Almost a decade ago, on the arena tour for YeezusKanye West now known as Ye, donned an MA-1 jacket with a Confederate battle flag sewn prominently on the right sleeve. He also draped a full flag around his shoulders in Lil Jon-esque photos on the Put your hood up album cover, and for good measure, Ye sold a few T-shirt designs incorporating the flag as tour merchandise. It was a fashion statement – and from an artist who entered the fashion industry with a vengeance in the 2010s. Ye wore his bomber jacket in a backlash – a quaint, in retrospect – that sharp to the Confederacy’s pro-slavery mission and common use of its flag in racial intimidation to this day. But Ye dug into his heels, “That’s my flag now,” he Told a news radio station in Los Angeles.
Was this behavior a deliberate provocation, mindless trolling, or something else? Did it really matter? He was a rapper. It was a jacket. It was quite easy to see the thematic alignment of the subverted flag and songs on Yeezus such as “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead”, the former about the artist’s encounters with bigotry in high society, the latter about the artist’s power to incite moral panic among his greatest critics of the time: “If I don’t get by Catholics / Here come conservative Baptists / Claiming I’m overreacting. Yeezus gained much success in its time, but Ye’s bomber jacket set the stage for Ye’s next decade, largely defined by the ideological escalation of its fashion statements.
Earlier this month at Paris Fashion Week, Ye and conservative commentator Candace Owens stepped out together in complementary black and white shirts with large bold text printed on the back: “WHITE LIVES MATTER.” That too was a fashion statement – this one designed to exasperate “Liberal Nazis” and dramatize his belief that Black Lives Matter “was a scam.” Ye’s opposition to Black Lives Matter is new, but consistent with his reactionary turn in recent years, and so despite Adidas’ progressive calls to ending his longtime partnership with Ye on the ‘White Lives Matter’ shirt, it looked like he might endure the backlash of his fashion show appearance as well as he endured his previous waves of post-MAGA backlash nowadays.
But then Ye spent the weeks after his trip to Paris sitting down for lengthy interviews with the likes of Tucker Carlson, Piers Morgan and LeBron James. This latest discussion, which aired on HBO The shopwill not be released because of Ye”[using] The shop to reiterate more extremely dangerous hate speech and stereotypes,” according to James’ co-producer, Maverick Carter. In Carlson’s interview, which aired on Fox News but drastically reduced to retain particularly damaging statements, Ye denounced a variety of messy people and ideas, very often contradicting each other in the process. His main target in recent weeks has been Jews, whom he has also criticized and threatened on Instagram and Twitter, resulting in suspensions from the services for anti-Semitic hate speech. Ye describes a large conspiracy of Jews in music, fashion and finance that is determined to ruin his life.
Ye has honed his rants for years, but his grievances this time around have caused the most jaw-dropping celebrity meltdown since Charlie Sheen exposed Alex Jones and hello america—also in antisemitic terms at some point— against his network sitcom boss Chuck Lorre. The magnitude of the shock in both collapses was complicated by the underlying factors; Sheen struggled with hardcore drug addiction and Ye struggles with bipolar disorder. But in the decade between Sheen and Ye, the association of culture and politics became perpetually anxious and combative, and Ye leaned heavily into this dynamic. It was easier for us to laugh at Sheen and trivialize him as a coked eccentric. It’s much harder for us to trivialize Ye, or better yet recognize his rants as distress signals of psychological crisis, given his persistence and the hyperpartisan, hyperpolarizing nature of his provocations. We are much more inclined to take Ye seriously, for better or for worse.
Last week, Balenciaga, Gap and finally Adidas, under public pressure, cut ties with Ye. His longtime partnership with Def Jam ended with last year donda, so it is now without the support of a major record company. The pivotal interview in Ye’s meltdown didn’t go to Tucker Carlson or LeBron James, but rather rapper NORE and his popular hip-hop podcast, Drink champions. The typical episode of Drink champions places an aging hip-hop figure in the hot seat for a few hours while NORE force-feeds the guest cognac and peppers him with open-ended questions about his life story and professional misadventures. You haven’t had much to drink in his sit with NORE He sounded sober, if not sick, in his three-hour tirade. “I want Jewish children to watch [their] dad and say, ‘Why is Ye mad at us?’ “Ye told NORE. This was the moment every squeaky anti-revival rationalization of Ye’s heterodoxy in recent years snapped and crashed. We couldn’t go much lower.
The Drink champions The interview was a continuation of bizarre and outlandish claims Ye made in recent weeks. In Carlson’s deleted footage, Ye said someone had planted “fake children” in his house to manipulate his children. On Instagram, he said that Bernard Arnault, Chairman of LVMH “killed my best friend”, alluding to late fashion designer Virgil Abloh, who died of cancer. In the company of NORE, Ye again showed little restraint. He said “[Derek Chauvin]the knee wasn’t really on [George Floyd]the neck like that. Throughout the interview, Ye wondered if his press tour could end in his assassination, prompting anguished groans from NORE Two days after posting the interview on his streams, NORE unpublished the episode and apologized for Ye’s brief comments about Floyd, in particular, in an interview with The breakfast club.
You were never a sweet guy – I’ll refer you to the documentary footage of him harassing Def Jam employees at their desks with “All Falls Down” – but his early albums were a crowd pleaser. My beautiful dark twisted fantasy marked his shift from charming irreverence to vindictive songwriting, and ever since, save for the spiritual relief of his gospel compositions, he’s been stuck in a self-obsessed rage.
Ye’s enduring appeal is now harder than ever to reckon with. His music seems so pathetically secondary to his provocations in any other form; his interview with NORE, for all its hateful nonsense, is a thousand times more memorable than Children see ghosts. Ye collapses into elaborate anti-Semitism is really his idea of entertainment. At some point in the Drink champions interview, Ye describes the supposed globalist plot to keep black voters politically in sync with “the left, the Jews and the Chinese,” and a shocked NORE interrupts to ask, “Chinese niggas have something to do with this?! I Can’t Lie I Laughed Out Loud At This Misguided Race Comedy, Straight Out Of Peak hour, weaving his way into an otherwise insufferable lecture about black people and Jews. This is the problem. Ye is still one of the greatest artists of his generation, and Ye the Artist supports Ye the Hateful Polemicist despite the common insistence on separating the art from the artist. I was blog about this jacket nine years ago. I listened to these interviews last week, and I tell you: it’s his art. So what do we do with her fashion statements now?
Ye is a wonderful musician. I love his albums, for the most part, for a long time. His misadventures in other areas – fashion, politics and now apparently technology – tend to embarrass and irritate me. Her “fashion statements” have always been so choppy, ugly and silly. So it’s starting to feel a bit silly to respond to his promptings with sincerity. We all know how it goes: Either you’re a skittish progressive or a reactionary poisoned with irony, a breathless critic or a brain-dead stan. There are no winners in this discourse, only proof of the ideological perils that are ruining it and ruining us. It’s so strange to see him pleading for enlightenment, empowerment and liberation when he really allows himself to be reduced to a mere pawn in the culture war. He’s been turned into a mouthpiece for conspiracy theories he can’t even follow. Apparently, Candace Owens convinced him to buy Parler, the conservative social media “free speech” platform he hadn’t even joined before I started writing this article. Does it seem free to you?