Long-Form Essays

“Our” Kanye Died Years Ago

Screenshot from Childish Gambino's video for "Feels Like Summer", featuring the animated likeness of Michelle Obama hugging the likeness of Kanye West, who wears gray sweats, a red MAGA hat, and has tears streaming down his face.
(c) 2018 Wolf + Rothstein

“Soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you”
– “I Am a God”, Yeezus

I didn’t care when Michael Jackson died.

Five-year-old me wouldn’t have believed that. That boy was, like damn-near every Black kid in the ‘80s, an MJ fanatic. But 28-year-old me was done: done with all the baby-dangling; done with all the skin-bleaching; done with all the hair-straitening; done with all the surgery; done with all the shitty music in the near-20-years before 2009; done with all the Black self-hatred; done with his constant collaborations with fellow sex predator R. Kelly; and definitely done with Mike’s pedophile ass always getting’ away scot-free.

Five-year-old me would’ve been crushed to hear Michael Jackson had died; 28-year-old me just shrugged muttered “whatever…”

When I studied journalism in college, they told us how nearly every (in)famous person in the world has most of their obituary written beforehand – from heads of state to one-hit wonders. It’s a time-saving measure that allows news outlets to put the obituaries out within a short time of the person’s death being confirmed. Usually, the only thing added are the exact cause and time of death.

I’ve wondered lately: what reaction will I have when Kanye West dies? I certainly won’t be happy. I don’t know if I’ll be sad. Is it possible that I’ll react like I did when MJ died, just shrug my shoulders and go on with my day, despite hearing that a one-time hero of mine is no longer with us?

I can’t tell the future, so I don’t know. One thing I do know is that the Kanye Omari West who dies that day won’t be the same one who was once my favorite artist and musician. That cat died a long time ago, so consider this my eulogy for the man he used to be.

A Fellow Dropout

I’ve been trying to write this piece for six years. Six years, y’all!

It wasn’t (just) due my trying to process all that happened in Sacramento after the 2016 PotUS election, nor was it my living in denial about the subsequent years. No, I dare that it was because I – like most Kanye fans – held a sliver of hope that there was more than meets the eye. There’s no way, we thought, that the cat who ended his 2010 magnum opus with Gil Scott-Heron’s “Who Will Survive in America?” would consciously and sincerely through his support around White America’s favorite capitalist, right? There’s no way that the brotha whose entire 2013 album was about pissing off white people would now side with the folks who love when cops shoot Black people, right? It’s just not possible for the cat who famously said “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” to now wear the red hat of Bush’s party (which grew to hate Black people all the more after Bush left office)?

Otherwise, it’d be worse than Michelle Obama hugging Dubya or Eazy-E for meeting George HW (and the cops who beat Rodney King) or Michael Jackson for meeting with Reagan or even Sammy Davis, Jr. hugging Nixon.

It’s gotta be a put-on. The media never wants to admit how intelligent our Kanye is, so they must be missing out on the skill behind his latest stunt. He’s just tryin’ to work the center for his the presidential bid he announced at the VMAs, right? He’s spent his entire career throwing America’s own racism back in its face; this has to be him just takin’ it to the next level, right? It’s all a magic trick and soon he’ll reveal his plan to the world, right?


For non-fans, it can be hard to explain why this hurts so much; especially for those of us Black.

Tell me this ain’t the best use of a Curtis Mayfield sample!

If it weren’t for Kanye, I’d probably never be a Jay-Z fan. I remember Jigga from the pre-Foxxxy Brown days and I was never all that impressed with him as an MC. Sure, I could nod my head to certain tracks – especially Biggie’s “I Love the Dough” – but I found him to an overrated MC and gross capitalist.

So, you can imagine how taken aback I was when the video for the song “Through the Wire” ended with its producer/vocalist being presented with the Roc-A-Fella chain. I didn’t have a radio in the mid-2000s (long story), so I didn’t know who Kanye was before that track. As I was consciously avoiding Jay-Z, I had know idea that the kid from Chicago was making beloved beats for the guy beefin’ with Nas.

After I found that out, I eventually went back to listen to The Blueprint. I still wasn’t blown away by the lyrics, but the beats were hot! This Kanye cat had my attention. When he released “Jesus Walks”, I was floored. When he put out an album called The College Dropout, this dropout writing these words felt like he’d found a kindred spirit.

Kanye spoke to such a particular niche – suburbanite Black folks who weren’t “gangsta” enough for other Black folks, and hated being the token Black friend to their white colleagues – that the good money would’ve been on him either failing or being a one-hit wonder. Instead, he took his eclectic (read: “white”) musical tastes, blended them into his Black music upbringing (his early “chipmunk soul” tracks), and rewrote the rules of popular music as a whole. He drew from classical, rock, EDM, and damn-near every other genre you could think of (most of which were created by Black folks anyway).

It’s what Isaac Hayes did with his soul orchestrations on albums like …to be continued (a personal favorite). It’s what Andre 3000 did a few years prior with The Love Below (the better-half of the Speakerboxxx double-album). Kanye’s music clearly owed a lot to what had come before, but he made it all his own and inspired others to branch out in much the same way.

It’s true what they said: he was a musical genius. And if you hadn’t heard that, he’d be happy to tell you.

Big Mouth

You know differentiates a George Foreman from a Muhammad Ali? Putting aside any demonstrable skill, it’s the fact that the former will do everything in their power to not make waves. That doesn’t mean they lack strong opinions, they just know those opinions will alienate a portion of the populace.

Black folks – and Black leaders – were being lynched on a regular basis when Foreman presented himself as the “good negro” of the 1968 Olympics; the one who proudly waved the US flag after his victory – unlike another pair of trouble-makers that same year. George Foreman spoke softly and smiled politely.

Muhammad Ali was L-O-U-D. He marched with the very leaders being killed. He loudly announced his conversion to Islam, his refusas to be drafted by the US military, his partying with celebs, and every single one of his record-breaking victories. He happily became the most hated man in America, but no one could match is skill (‘til Frazier). Not everything he said has aged well (like his “gorilla” comments about Frazier), but he meant each and every single word. That kind of sincerity breeds trust.

That’s why Ali is remembered as amazing pugilist and civil rights icon, whilst Foreman is remembered as an alleged pedophile who once licensed his name for a grill.

Like Ali, Kanye West has a big fuckin’ mouth. And Ali, Kanye tended to back up his braggadocio with results. He wasn’t just a good musician, our Kanye was a guy who warranted having the one and only Lou Reed review his album.

So, yeah, he bragged. It was adorable, to be honest. I dare you to name one single rapper who never claimed to be “the greatest MC of all time”. Kanye just didn’t stop there. Hey, as long as he was making great music, more power to him. Hell, that lack of humility resulted in two of the defining moments of his career: 1 – the song “Big Brother”, wherein he aired all the dirty details of he and Jay-Z’s complex relationship; and 2 – when run-of-the-mill telethon for victims of Louisiana’s broken levees became immortal for our Kanye refusing to read the teleprompter and shouting those seven beautiful words:

Animated .gif of Mike Meyers and Kanye West during the Red Cross telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims, with the telethon logo in the lower-left and "www.redcross.org" at the bottom. The text on screen moves with West's comments: "George Bush doesn't care about Black people." Meyers is shocked as the image then cuts to a confused Chris Tucker.

It was outrageous. It was scandalous. It was completely unexpected. Most of all, it was the absolute truth. As most of the US bent over backwards to back up Dubya and his bullshit “War on Terror” (a “war” that only began because he didn’t take bin Laden warnings seriously), Kanye spoke truth-to-power and – for one shining moment – became the voice of Black America. It was his equivalent to Ali saying “Viet Cong never called me ‘nigger’!”

That was our Kanye. We defended our Kanye. When he did and said stupid shit (“Bill Cosby innocent!” comes to mind), we easily stood up for him because we saw those minor flaws of a great artistic mind – a mind we weren’t surprised to eventually learn was a mind fighting bi-polar disorder.

These days, the flaws aren’t minor anymore.

One of his best and one of his most revealing.

Not Ours Anymore

One can only speculate exactly when our Kanye went from the champion of Black underdogs to celebrant of white supremacy, but I wish someone had stopped him. One would like to imagine that his mother, had she lived, would have kept him grounded in a way the Kardashians obviously couldn’t. I don’t (entirely) blame them ‘cause that would both be too easy and ignore way he’s essentially stalked Kim since their divorce.

The Kanye who put out The Life of Pablo isn’t the same as the Ye who put out, well, ye. Sure, the former still abusive shithead Chris Brown on his album, but he had the good sense (and maybe strong enough meds) to not victim-blame Rihanna. The former was, admittedly, always a misogynist, but he didn’t purposefully align himself with abusers like Marilyn Manson, Louis CK, and… far-too-many-to-name-here. The former spoke out against homophobia in hip-hop before it was “safe” to do so; the latter shared a stage with DaBaby after DaBaby went after Lil Nas X (who was riding high off the success of the Kanye co-produced “Industry Baby”).

Logically speaking, it’s unlikely Kanye changed overnight, as the MAGA support would suggest. Still, it’s like he’s a completely different person, and the name-change seems to solidify that.

Kanye West during his visit to the Trump White House. West is wearing all black, save for the red MAGA hat on his head. He has his hands over his ears as a bewildered Jim Brown looks on.
I don’t know what’s worse: that stupid red hat or the dumb-ass look on Jim Brown’s face? (Ron Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images)

And yet, some of us still defended him afterward. True, his music hasn’t been as great as it once was (though I’ll defend his beats on Pusha T’s DAYTONA, parts of ye, and all of KIDS SEE GHOSTS), but between all the manic rants about slavery being “a choice” and thinking his PotUS campaign would defeat Biden…. he made some genuinely good points.

Remember when he pissed on his Grammys to call out their bullshit? Tell me that didn’t lead the for the anti-Grammys campaign on behalf of The Weeknd. Remember how his openness with his mental illness opened the floodgates allowing other public figures to do the same? Remember when he spoke out in favor of unions?

Somewhere in that MAGA-soaked mind seemed to be a self-aware Kanye screaming to be let out. Speaking as someone whose longest romantic relationship was with someone bi-polar (who similarly refused to take their meds), believe me when I say that when they won’t take their meds or seek therapy, the level of patience involved is incalculable. There’s a reason why I spent six years working on this piece with titles like “I Hate (How We Talk About) Kanye West” and “Why I Won’t Give Up on Kanye West”.

But here’s the thing: you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Kanye made that abundantly clear a few weeks ago:

Y’know who I feel sorry for? Gabriella Karefa-Johnson of Vogue. She tried to defend Ye’s stupid ass wearin’ that stupid shirt, and what did it get her? He lashed out at her directly, then promised to “go death con 3 on jewish people”. (Never mind the fact that it’s “DEFCON” and that the higher the number means greater state of peace, and that level 3 means just “being ready” for something rather than actively going after someone.)

Gabriella was trying to call out to our Kanye, much the way people spoke up for Alice Walker a few years back. But Alice Walker wasn’t lashing out at Jewish people, just the corrupt-as-all-hell Israeli government. Gabriella learned the hard way what I’ve been coming to terms with over those aforementioned six years: “our” Kanye is dead.

It took me six years to write this piece because I didn’t want to speak out too harshly on someone clearly having a mental health crisis in public. I didn’t want to go down the slippery slope of joining a mob in condemning someone without knowing the full story. I didn’t want to lash out at a Black man clearly being exploited by a white power structure, especially when so much of his work resonates with me still. I wanted to love the sinner as I hated his sins.

But Kanye clearly hates people like me. Poopity-scoop.

So, now…

I was a Marilyn Manson fan as a teenager. Not a lotta Black folks would admit to that. When Evan Rachel Wood revealed him to be her abuser, I deleted his music from my phone so fast you’d hardly believe it was ever there.

I’m merely muted all my Kanye music. With the holidays coming up, I can’t promise I won’t unmute “Christmas in Harlem”, a song that belongs right up there with Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” (yes, really). But since I didn’t outright delete Kanye’s music, it still pops up when I have Shuttle+ on shuffle. I have to skip over them when it happens – it’s just too painful. But I’ll never buy Kanye stuff ever again. I had to get Donda track-by-track so as to not buy the ones with Manson, Chris Brown, or DaBaby. Don’t expect me to get anything else from the guy now hanging with fellow MAGAsshole Ray J. (Yes, Ray J! They squashed their beef with a love of Trump!)

A heavily-bearded Kanye West dressed in all-black, including a scruffy black hoodie, a scruffy black trucker's hat with "2023" sewn in bold white text on the brim, and black mouth guard with "Balenciaga" in white text.
Who the fuck even is this? (Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)

These six years, I didn’t want to write a piece about one of my all-time favorites, but I have no worry of that now. Sure, I can point out how, MAGA or not, he’s still the victim of colorism, and I’m more than happy to point out the hypocrisy of the public dropping him over his anti-Semitism, but not his self-hating Blackness. All of that is true.

It’s also true that I take no joy in how he’s actively destroying everything he’s built up over the past two decades; an empire partly built on my money and support as a fan. Maybe one day I’ll unmute Kanye’s music and listen to it the way I do Morrissey’s music, separating the art from the artist. But that day ain’t today.

It took me six years to talk about “my” Kanye for one reason and one reason only: I was mourning him. My Kanye – nay, our Kanye – is gone and is never coming back. I’ll always miss him. But I won’t shed a tear for the monster that took his place.

“You’re an indelible part of my life Ye. Which is why it breaks my heart to see you like this. I don’t care if you support Trump and I don’t care if you roast Pete. I do however care when I see you on a path that’s dangerously close to peril and pain … Don’t ever forget, the biggest trick racists ever played on Black people was teaching us to strip each other of our Blackness whenever we disagree. Tricking us into dividing ourselves up into splinters so that we would never unite into a powerful rod.”

–Trevor Noah (March 2022)

Now… to clear my head, here’s some Gil Scott-Heron:

Categories: Long-Form Essays, Music

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