Approximately one year ago this week, I was listening to a lot of Kanye West. Listening to his music made me feel good, confident, upbeat. Now I only feel sad.
Right around a year ago, I was getting into listening to Kayne’s classic album Graduation, which was released in 2007, which nowadays feels like a century ago. I mostly found myself getting into it since I was trying to listen to more hip-hop, but it was really songs that kept me listening to the album over and over. “Champion” samples Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne”, a wonderful 70s pop song while West bragging correctly about his greatness, an interesting black/white American culture contrast. “Good Life” floats shout-outs to great American cities like Houston, Atlanta and Miami in such a celebratory manner it’s hard not to get excited. And when West raps about seeing his name in lights in Chicago, I see an artist at the top of his game, at the top of his skill, finding a deep groove of prowess. Graduation is a classic modern hip-hop album.
Listening to it while rolling down the highway in California during a sunset on a work trip last year was quietly a moment in my year. I felt good, and my life was good.
Of course, that was a year ago. One year. Since then, practically all of this lovely memory has been smashed to bits, smashed by the rise of American fascism, smashed by grave mismanagement of wealthy western countries in a public health crisis, and smashed by the hubris and tragic delusions of an artist consumed by his personal demons.
The Rise of Trumpist Facism
West is an artist but also an aficionado of taste. He likes nice things, he loves fashion, he’s always had high aspirations for himself both as an individual and a rapper. Not just did he have aspirations, but West capitalized on them, and became the star he always wanted to be. These are the main themes of Graduation, as West sings “I’m a star/how could I not shine?”. West seemed to not just be massively talented, but also someone who enjoyed and appreciated the element of fame, someone would take being a celebrity seriously in some sense.
This was around 2007. Let’s move to 2016.
In December 2016, West meets with Donald Trump at the White House. This was a seemingly strange meeting, since Trump was openly hostile and racist towards Black people. However, West not just met and discussed issues with Trump, but he mentioned previously that he would vote for Trump for president in the 2016 — if he voted at all. Again, while this meeting seemed a bit off and bizarre, it was still a massive publicity stunt for West and Trump was president at the time. Might as well strike when the fire is hot, despite any weird political optics. Note as well West suggested in 2015 he would run for president in 2016, which falls in line with the publicity stunt line of reasoning for why this fashionable hip-hop artist would suddenly be interested in the Executive Branch of the American government.
As time pressed on, it turned out that Trump was in fact racist, and also had authoritarian goals as president. In retrospect, from 2016 to the bitter end of losing the 2020 election to Joe Biden, all of Trump’s political moves suggested he didn’t really want to stop being president, and fascist tendencies were just fine by him.
Even during this progression from Trump being a generally bad hombre to full-blown authoritarian, West eventually followed through on his promise to run for president. However, he got some help from Trump and the Republican party. Now I’m not one to speculate, but the nature, timing and scale of West’s presidential bid sure seems to suggest some conservative folks wanted West to run in particular jurisdictions to capture some of the Black vote away from Biden. Combined with the fact West had shown support for Trump previously, and West’s gross overconfidence in himself, this theory makes some sense. Still it shows West’s poor judgement in his ambitions and that West may have some trouble understanding the political implications of his decisions. It also shows the shamelessness of Trump and his camp to block political power from Black Americans, using West’s celebrity to draw voters into a non-candidate nearing the last minute.
These events moved listening to Graduation from a feel-good classic to a problematic fave for me. But it didn’t get better; it got worse.
Avoiding Things Like The Plague
On December 1, 2019, the index case for the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China appeared. Since that time, there have been tens of millions of cases (likely into the hundreds of millions of cases soon) and almost 2 million deaths. A visit to a fish market is now related to a global upheaval in the daily life of almost every human being in the world.
In North America, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit Canada hard, and the USA even harder. Despite Canada being a key country in the 2002 SARS pandemic, and despite the United States having both the World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control in its administrative tool belt, and despite literal centuries of known effective practices for controlling the spread of infectious disease, COVID-19 came to both countries, fast and furious.
While arguably authoritarian regimes are good at some things, preventing a global health crisis is not one of them, and COVID-19 took root in the USA. Travel bans were introduced by employers and by the Canadian government to prevent infection rates. Mask wearing mandates flopped out across communities like wet mops being pushed over by a drunk barback, unevenly and without intention. Most prominent (white, male) political leaders in both countries struggled to find their footing on how to manage the pandemic, until they finally figured out how to shift blame away from bumbling political offices and to communities and folks who were now trying to figure out whether to wash their groceries or not. These politicians were about as effective as the drunk barback from my previous analogy, but without the ability to make a good cocktail.
My travels to California — a few times a year, and usually in January at least — disappeared, almost evaporated. This was along with most other travel plans I and many, many others had over these past 12 months. Suddenly listening to Graduation looking over green hills of Southern California seemed almost dreamlike, like some fantasy conjured out of a Hollywood movie scene. I have difficulty even imagining doing that again. Listening to West rap and boast seems too close to the fantasy here, and the nostalgia pains me more than comforts me.
Love Doesn’t Conquer All
Meanwhile, through all this, Kanye West has hit a ceiling in his fame. After his questionable political shenanigans, his loving wife Kim Kardashian West has separated from him, sparking rumours of divorce. While Kardashian West is a polarizing figure in popular culture — to say the least — the pair of “Kimye” was at least something of stable fixture in the celebrity world. They seemed like two peas in a proverbial pod, both wildly married to their fame and to each other. Filthy rich and loving it. News that somehow there was a breaking point for Kim and Kanye, some impasse that even a fame-loving joie de vivre couple seems genuinely surprising, almost shocking. Whatever has come up between them, and the decisions that Kanye has made over the past few years now seems insurmountable even for their somewhat modern, somewhat fairy-tale relationship.
Kanye West has reached a complicated part of this life, and his fame. I can’t listen to Graduation the same way I have in the past.