As if the year 2020 couldn’t get any more unusual, on July 4, rapper Kanye West announced his plans to run in the 2020 presidential election.
Announced his candidacy on Twitter, West said, “We must now realize the promise of America by trusting God, unifying our vision, and building our future. I am running for President of the United States! #2020Vision.”
We’ve seen a global pandemic and killer hornets so far this year, so with Kanye’s announcement, we’ve now reached another level of absurdity for the year. Kanye West has always sparked debate and controversy: public meltdowns, his interference in Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech, his failed understanding of systemic racism and women’s reproductive health.
I believe it’s best to separate the person from their politics so I can say without reservation, I actually like Kanye West, the rapper. Kanye’s impact on rap and hip-hop is undeniable. He is both a lyrical and musical genius who uses vintage samples and manipulates the tempo to create his own authentic beats. In a world where many musical artists struggle to remain relevant across different generations and genres, Kanye was able to reinvent himself with each of his solo albums—the Kanye West we met on his 2004 debut, “The College Dropout” was far different from the Kanye West we saw in his 2019 release, “Jesus is King.” He has been able to distort his image, sustain his peculiarity and allure, while also challenging traditional perceptions of manhood in hip hop. Kanye is a little eccentric, emotionally expressive and outlandish; quite contradictory to many traditional forms of masculinity we see in popular culture.
While Kanye’s influence on rap and hip hop is indisputable, I find his politics problematic, and contradictory to any social or political discourse on social change and equity. While I could write a novel on the toxicity of his politics, I’ll only highlight a few of his statements that I believe to be the most concerning.
Kanye believes his bipolar disorder is his “superpower.” I am a strong proponent in erasing the shame associated with having a mental illness. I also realize that people may feel a sense of empowerment when they can name or redefine a mental illness, however they deem necessary. Unfortunately, as a public figure, Kanye must also deal with the social repercussions of making such a bold statement, and not adding the appropriate context or qualifiers.
In many ways, one might argue that by associating a mental illness with a “superpower,” he attempts to glamorize or mischaracterize mental disorders, and it only serves to trivialize the severity of the disorder. If we have elected officials that trivialize mental health, it makes the public hesitant to seek help, and it also doesn’t force us to reckon with how individuals with mental health disorders are discriminated against or denied access to care or treatment. Mental illnesses are common in the United States, affecting tens of millions of people each year. With 2020 being a year of much despair and social inequities, we’re going to need leaders who prioritize funding for creating equitable mental health services, and leaders who can be aware of how language matters in how we talk about mental health.
Secondly, West believes “Slavery was a choice.” The rapper’s exact words were “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” Not only is this statement historical and factually inaccurate, it is highly problematic. I struggle with any political official who doesn’t possess a factual understanding of history; I also struggle with any political official who doesn’t understand the importance of contending with history as a catalyst for social change in America.
The institution of slavery was upheld by slave codes to restrict the freedom of Black people. These slave codes governed where slaves could work; they could not own firearms; they could not read or write; and they were not permitted to marry. Obedience to these slave codes were enforced by beatings, branding and lynching. Kanye’s statement is rooted in problematic individual responsibility rhetoric that only serves to hold historically marginalized groups responsible for their poor misfortunes, while ignoring the impact of institutional racism. The damaging personal responsibility rhetoric is evident when we tell poor children that they need to try harder, instead of examining the inequities in school funding and the allocation of resources as a result of their failure. We can’t have elected officials who exclusively tout individual choice and responsibility, without also taking an in-depth and critical look about how choices are often governed and made in the presence of failed social structures.
While West may meet the bare minimum requirements of running for president — and we all know the bar has been set very low — his politics demonstrate that he lacks a moral compass, a factual understanding of American history, an inability to discern the impact of structural discrimination and dangerous rhetoric that only further marginalizes America’s most vulnerable.
The presidency isn’t some fancy gala or award show. It’s not a platform for Kanye to simply reinvent himself or morph into someone different. We’re living in perilous times of a global health pandemic, an economic recession, and grave social injustices. We need a thoughtful and socially conscious leader who believes in facts, and is committed to restoring credibility and legitimacy to the seat. Kanye West’s declaration of running for president tells us two things: We need to reevaluate the qualifications of the highest seat of the land, and Kanye should just stick to being Kanye.
Follow Herald columnist Ciera Graham on Twitter @CieraGrahamPhD.