Less than two weeks after the 2016 election, Kanye West told a live audience in San Jose, California, that he did not vote. But he had a preference, and that was clear. West said, "If I would’ve voted, I’d have voted for Trump." As the crowd expressed displeasure, West continued talking in this vein. He reportedly told the African Americans in the audience to "Stop focusing on racism" because "This world is racist, OK?" Not long after a stint in a hospital for a "psychiatric emergency," West met with the president-elect in Trump Tower and even posed next to him for a photograph. West's celebrity had survived his blatant misogyny and colorism to that point, and so he likely counted on surviving Trump.
West is testing his audience once again. About 48 hours after news of his forthcoming new albums, plural, came to light, West sent two tweets in succession, seemingly for no real reason at all.
I love the way Candace Owens thinks— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 21, 2018
only free thinkers— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 21, 2018
Many Kanye fans greeted that affirmation with apprehension, all while particularly absurd conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Alex Jones sang his praises, the latter going so far as to invite West to be a guest on his show Monday afternoon. This is understandable once you know a little about Candace Owens, and the movement she claims to represent.
Owens, a black conservative who serves as the communications director for Turning Point USA, is known largely for her reductive critiques of Black Lives Matter and her blithe dismissal of systemic inequities. She has labeled those protesting against racial injustice "whiny toddlers, pretending to be oppressed for attention." That isn’t conservative dogma so much as it is mere cruelty. On Saturday, Owens objected to being labeled as "far-right," tweeting that "I’m not far right—I’m free." I could go on, critiquing her revisionist history about the National Rifle Association and her belief that Trump "isn’t just the leader of the free world, but the savior of it as well." Owens self-applies the label "Red Pill Black," so there is little chance that I could ever denigrate her as much as she has denigrated herself.
It’s more valuable to spend time considering this false conception of "free thinkers" that both Owens and West promote. Owens’ policy positions and trademark belligerence are boilerplate for most any public conservative. There is very little original about her, at least in that conservative space, beyond her color and gender, and her "Red Pill Black" nom de guerre on YouTube is recognition of that exclusivity. However, Owens echoes an old, and primarily white, conservative line that black voters are living on some sort of Democratic plantation, enslaved by the liberal ideals that our own African American forebears have helped to shape since Republicans abandoned us after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The entire framing of that is racist in a way that folks like Owens do not seem to grasp, and it is a puddle-deep interpretation of history.
As much as they urge the rest of us to ignore race, Owens and her fellow black Republicans are proud to be unique thanks solely to their skin color. Contrarianism is a much lesser goal than iconoclasm, and much easier to achieve. Sadly, the Fox News universe doesn’t ask anything more of folks like Owens. It allows them to feel like they’re free when all they are is lonely.
West had some company this past weekend. On the eve of her comeback, the Canadian country singer Shania Twain told The Guardian that she would have voted for Trump "Because, even though he was offensive, he seemed honest. Do you want straight or polite? Not that you shouldn’t be able to have both. If I were voting, I just don’t want bullshit. I would have voted for a feeling that it was transparent. And politics has a reputation of not being that, right?" That remark was accidentally insightful. Like most of the president’s nearly 63 million voters, Twain apparently bought Trump’s sales pitch.
Unlike West, Twain walked back her comments in a series of four apologetic tweets. The backlash against her had been predictably swift, and, well, concert tickets need to be sold. It is remarkable that a white country star like Twain would have more fear of losing her audience when admitting her Trump support than would a black rapper. The good news for West and Owens, though, is that being a black conservative can also be quite lucrative.
While the conservative movement frequently rejects outspoken black celebrities on the left, telling them to stand for the anthem and to "shut up and dribble," there is a proven audience for conservative ideas spoken out of a black vessel. It’s why we still know who Stacey Dash is beyond our memories of Clueless. Ben Carson, a legendary surgeon with zero political experience, rode a ridiculous presidential campaign into a Cabinet job. Even Diamond and Silk, the pro-Trump sister vloggers who once claimed Hillary Clinton was not their "slave master," are about to testify before Congress. So, I have no doubt that West’s tweets will raise Owens’ speaking fees and may even help her get a book deal. There is a proven demand for what she does, and for that matter, what West does.
It remains to be seen whether West will suffer any kind of social or financial consequences after this episode. Even his most die-hard liberal fans will make excuses for their continued support. There will be many who claim that this, even coming from Mr. "George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People," is an aberration, or perhaps even a mental health issue. He has to be crazy to support Trump, right?
Supporting Republicans, even while black, is not a sign of insanity. Give West more agency than that, and take it as an indication of who he is. This is Kanye West, in full. That is even more alarming.
West, for his part, is not going the Shania route. On Monday, Ebro Darden of the influential hip-hop station Hot 97 claimed that West told him, "I love Donald Trump." Good for him, and I say that honestly. Some say that we should keep politics out of art, as if that were possible. Any honest listener of West’s music can’t suddenly excise his views, hoping to just keep bumping "Jesus Walks" and "Spaceship" as if none of this ever happened. As a consumer of hip-hop, I’m thankful to be able to know the politics of the artists whose work I buy and support. That’s why, long ago, I dropped West and his music. If others do the same due to his open support of a president doing the work of white supremacy, he should not be all that surprised.
This post has been updated to clarify the details of Kanye West's conversation with Hot 97.