How Did Kanye Get Here? A Short History of Provocation and Extreme Rhetoric

how-did-kanye-get-here - Credit: Oliver Contreras/Pool/Getty Images
how-did-kanye-get-here - Credit: Oliver Contreras/Pool/Getty Images

For Kanye West, the past month might as well have been a decade. Even before his dangerous and roundly condemned “death con 3 ON JEWISH PEOPLE” tweet got him suspended from Twitter, he debuted a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt alongside conservative pundit Candace Owens during his Paris Fashion Week presentation, instantly tarnishing his reputation within the industry. This week, after a noxious cycle of public appearances where Ye doubled down on his comments, repeating antisemitic talking points as well as the debunked claim that George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police was actually a result of a lethal dose of fentanyl, he apparently “agreed” to purchase the far-right social media platform Parler (which is run by Owens’ husband). Meanwhile, lawyers representing George Floyd’s family are considering a defamation suit against West, all as the list of people distancing themselves from him grows.

While Ye’s recent remarks appear to be his most brazen and disturbing, they follow a familiar pattern of escalation. Throughout his career, he’s been known to give explosive, long-winded interviews in which he’d mostly proclaim his unrivaled genius, but just as often veer into conspiratorial or conservative rhetoric. It’s not even his first time making antisemitic remarks. In 2013, he came under fire after an appearance on New York radio show the Breakfast Club where, in discussing his grand vision for the world, West remarked that “Black people don’t have the same level of connections as Jewish people. Black people don’t have the same connections as oil people. You know we don’t know nobody that got a nice house. You know we don’t know nobody with paper like that, that we can go to when we’re down.” He later retracted the statement, calling it an “ignorant compliment.” That wasn’t the first time, either. In 2011, Ye came under fire for comparing himself to Hitler during a concert, as part of an ill-advised analogy about how much people hated him.

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Even in his most commercially vibrant period during the 2000s and 2010s, his on-stage diatribes were effectively part of the show. “I’m not a celebrity, I’m an activist,” Kanye told the New York Times in 2015. “The fact that when I see truth it’s really hard for me to sit back and just allow it to happen in front of me on my clock makes me, a lot of times, a bad celebrity.” Earlier, there was his 2005 proclamation on live TV, during a telethon in support of Hurricane Katrina victims, that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” and of course his infamous VMA confrontation with Taylor Swift in 2009. In those moments, many argued convincingly that Ye was sticking up for groups marginalized by the mainstream. But as time went on, it became clearer that Kanye’s driving concern is seldom anything other than power and attention. By 2015, the artist who had once successfully sent the Bush administration a much-needed message on race was declaring that “racism is a dated concept.”

Despite the fact that West has at least some history of bipolar disorder, and despite the outrageous nature of his comments, he’s been able to put his rhetoric in front of a wide audience with the collaboration of podcasts and news programs that want a front-row seat to the Kanye West show.  Not unlike the sample from Blades of Glory that Ye flipped for the Watch the Throne hit “N****s in Paris” a decade ago, his comments seem to come largely from a place of arrogance and shock value. It might be hate speech, but “it gets the people going.” Ye himself recently professed his own aversion to reading, and the right-wing sycophants eager to capitalize off of his remarks wouldn’t have it any other way.

In looking at Kanye’s behavior since 2016, a call-and-response-style pattern comes into view. We see how one of the most gifted artists in hip-hop fell into the kind of red-pilled logic you see from people who believe everything they see on the internet. Except unlike a random kid, when Kanye sets out to change the world, he potentially can. In his recent appearances, Ye has worn a black baseball cap with the numbers 2024. He’s already run for president once.

2016: The Red Hat

Singer Kanye West and President-elect Donald Trump speak with the press after their meetings at Trump Tower December 13, 2016 in New York. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP)        (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
Kanye West and President-elect Donald Trump speak with the press after their meetings at Trump Tower, Dec. 13, 2016.

Shortly after the 2016 election, Kanye ended a show in Sacramento after an extended rant in which he criticized Hillary Clinton and praised Donald Trump. Audible jeers could be heard from the disappointed audience.

The ordeal marked the beginning of Ye’s public turn towards devout Christianity and right-wing rhetoric. He would go on to cancel the remaining dates on his Saint Pablo tour, and shortly after he was reportedly hospitalized for a “psychiatric emergency.”

In December of 2016, following his hospitalization, Kanye would visit President-elect Trump at Trump Tower. Trump went on to tell reporters in the building’s lobby that he and Kanye had “been friends for a long time.”

2018: Candace Owens and the “Choice” of Slavery

“I actually think that the rants came from the place of a bravery,” Ye said after drawing headlines with another round of provocative statements. “I had enough of the politics…. Bravery is more important than perfection. Feeling is more important than thought.”

It makes sense that the self-styled “free-thinking” artist would find himself compelled by conservative commentator Candace Owens. Her work with the group Turning Point USA focused on the culture wars purportedly bubbling up on college campuses, and as one of a small number of Black conservative voices, it’s not hard to guess what search terms might have landed her videos on Kanye’s feed. In April of 2018, Ye tweeted that he loved “the way Candace Owens thinks” and shortly after, during a visit to the TMZ offices with Owens, Kanye made the nonsensical claim that American chattel slavery was a choice for the people it harmed. “We’ve been hearing about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.”

Owens would become a regular figure in Kanye’s orbit, reportedly enlisting Ye to design merchandise for her “Blexit” campaign, which encouraged Black voters to leave the Democratic Party.  Owens was quoted as confirming this to Page Six: “I am blessed to say that this logo, these colors, were created by my dear friend and fellow superhero Kanye West.” She would later backtrack, writing in a statement that “I never once said that Kanye designed the T-shirts for BLEXIT, I would like to publicly apologize to him for any undue stress or pain the effort to correct that rumor has caused him, his business relationships, or his family.”

(Years later, in 2022, Owens’ influence remained: The idea that George Floyd’s death was the result of drugs and not police misconduct is a piece of misinformation plucked directly from her recent documentary The Greatest Lie Ever Sold: George Floyd and the Rise of BLM.)

Meanwhile, reports about Ye’s mental health circulated in the press, and Kanye told TMZ about his unhappiness with medication. “These pills that they want me to take three of a day, I take one a week maybe, two a week,” he said. “Y’all had me scared of myself, of my vision. So I took some pills so I wouldn’t go to the hospital and prove everyone right. We are drugged out! We are following other people’s opinions. We are controlled by the media. And today it all changes.”

2019: King Nebuchadnezzar

Kanye West presents "Nebuchadnezzar," which he billed as an opera, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on Nov. 24, 2019. "Nebuchadnezzar" is a passionate but puzzling work employing the West's latest provocation: his salvation. (The New York Times)
Kanye West presents ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ at the Hollywood Bowl, Nov. 24, 2019.

By 2019, it seemed that Kanye’s antics might be somewhat explained away by his newly devout faith. He launched his Sunday Service Choir and put together an opera called Nebuchadnezzar at the Hollywood Bowl; in the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar is a Babylonian king who conquered the Jews, beginning a long period of captivity. “Jesus has won the victory because now the greatest artist that God has ever created is now working for him,” West reportedly said at the Houston megachurch run by Joel Osteen around this time.

2020-2022: Kim, Instagram, and Pete

Late into 2020 and into the beginning of last year, rumors began circulating about the impending end of Kanye’s marriage to Kim Kardashian, with whom he has four children. The fallout from the couple’s separation spread across social media as Kanye’s posts about her became more obsessive and specific. Ye would go on to release two albums featuring lyrics explicitly referencing the separation, and this year he shared a music video for the single “Eazy” in which he is shown murdering an animated rendition of Kim’s then-boyfriend Pete Davidson.

In a string of posts from this February, Kanye began publicly criticizing Kim for allowing their daughter to be featured in videos on her TikTok. For several weeks, Kanye ratcheted up the controversy, posting screenshots and insults that many commenters deemed reminiscent of an abusive partner. Ye would use the same tactics in his feuds with corporate behemoths Adidas, Gap, and JP Morgan.

Among the few voices in Kanye’s corner during his campaign against the mother of his children was his old pal Candace Owens, who came to his defense on Twitter, writing that “Kim is wrong on this one. … It’s actually Kanye that is trying to protect his daughter in this regard and Kim is spinning this as ‘obsession’ and ‘control.’”

2022: “White Lives Matter”

During the Yeezy Season 9 presentation in Paris, Ye unveiled a t-shirt with a photo of Pope John Paul II on the front and the phrase “White Lives Matter” on the back. “We changed the look of fashion over the last 10 years. We are the streets. We are the culture,” Ye said. “And when it comes to the culture, I am Ye, and everyone knows I am the leader.”

The fashion world was quick to condemn Kanye, and many commenters took issue with the sloppy co-opting of a well-known phrase used in white supremacist circles. Ye went on to post harsh critiques of veteran fashion editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, who described the shirt as an “incredibly irresponsible and dangerous act”; he also claimed without any evidence that LVMH was somehow connected to the passing of Virgil Abloh. “I gotta draw the line at you using Virgil’s death in your ‘ye’ is the victim campaign in front your sycophant peanut algorithm gallery,” Tremaine Emory, the creative director at Supreme, wrote on Instagram.

Kanye next doubled down on the T-shirt concept, announcing plans to distribute them for free on Skid Row, and going on what essentially amounts to a press run where he has aired hateful conspiracy theories about everything from supposed Jewish control of the entertainment and sports industries to Pete Davidson and his ex-wife. (“I just saw on TMZ yesterday they said that Pete Davidson and Kim have sex by the fireplace to honor they grandmother,” he complained. “It’s Jewish Zionists that’s about that life.”) During an interview with news anchor Chris Cuomo, he drowned out the sound of Cuomo calmly explaining the definition of antisemitism by shouting “la la la” over him like a child.

It’s a good summation of Kanye’s biggest problem for the past decade of his career. He loves the sound of his own voice more than anything, no matter who it hurts.

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