brand remains the brand. The brand exists in service to itself, and nothing else.
These are warped, self-centered people. They often seem imbecilic and have trouble stringing together coherent sentences. They’re prone to rage-fueled rants and fond of banal non sequiturs. Few of their ideas are founded in critical thinking and a grasp of context, of history, of reality—of anything beyond however they define their self-interest on a given day.
But Trump and Kanye speak the language of emotion and sides; in American culture, that has become the dominant tongue. They communicate in the nebulous, hackneyed jargon of fortune cookies, astrologers and self-help gurus. It all brings to mind the grand conceit of a magic act: A magician can only trick an audience if it is willing to make itself complicit. If we want to be fooled, inanity and incoherence look like magic.
We have proved time and again that we want to be fooled. Some of us wanted to believe that a lifelong criminal who couldn’t articulate any cogent political agenda or ideas would restore some long-lost dignity and greatness to our nation. Others of us wanted to believe that a megalomaniacal celebrity who married into a vacuous reality-television family was a counterculture revolutionary capable of making a nouveau Black Power album.
Over the years I’ve watched in stunned disbelief as peers of mine—including award-winning authors and college professors—stood face to face with me and passionately pontificated on Kanye’s feminist bent, his race savvy, his activist spirit, his genius. It is our own stupidity that has been exposed—and that makes it all the more difficult to walk back our investment.
Black and white Americans have been led to the same sad, barren place via different avenues. The ideas of the “alt-right” appeal to a lot of black men because they hit the same sweet spot with them as they do their intended audience, disaffected white men. But we are not so different, being men in America. The “alt-right” rhetoric speaks to those who posture and perform ultramasculinity but are ultimately disillusioned with society because they feel powerless.
Undereducated, consigned to cyclical underemployment, cut off from attaining the women in the videos and movies they watch, unable to articulate personal truths, desperate to belong to something that will make them feel that they, too, have “dragon energy”; this is how capitalism, brands and even hip-hop thrive—by making the bulk of us feel like losers while holding just out of reach the carrot on a stick of a future winning.
These are particularly insidious diseases masquerading as curative measures.
We are infected, no doubt about it. We are a country addicted to nostalgia, but with no regard for history. Nostalgia is history without moral reckoning; it keeps people pining for golden eras that never existed and anticipating a future that will never materialize. It keeps us invested in the brands that tailor themselves to fit our innermost fears and desires. It keeps us wed to the very hustlers and ethically challenged idiots who will happily lead us to our own demise, knowing that they’ve trained us to hold our own leashes for the duration of the walk.
It’s no coincidence that Trump was once revered by so many in the hip-hop community. Ten years after he provided blurbs and an introduction for Russell Simmons, Uncle Rush rebuked Trump: “He’s not acting on any real belief.” When was he?
“We both appreciate the importance of building strong brands.”
—Donald Trump in his foreword to Russell Simmons’ Do You!: 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success
There is no difference between Kanye and Trump. Neither acts on any real belief. Both serve as mirrors of our own collective delusion. In this era, we increasingly latch onto people who share and validate our delusions rather than challenge and deconstruct them. We traffic in images and anger rather than thoughtful analysis. We’re obsessed with the performance of life rather than the hard work and responsibility of building an actual life.
These are all symptoms of a culture that prefers magical thinking to discourse, the cult of self to communal health, celebrity gossip to real news, reality television to reality.
This is how hip-hop, the black intellectual scene and our leadership eroded to the point of self-immolating lunacy.
A slogan like “Black excellence” is similar in tenor and emptiness to “Make America great again.” They’re both symptomatic of the nullification of critical thinking and the abnegation of collective responsibility. Both sell a vacuous simulacrum of a lifestyle that does not match up with reality. They both keep their target audiences fighting imaginary battles on social media, while shielding from scrutiny the con men who wield those slogans for their personal empowerment. There has never been a better age for narcissists, charlatans and megalomaniacs.
Trump and Kanye are merely symptoms of the larger problem: We’re the problem.
Kanye isn’t losing his mind; he’s seizing his moment.
T.D. Williams was born and raised in New York City, where he spent his youth in a welfare hotel for the homeless in Times Square. He has been a civil rights activist, a dean of college admissions and a university professor. His writing on sports, race and societal issues has appeared in various publications. Follow him on Twitter.