Entertainment

On the Right, Kanye West Is Embraced as an Ally

Posted April 27, 2018 5:30 p.m. EDT

In the few days since rapper Kanye West has doubled down on his public affinity for President Donald Trump and other conservative figures on Twitter, his opinions — and the backlash they have wrought in some circles — have been hailed by those who have long seen the entertainment world as oppressively liberal.

“Kind of a big deal,” Donald Trump Jr. wrote on Instagram. “Seems like a cultural turning point.”

Bill O’Reilly chimed in about “ideological zealots in the entertainment industry” who were criticizing West. Jesse Watters, the Fox News commentator, argued that West, 40, had “loosened the grip the Democratic Party holds on the black vote.”

The biggest pat on the back came from the president himself, who posted several tweets about West. On Friday, he wrote, “Kanye West has performed a great service to the Black Community.”

That such praise was being bestowed upon an iconoclastic musician known for slamming George W. Bush on live television and rapping about the prison industrial complex may seem incongruous. But the sudden embrace of West, a longtime provocateur with contrarian impulses, by figures on the right stems from a potent cocktail of motivations.

For some, there is schadenfreude — the pure entertainment value in watching a onetime liberal hero, even a controversial one, be declared a heretic. For others, there is genuine intellectual agreement with West’s apparent disdain for “self victimization” and the “thought police.” And then there is the fact that A-list celebrities, from George Clooney to Beyoncé and beyond, have largely resisted embracing this administration — and even gained currency by speaking out against it.

“The left has so deprived the right of any feeling of solidarity in pop culture that when they’re granted crumbs, the right goes over the moon for them,” said Ben Shapiro, a conservative millennial thinker popular on social media. He compared the giddy reaction to the recent love-fest for Roseanne Barr, who, like West, was praised by the president for her allegiance following the ratings success of her rebooted show.

Referring to the lack of meaningful celebrity endorsements for the right before Barr and West, Shapiro added: “If you haven’t had a drink of water for a really, really long time, when you first drink water again it tastes really sweet — even though it’s just water. I think there’s some of that going on right now.”

Still, he said, it was “refreshing” to see West stand up against what Shapiro called “enforced conformity” on the left. “Anybody who fights back against that is being treated as a fellow traveler,” he added.

However, risk in aligning with West, the son of a Black Panther father and a mother who taught at a historically black university, is that his ideological allegiances have typically been mercurial, and even apolitical. When he first declared his interest in Trump, during concerts right after the 2016 election, he praised the president-elect’s communication style and disdain for the mainstream media, but noted that he had not voted.

His most potent political statement before this week, when he unleashed a torrent of posts on Twitter each day and also announced two new albums, was declaring “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” during a telethon for victims of Hurricane Katrina. And even amid praising Trump on Wednesday, he added, “I love Hillary too.” Journalist Alex Wagner, a host of Showtime’s “The Circus” and a former editor-in-chief of the culture magazine The Fader, said that the right latching on to West’s statements was no surprise given the dearth of options. “Do you remember how hard a time Donald Trump had getting celebrities for his inauguration?” she said. “So to have an incredibly powerful and influential musician — and a black musician at that — come out and don a Make America Great Again cap, it’s a gift to Trump.”

“As far as whether it’s grounded in any particular political ideology, I don’t think it is,” she added. “If there’s one thing Kanye West and Donald Trump have in common, it’s unpredictability and a love of the spotlight.”

West, whose representatives declined to comment, began his latest foray into politics last weekend. He praised the thinking of black conservative commentator Candace Owens, who has spoken out against the Black Lives Matter movement. He went on to compliment Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump supporter, as well as “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams, who has rebranded himself as a conservative thinker.

About the president, he wrote admiringly that they both shared “dragon energy” and that “he is my brother.” He also posted a photo of his Trump-autographed “Make America Great Again” cap.

The backlash came quickly as fans on social media and the culture publications that follow West closely made their dismay clear: “Kanye West Doesn’t Care About Black People,” read a headline on The Root, while The Ringer explored “The Kanye West Delusion.”

Singer Janelle Monáe criticized West’s comments in a radio interview Wednesday. “I believe in freethinking,” she said. “But I don’t believe in freethinking if it’s rooted in, or at the expense of the oppressed.” And in text messages posted on Twitter by West, John Legend told the rapper, “So many people who love you feel so betrayed right now because they know the harm that Trump’s policies cause, especially to people of color.”

Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, a conservative student movement that has worked with Owens, was unreserved in calling West’s support “a pretty extraordinary moment.”

“It’s important to recognize that black Americans, and in particular black celebrities, should be allowed to have different opinions without being called mentally unhealthy or crazy,” Kirk said, referring to reports that some in West’s circle were again worried about his mental health following his late 2016 hospitalization, which also coincided with expressing his support for Trump. “I think we should embrace celebrities that challenge groupthink and monolithic perspectives on political issues.” West’s refusal to back down in the face of criticism was markedly different from the reaction of Canadian country singer Shania Twain, who apologized Sunday after she was quoted in an interview saying that she would have voted for Trump if she could. Following a fan backlash online, Twain issued a statement: “As a Canadian, I regret answering this unexpected question without giving my response more context,” she said. “I do not hold any common moral beliefs with the current president.”

West, on the other hand, was defiant. “You don’t have to agree with Trump but the mob can’t make me not love him,” he wrote on Twitter.

Chance the Rapper, a frequent collaborator, backed him up: “Black people don’t have to be Democrats,” he wrote, though he backtracked Friday, after Trump thanked him by name, writing that his initial tweet “was a deflection from the real conversation.” Though Chance said he had hoped to stand by his mentor West, “it’s not my job to defend or protect him,” he wrote, but rather to “pick up the phone and talk to him about it.”

Shapiro warned that this moment could be fleeting. “Is this going to be a serious movement? I highly doubt it,” he said.

Some conservative groups sought to take advantage right away. On Thursday, a text advertisement for one of the president’s campaign fundraising organizations included the message “DON’T BE SILENCED,” adding, “We support Kanye speaking his mind, even if sometimes we do not agree on the issues.” Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist behind Info Wars, has invited the rapper on his broadcast while posting positive messages about him on Twitter more than 30 times since Sunday. (West has not publicly responded to the invitation.)

Ebro Darden, a popular radio personality from the New York rap station Hot 97, said, “They are exploiting Kanye West, and yes, Kanye West is OK with being exploited.”

“He’s down for the shenanigans,” Darden said of the rapper, with whom he spoke by phone about politics multiple times this week. “He’s an opportunist, a provocateur, a troll, a challenger of conventional thought and somebody who wants to be seen at all times, when he’s ready to be seen.”

But Darden cautioned that West’s endgame was likely not Republican politics. “I think he’s trying to take people on a journey,” he said. “What I’ve expressed to him is that he better hurry up and get to his destination.”