The Tragedy of Kanye West

Wait! Wait! Come back! This is about writing, I promise!

We’re going to talk about writing in the context of Kanye West.

Come back! Please!

Okay, joking aside, I do want to talk about writing and it’s going to be that rarest of posts ’round these parts, the topical post. Those who pay some scant attention to politics may be aware that the popular rapper Kanye West has taken to the political arena in the last few months, an interesting and unusual direction for him. My purpose is not to break down the content of his political commentary, which primarily consisted of encouraging free thought and questioning of accepted beliefs (fairly benign messages), but rather the error he made in his approach.

Kanye’s biggest mistake proved to be his failure to analyze his audience. This resulted in his message getting lost in signal noise and ultimately jumbled with the statements of people around him, whether he agreed with them or not.

Mandatory disclaimer time. I don’t know much about Kanye West – not a fan of rap in general, don’t watch reality TV, not really in to celebrities. Before his entry in to the political arena, which does interest me, I only knew that he cut Taylor Swift off at the Grammys that one time. People who have followed West’s career for a while agree that diving head first in to a new realm of discussion with strong opinions already in place is not unusual behavior for the man, so I’m going to assume Kanye approached making commentary on politics the way he’s approached every other piece of commentary he’s made in his life.

Most musicians start building hype through a press release and reaching out to one or two trusted media venues, then follow up any further press interest they get as they continue to try and network to better and better platforms. They rely on the press as their primary audience, building hype and enthusiasm via straight forward discussion of their newest work and the artistic process and their excitement at the outcomes. This is a pattern Kanye lives in quite well, from what I’ve seen he’s a charismatic man and speaks with great force and passion, and he rolls with punches splendidly, even turning hostile questioning to his own advantage.

The problem is that, in the early stages of this process Kanye has probably grown used to working with the music press. Musicians and music press have a mutually beneficial interest in making sure the public at large is enthusiastic about a musician’s upcoming work. This can take many forms but the press is rarely interested in dampening down what the artist is trying to say – the art is at the center of that kind of press after all.

Political press is a much, much different beast. Political press is always spinning, and rarely with any concern for how what was originally said was intended. It’s instructive how much of what President Trump has said to the public has come through venues he has complete control over – Twitter, the Press Secretary, rallies – and how much what he has said in those venues has still been spun all over the place on both sides. Very noncommittal statements on the subject of, say, North Korea have been spun as everything from threats of war to declarations of a new age of peace.

While Donald Trump is not as charismatic as Kanye, he has a station on popular culture that is older and more pervasive and he has shrewdly used that to trumpet his messages directly to the public as often as possible, bypassing the spin machine as much as possible. He knew the media was an audience hostile to him and, while he couldn’t remove their power he could dilute it by asking people who they would rather believe – the press or Trump. That’s not a great strategy for cultural cohesion but it is an excellent strategy for getting your message through clearly.

Kanye was used to being a straight shooter with people who had no need to spin. He didn’t know this new audience as well as Trump and so he thought he could simply get up and talk about how enthused he was to see long time rap icon Donald Trump as president and how proud and excited that made him feel about his country. He made some statements on Twitter, a few public appearances, and finally an interview on TMZ. But by that point the spin was in full effect.

Kanye was a traitor who was becoming a Republican! Kanye was a full MAGA guy and that was great! Kanye wanted all black people to vote Trump! Kanye didn’t know anything about being black! From celebrated writers like Ta Naeisi Coats at the Atlantic to staff contributors at The Gateway Pundit, everyone had a spin and no one really cared what the crafted message of Kanye West was. They just needed his name to boost their own messages.

After months of this it’s not surprising that Kanye doing a personal favor for a friend on the opposite side of the political aisle would be misconstrued as endorsement for a political movement he had no interest in. The “Blexit” movement, about black people stepping away from the Democratic party in favor of the Republicans, is naturally a poor fit for a man who wants to question everything and wants others to do the same. It’s not surprising Kanye would throw up his hands and walk away from politics after being pushed into yet another box by the political press.

But at this point he really should have expected it. The sad fact is, people who will listen to art and get hyped for its message frequently don’t want to listen to political messages or question them to see if they’re really what they claim to be. Most political press outlets have a vested interest in catering to that desire by spinning the news, or at least their opinion pieces on the news. And almost any reporting on someone like Kanye is bound to be 99% opinion. It’s a very different environment from an industry press like Kanye would be used to.

For all his personal charisma, powerful personality and worthwhile message, Kanye approached his foray into politics as a musician with something to say, rather than as a politician with an agenda to push. That mistake in technique, that failure to understand his audience, let him loose control of his messaging and become a political figurehead for anyone who wanted him for a short period of time. Now he’s turned back to creative work, where his skills will doubtless show much more return. And, if he’s shrewd, he can still put his message forward if he wants.

It’s very tempting to think that just because you’ve become good communicating in one medium or to one audience that you can communicate in any medium or to any audience. This is naïve. That audience is not this audience, it’s not yours until you understand it well enough to make it yours. Each medium, each audience, must be carefully examined, all preconceived notions questioned, all trusted approaches doubted, until they are thoroughly understood. Do it and hopefully you won’t come up short in the final reckoning. Take that to heart and maybe a little of Kanye’s message will have gotten through in the end.

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