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Ta-Nehisi Coates: Kanye West wants the “freedom to be proud and ignorant”

The Atlantic writer says West is distancing himself from blackness — and the community that fueled his rise.

In a new essay, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates criticizes Kanye West’s recent comments about Trump and slavery.
In a new essay, the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates criticizes Kanye West’s recent comments about Trump and slavery.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Kanye West has been on a roll for the past few weeks, tweeting about his support of right-wing figures, declaring his love for President Donald Trump, and arguing that slavery was a “choice.”

When criticized for these statements, West has claimed that he’s a “free thinker” and that he’s being unfairly judged for not conforming to traditional views held by black voters.

Now, Atlantic writer and cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates has weighed in on the Kanye West saga, arguing that the rapper is seeking “a white freedom” in the age of Trump.

In his new essay, Coates seems to feel a profound sense of loss, not only over West’s comments themselves but also how they reflect his growing distance from black America and the very communities that enabled his rise.

Coates notes that West is not alone in this shift. It’s a pattern, he says, that has long existed among some black celebrities, who gain fame only to later try to distance themselves from blackness. Coates focuses on two examples in his essay, West and Michael Jackson, who radically altered his appearance, “erasing himself, so that we would forget that he had once been Africa beautiful and Africa brown,” as Coates puts it.

But West’s arguments are particularly difficult to witness at this moment in time, during Trump’s presidency. “These are not stray thoughts,” Coates writes. “They are the propaganda that justifies voter suppression, and feeds police brutality, and minimizes the murder of Heather Heyer. And Kanye West is now a mouthpiece for it.”

According to Coates, Kanye West has lost touch with his roots

In one paragraph, Coates points out that a black artist’s ties to the black community are not easily severed:

There’s nothing original in this tale and there’s ample evidence, beyond West, that humans were not built to withstand the weight of celebrity. But for black artists who rise to the heights of Jackson and West, the weight is more, because they come from communities in desperate need of champions. Kurt Cobain’s death was a great tragedy for his legions of fans. Tupac’s was a tragedy for an entire people. When brilliant black artists fall down on the stage, they don’t fall down alone.

His point here is not completely new — it’s been made in some form or another in recent weeks. But it’s worth unpacking.

The idea is that by espousing false concepts about black voters, distorting the reality of slavery, and saying that any backlash to these comments is an effort to force him to conform, West is distancing himself from his core audience, an audience that was drawn to the pro-black messages of his early music. And that distancing will have effects that go much further than West himself.

West’s fans have spent a lot of time mulling over what is behind this shift. But for the conservatives who’ve recently found an unlikely ally, the moment hardly requires such analysis. All that matters is that West, a high-profile black figure, is saying the same things that they say. And if someone like West says it, is it really fair to call these arguments racist?

As NPR’s Gene Demby notes, “the very things that endear figures like Kanye to Republicans — his willingness to troll black people, to proclaim concerns about race obsolete, to embrace white conservatives — are the very same things that ignite black people’s distrust of figures like Kanye.”

And in his recent essay, Coates is saying, in short, that West’s “free thinking” requires a disavowal of the communities that helped build his platform in the first place.

It’s an argument that centers the black people West came from and the traditions his work builds on — the very things that West is seeking to distance himself from with his comments. It’s a criticism that West made possible because of his longstanding efforts to speak to black struggle and life, a struggle that, if his pro-Trump comments are to be believed, he now perceives very differently.

And it suggests that West’s views will actually have a far larger impact.

“If his upcoming album is great, the dalliance with Trump will be prologue. If it’s bad, then it will be foreshadowing,” Coates writes. “In any case what will remain is this — West lending his imprimatur, as well as his Twitter platform of some 28 million people, to the racist rhetoric of the conservative movement.”