In June I attended the inaugural International Persona Studies conference hosted by Newcastle University. Below is a slightly longer version of the paper I presented. It points to the increasing tendency towards the weaponisation of celebrity culture, and in particular the largely liberal, woke demonisation of American rapper Kanye West that followed his appearance on Saturday Night Live in September 2018.
This paper is concerned with what might be termed a post-racial weaponization of celebrity and focuses upon the condemnation of American rapper Kanye West’s highly publicised support for American President Donald Trump. Particular attention is given to a selection of comment pieces that appeared in the British liberal newspaper, The Guardian, in the days immediately following West’s pro-Trump ‘rant’ on the American satirical sketch show, Saturday Night Live (SNL), broadcast on 29th September 2018, the paper proposes that the liberal othering of West’s political persona is consistent with rather than contests the post-racial color blind narratives associated with the emergence of a neoliberal racialized subject. Following Paul Gilroy’s (Belcher and Gilroy 2016; Gilroy 2013) critique of the neo-liberal turn in black radicalism this paper suggests that The Guardian’s reportage privileges a form of identity politics that reaffirm neoliberal constructions of racial difference.
The contemporary weaponization of celebrity disempowers and delegitimates expressions of popular/populist dissent, and serves to highlight the ascendency of a new (post) liberal Woke orthodoxy predicated less upon ‘…a command of an intellectual and political tradition, but on its imagined superiority to the average unenlightened American bigot’ (Lash, 1983) (‘Liberalism in retreat, in Liberalism Reconsidered, ed Douglas Maclean and Claudia mills (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Allanheld).
The apparent demonization of Kanye West’s support for Donald Trump, by sections of a Woke celebrity ‘community’ and liberal press are largely cast through the language of therapy – as personal failings on West’s part and evidence of his emotional pathology. The ironic but profoundly worrying dynamic here is that this form of critique both appropriates and circulates in a more socially palatable form, the very same neoliberal tendencies it claims to call out as at ‘post-racial’ mode of representation is adopted to delegitimise West.
Although not a part of the original broadcast West’s speech received fairly universal condemnation, particularly from fellow members of the celebrity community. Chris Rock, filmed West’s impromptu political protest, on his phone and then posted it to You Tube was said to have sniggered throughout and raised an eyebrow to the content (find quotes and find other examples). Much of the media reporting of the incident referred to West’s speech as a ‘rant’.
West, who also announced on the same show that he wished to be known as Ye (the title of his 8th album released in June 2018)), wore a Make America Great cap throughout his performance. A couple of days after the show was broadcast West tweeted that the 13th Amendment 13 of US Constitution– that outlawed slavery – should be repealed. Predictably the tweet received similar celebrity ire.
The singer Lana Del Rey, who had performed at West’s marriage to Kim Kardashian in 2014, tweeted that whilst Trumps election was a ‘… loss for the country’ Wests endorsement of Trump was ‘a loss for the culture’.
West is no stranger to controversy. His pro-Trump speech on SNL one of many ‘off script’ politicised performances. In 2005 whilst taking part in the NBC fundraising telethon in aid of victims of Hurricane Katrina, West proclaimed ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ (cited in Jackson 2014, p142); in 2009 he crashed Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video at the MTV Video Music Awards, claiming he was highlighting the racial politics that informed the ways in which the music industry recognised talent (Cullen, 2016).
Swift too found herself subjected to similar disapproval when in November 2017 she was ‘outed’ by The Guardian (Friday 24 November 2017 Editorial: ‘The Guardian view on Taylor Swift: an envoy for Trump’s values?’) as a ‘…musical envoy for Trump values’, and a recruiter for the alt-right.
But The one thing that condemns Swift, above all others, was not her actual support for Trump – there is no evidence or utterance of Swift ever having any opinion on Donald Trump as President or not. Indeed, Swift had, until then, taken great care to cultivate a deliberately a-political public persona. Publicly supporting ‘liberal’ positions on ‘women’, ‘gay marriage’ and picking up the odd award for her philanthropic work, Swift has kept her voting allegiances very private – it was not her support for Donald Trump that so irked The Guardian editorial. Rather it was that, unlike the majority of her celebrity peers, she has not followed the required cultural script of publicly condemning him.
Writing for the American website Political, Genevieve Glatsky (‘The weird campaign to get Taylor Swift to denounce Donald Trump’) placed The Guardian’s editorial within the context of an American entertainment industry increasingly homogenized in its public views and seemingly compelled to visibly distance itself from anything and any one vaguely Trumpian. Every now and gain a member of the celebrity tribe will wittingly or unwittingly transgress this cultural script, only to be shamed into submission or shot down in flames.
According to Glatsky Swifts non-condemnation of Trump marked her out as a very visible anomaly amongst her celebrity peers. Saying nothing, not performing to script was interpreted as tacit approval. In such a rarefied culture, Kanye West is not only an anomaly he is a veritable anti-Christ. Yeezus indeed!
Unconscionable otherness: Trump and the civility conundrum
It is clear that the election of Donald Trump to US Presidency in 2016 has problematised the orthodoxies of race, gender and class within increasingly neo-liberalised frames of reference. One particularly pronounced aspect in this being the emergence within public life of a ‘new civility conundrum’ (Negra 2016) – a rupture in the performance of a politics of respectability. Trump constructed as ‘…grotesque, unnatural and unruly’ without the ‘..staid, controlled and civil behaviour’ required for Presidential Office (Dubrofsky, 2016) – highlighting the often problematic and uncomfortable intersection of race, class (and gender):
The reality TV genre is seen as trashy, featuring people without class in behaviour and often in social and financial status. The presidency, however, is for the elite white upper-middle or upper class (usually male) – Barack Obama negotiates the politics of respectability to fit the ideal. Popular press articulations of Trump belie the uneasy alliance between elite whiteness and white behaviour marked as working class or poor (Dubrofsky, 2016).
The narratives that surround both Swift and West are underpinned by the conundrum of Trump (as other), and those who associate with or are associated with him – the deplorables – a form of otherness that is unconscionably (and literally) ‘beyond the pale’.
West’s otherness was thrown into sharp relief, when Taylor Swift finally broke her political silence and announced via Instagram at the beginning of October 2018 that she would be voting Democrat in the forthcoming midterm elections. The Guardian were ecstatic. Casting the forthcoming midterms as some sort of Celebrity Death match – (The Guardian Kanye West V Taylor Swift: From the VMAs to the White House, who is winning now? – 9 October 2018).
So as West was meeting with Donald Trump to talk prison reform Swift was being reintegrated into the celebrity fold.
In an article (The Guardian, From Joan Baez to Taylor Swift: How musicians found a political voice – October 13 2018) that placed Swifts name alongside that of Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez, amongst others- Ed Vulliamy breathless extoled the pop singer’s democratic conversion as ‘Strong, brave – and true’. Furthermore, Vulliamy suggests Swifts intervention in the US midterms is evidence of of a ‘moral left’ renewal (). A conversion of Damascene proportions – on both counts given that the same paper had readily condemned Swift as a front for the American alt-right only 11 months earlier.
What distinguishes the SNL performance from these others is that where previously West had largely been perceived as ‘calling out’ racial injustice, the pro-Trump stance according to some, sees West put ‘the slave-master’s interests above his own people’ (Nadifa Mohamed , Does Kanye West deserve to be called an Uncle Tom? The Guardian Monday 15 October). As noted by Paul Gilroy (2013 We got to get over before we go under. Fragments for a history of black vernacular neoliberalism. New formations) and Lester K. Spence (2015 Knocking the Hustle) black radicalism has recently taken a particularly neoliberal, conservative turn – similarly so hip-hop and rap activism. This turn is often contradictory, however. Perhaps more so than other artists in the genre, West has constantly problematised the attempt to fix his construction of black spectacle within authorised knowledges and discursive frameworks (Curry 2014, Jackson 2014).
Julies Bailey e(d. 2014 The Cultural impact of Kanye west)has suggested that West ‘…is of interest to cultural theorist for his challenges to racial stereotypes, and social structures… (2014, p xix); his ‘…human elasticity allows for non-racial positioning of virtues and values often associated with the quest for success…’ that other black artists [such as Michael Jackson failed to master’ (2014, p xix).
Moreover, this ‘elasticity’ may be in part due to an apparent failure or struggle to develop a ’…consistent and concrete persona or branding image in the American public sphere’ (2014 p xviii). Bailey suggests West’s ‘…public and professional image ‘ ( clean cut soft middle class – is often at war with his own highly publicized personal demons of self-perceived defects’ (veered wildly between clean cut good guy/angry militant activist/fashionable ladies’ man/eccentric ego-driven artist/ bad boy wannabee thug’
Significantly Bailey draws attention to West’s voicing of a explicit rejection/ rejoinder, in his work, to the ‘… tacit and blatant attacks upon black maleness that seek to render an essentialised ontology of it as pathological…’ (2014 p xx). West in part formulates a ‘…revolt against the blackman’s acceptance of an identity that is a menace to society (2014, p xx) and a society that constructs it as a menace.
Whilst West’s political machinations and unsettled public persona might appear erratic, they are both broadly consistent with the unorthodox position West has assumed within American popular culture. Within rap, West cuts a particularly non-conventional figure – his clean cut, self-consciously suburban ‘middle classness’ contrasts sharply with the hardcore street hustler image that dominates the genre (Bailey, 2014, Jackson, 2014). Jackson (2014) suggests West’s ‘off-script’ suburban aesthetic is integral to the space he occupies as ‘hip hop activist’. The son of a former Black Panther and English professor and ‘educated in and around historically black colleges and universities’ (Jackson 2014, p 145-146), West has developed a particular critical reading of black history that underpins the unique narrative that inform his art (Jackson 2014, p145-46). Not the orthodox black male rapper, West similarly problematizes idealised notions of enlightened ‘Blackness’ (Curry 2014).
Paul Gilroy argues (Interview ‘in search of a not necessarily safe starting point’. Open Democracy) ‘Blackness’, has become an essentialised and orthodox position within black radicalism, which robs black experience of its socio-political specificity, has come to dominate contemporary black radicalism (Belcher and Gilroy 2016). Gilroy argues that expressions of black liberation now take their cue from the identarian shift in American politics, and bear little relation to the forms of anti-racism that informed historically informed articulations of black struggle. Moreover, the emphasis upon ‘Blackness’ accentuates a tendency towards seeing difference as generic experience – often predicated upon the ‘moral authority’ of the victim – and ‘a way of thinking about racial identity which makes African Americans in this sort of instance absolutely interchangeable with one another’ (Belcher and Gilroy 2016). ‘Blackness’ provides a cultural script that in effect actually negates the material structures that differentiate African American experience rather than exposes them.
The Guardian’s post-racial liberal narrative replay these themes, codifying West’s otherness as personal trauma and emotional pathology. Ripped from its socio-political context, The Guardian’s negation of West’s political subjectivity reaffirms the processes of racialized subjectification that underpin the contemporary neo-liberal moment.
The Guardian columnist Barbara Ellen (2018. Kanye west needs care, not being put in front of the cameras. The Guardian Sunday 14 October) went so far as to describe West’s views on welfare, prison reform, and the thirteenth amendment as a form of mental illness. His ‘confused diatribe’ – a result of his struggle, Ellen claims with being ‘misdiagnosed bipolar’ – were ‘more of a symptom than an opinion’. Without any pretence to irony Ellen asks, ‘So why is it acceptable to treat West as rent-a-ramble dancing bear, someone it’s OK for liberals to laugh at?’. Her concern hardly a cover for her contempt, and what better way to dispense with any attempt to engage with a political opinion than to patronize it as something that requires pity? The irony of a white middle class journalist lecturing a black American rap artist that his pronouncements on race are those of a (literal) madman exposes the (de)racialization that characterize the neo-liberal narrative. Less a concern for exposing inequality and ‘calling-out’ privilege, Ellen’s critique, underpinned by essentialised notions of black behaviour, functions as a form of colour blind censure, turning Kanye the protagonist into Kanye the victim.
However, it would be wrong to dismiss this as simple ‘white privilege’. Indeed, the Somali-British writer, Nadifa Mohamed (2018, Does Kanye West deserve to be called an Uncle Tom? The Guardian Monday 15 October), in a piece which appeared in The Guardian a day after Ellen’s article, continues the pathological arc. Mohamed argues that West, ‘desperate for love and care’, appears more like an ‘orphaned child’ (a reference to the death of West’s mother, Donda, in 2007) ‘lost in the fantasy land that his Kardashian in-laws live within in Los Angeles’. Although Mohamed cannot help but conclude that the rapper’s ‘manic episodes’ may be a ‘carefully contrived strategy to stay in the headlines, his flirtations with Trump possibly as manipulated as his wife Kim’s nude photos’.
The Guardian’s construction of West’s off-script blackness – proper black people don’t support Donald Trump – serves to negate the rapper as both political subject and black spectacle. Dissent has been a central theme in West’s construction of his blackness. However, the Trump moment sees the rapper not only speaking off script, but off cultural script too. In this sense West’s dissenting blackness conforms with but also problematizes the logics of post-race society. As a performance of black spectacle Kanye West confounds the idea of ‘Blackness’ (Belcher and Gilroy 2016). He is black, but not ‘Blackness’.
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Spence, L.K., 2015. Knocking the hustle. Against the neoliberal turn in black politics. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books.