As the belly of political radicalization in the United States swells, civil dialogue shrivels. Attacks from the Left on the White House and GOP, combated with equal hostility from the Right have concocted a toxic political climate. Where do we go from here? Enter the outspoken, controversial Kanye West. The Chicago-born West has historically been perceived as more of a political divider than a uniter; take, for example, his charge that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” His transitioning from the unapologetic demonization of Republican George Bush back in the mid-2000s to meeting with Republican Donald Trump in the Oval Office a few weeks ago is, on the surface, perplexing.
West’s summit with President Trump, however, is actually a manifestation of his maturity. His tweet last week in which he declared his exit from politics demonstrates that his stint in the political area was not about taking a side in the fight. When he met with Trump it was less of a political statement and adherence to conservatism or the Republican Party, and more of a call for political and cultural unity. As an African-American celebrity supporting Trump, he is shattering the divide between the conventional left and the right, extending his hand in attempts to resurrect civil dialogue and find ways to unite these contending parties whose hatred toward each other is a detriment to our national wellbeing.
Back in May, after a burst of tweets from West in which he voiced his love for Trump and championed free thought and free speech, he released a song entitled “Ye vs. The People.” In it, West explains, “Make America Great Again had a negative perception / I took it, wore it, rocked it, gave it a new direction / Added empathy, care and love and affection.” The hate, racism, and misogyny associated with the MAGA hat has garnered it a widespread stigma in today’s culture. The despise for the hat, however, is understandable. From his pre-election “grab ‘em by the p****” remark to his calling Colin Kaepernick a “son of a b****” among several other unbecoming and outright unacceptable actions, the president has comported himself numerous times in an un-presidential and frankly despicable manner.
Kanye, an outspoken proponent of “spreading love,” however, oddly explained a few weeks ago in a TMZ interview that he supports Trump and wants to work with him. Why? West says “we never give up on anyone.” Despite Trump’s many displays of shameful behavior and several policies that Kanye does not support (e.g., the Muslim travel ban), West holds that opposition and hate toward the president will not solve anything. His mantra of advocating for “dialogue not diatribe” actually exemplifies the philosophically classical method of dialectic, where individuals holding opposing opinions engage in dialogue in order to find the truth. By donning the MAGA hat, Kanye isn’t pledging allegiance to a political party or to the immaturity of Trump. Rather, he’s pledging his commitment to reconfiguring the negativity that has swallowed our fellow Americans and their perception of the MAGA hat and to transfigure our noxious political arena into a landscape where we can peacefully speak our differing opinions.
Despite these efforts to cultivate a more peaceful political environment, Kanye West has struggled to convey his ideas lucidly. Much of the scrutiny befallen unto him has been due to misunderstandings of his ideas. His controversial statements have become a lightning rod for controversy. His remark that “400 years of slavery sounds like a choice,” appears, on the surface, insensitive and certainly condemnable. The comment, however, was actually taken out of context, as it came in the middle of an hour-long soliloquy from West who was actually championing universal freedom, both in thought and speech. After the interview and immediate brouhaha from the public, West tweeted, “Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will.” He added, “The reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years.” Unfortunately, the cries sparked by headlines stating that “Kanye West says slavery is a choice” waxed into an aggressive nationwide uproar and choked out any opportunity for West to explain what he was trying to say. His message was that, following the Emancipation Proclamation nearly all Americans have remained bound by a new type of mental enslavement; that is, restriction of true free thought and free speech. By law, the United States grants freedom of thought and speech to all citizens. But in actuality, West asserts, people fear that they cannot speak their minds without censure or admonition. It is, in a sense, a form of modern slavery. People do not want to express their opinion in fear of harassment from the right or the left. By wearing the MAGA hat, West is attempting to trailblaze an avenue for those specific people. The MAGA hat is a demonstration of West’s support for Trump, but more importantly, for West it’s a symbol of potential unity. In the end, the best way to solve problems that this nation has is through respectful dialogue.
By taking this more pacific route, West has indeed been able to solve some problems. His support for Trump prompted his wife Kim Kardashian West to meet with Trump and attempt to pardon the life sentencing of first-time non-violent drug offender Alice Marie Johnson. Kardashian’s appeal was successful as Trump commuted Johnson’s sentence and granted her clemency. Kardashian stated afterward that “I do believe she would still be in prison” if it wasn’t for Kanye’s friendship with Trump. Additionally, West is working with Trump on several programs in Chicago including prison reform, providing job opportunities in the manufacturing industry, and reducing gang violence in the city. Kanye plans to install factories for his multi-billion-dollar apparel brand YEEZY in Chicago and will supply ex-convicts with jobs in these factories. With all these efforts, it seems that Kanye may be doing more good than the media would have us think. And in spite of Donald Trump’s often reprehensible actions, Kanye West is beginning a dialogue that can hopefully beget solutions. Back in 2004 West stated on his first album, “We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all, we at war with ourselves.” Fourteen years later, we remain in the midst of this political civil war. While we may not need an outright truce, we desperately need a willingness to listen, collaborate, and speak freely.
Christian Esherick is an English and Political Science major at the University of Notre Dame. He is the head of outreach for faireway at Notre Dame and an editor on the faireway team.