KANYE WEST IS BLACK DONALD TRUMP: Visual Cultures & Performance Art
By Maya Kotomori
One Mr. Kanye Omari West has recently been called before the metaphorical court of Blackness. He’s spent the majority of the past two years pleading his case before a steadfast jury ready to condemn him at any presentation of new evidence. This is not to say that Mr. West is to be considered holistically innocent by any means; however, the evidence is much more nuanced than what is presented - Ye’s looks and even his lyrics prove it. In the case of Kanye’s so-called buffoonery, I would like the chance to represent Mr. West under the pretense of a researched conspiracy theory supported by French philosophers and critical postmodern theorists. The question I beg –– with proper credence to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle –– is why are we taking Kanye West’s pro-Trump rhetoric literally, knowing what we know about the subjectivity of art, the elusiveness of the artist in their process, and the prominence of shock value-based entertainment in contemporary society? How does Kanye turn his celebrity persona into an absurdist symbol of himself, and what does this say about consumers?
Trump in Hip-Hop – Access
Looking back at hip-hop history, there are many notable references to Donald Trump as an iconographic figure representing money, power, and autonomy. As early as 1989, Trump appeared as a character for comparison in rap –– Donald-D rapped, “Yo Ice, I did a concert in the White House / And after that, me and Donald Trump hung out” in a feature on Ice-T’s song “My Word Is Bond.” There are multiple flows containing Trump comparisons as a way to boast: “beeper’s goin’ off like Don Trump gets cash,”(1) “Given the power punch, soon to be paid like Donald Trump,”(2) “Poisonous sting which thumps up and act chumps / Raise a heavy generator / But yo, guess who’s the Black Trump?”(3) and even, “The new Don Trump is Bill Gates / Not because his occupation, it’s cause we respect his cake.”(4) Not only was Trump a reference point in 90’s hip-hop, he was even the subject for songs, like Rappin’ 4-Tay’s “New Trump” (1996) and E-40’s “Trump Change” (1998), a play on the idiom “chump change.” From Cypress Hill in 2001 rapping “We tryna get money like Donald Trump”(5) to Gucci Mane and Young Thug’s song entitled “Donald Trump” (2014), Trump appears in colloquial hip-hop culture as an aspiration of a wealthy man glorified for his money –– not how he got it.
All of this is in the name of access, which Coolio specifically touches upon in “Nature of the Business” (1997) when he flows, “Nigga, we could all come up loc, we could all make grips / Now I ain’t talking ‘bout no bullshit ass flippin z’s / I’m talkin’ Trump-type access, they comin’ off a gang of keys.” This line from Coolio specifically explains a lot of critique hip-hop/rap faces, particularly the idea that it glorifies violence and superfluous displays of wealth. Flossing and flexing in these genres is not a prioritization of the mundane, it’s a metaphor for access –– it’s the vision of what access could provide through ice, gold chains, and rims. Ultimately, a lack of perspective, grounded in racism, comes from these critics, who are strategically unable to acknowledge nuance in music the second the music is Black. The 2016 election served as a differentiation from Trump as an aspirational figure in music via the access he represented in the 90s and the polarizing views he used to found his political platform. Musically, this can be seen through YG’s anti-Trump anthem “FDT” featuring Nipsey Hussle, which serves as a marker of this cultural shift from Trump’s money to Trump’s beliefs –– people now perceive Trump as a negative figure regardless of his money because of what he believes.
“All Falls Down” as an Indicator to the 2010’s
Kanye West’s first universally recognized solo track “All Falls Down” (2004) is an anthem to critiquing this floss culture, simultaneously posing a question to the Black community of what happens “when it all falls down,” and showing dual understanding and respect to flossing as the mode of ascension given to Blacks. West flows, “We shine because they hate us, floss 'cause they degrade us / We tryna buy back our 40 acres,”(6) a reminder that the culture of conspicuous consumption exists within Black culture in defiance to stereotypes of Black inferiority. “All Falls Down” doesn’t chastise the hypothetical “single Black female addicted to retail”(6) for flossing, it reminds her that this consumption only lines the pockets of the white man in the end. This song is particularly salient when considering Kanye’s development because it set a thematic precedent of comical apathy that continues to underscore his work into the present, and because it was his first widely-disseminated hit with this critically understanding tone.
Effectively, Kanye takes the 90s Trump metaphor to another level in 2004. He diagrams the way consumption only lines the pockets of the White man, yet doesn’t use this point of critique to separate himself from Blackness. Kanye understands how the aspiration of wealth is codified in Whiteness and doesn’t take a holier-than-thou point of view for his ability to critique the system. Kanye himself is the “single Black female addicted to retail” he’s critical of, and the humor in his music is found in the way he conveys his apathy in a relatable way. Kanye’s notion of Black power is more than playing the White man’s game; it’s being able to infiltrate and restructure the game itself.
Kanye in the Visual Zeitgeist
As a notable tastemaker, Kanye maintains his wealth in cultural capital by continuing to challenge ideas of representation. His looks have always been challenged –– from the pink polo, cartoonish take on preppy, from the Takashi Murakami phase to the 8-bit mullet, and so on. Kanye’s looks shift drastically from album to album, which is not anything that he specifically has invented –– artists’ inspirations and motives are always shifting, and Kanye West is an artist. This simple line of logic can be seen from the transitions of Kanye’s looks, which have always been scrutinized in the moments of which they were born yet romanticized in the future as revolutionary. Let’s take pink polo Kanye for example, which in ‘I Love Kanye’ (2016) is addressed in the lyric “I even had the pink polo, I thought I was Kanye.”(7) In this song, Kanye takes on the persona of his critics to talk about how he “look, and look, and look, and there’s so many Kanye’s,”(7) – people who are only able to understand his vision with the privilege of retrospect. To West, this is a high honor proving that he actually is steps ahead of the game of tastemaking.
Pushing boundaries has always been Kanye’s schtick, so to speak. In 2005, West notably said “George Bush hates Black people,” beside actor Mike Myers during a live recording of a Hurricane Katrina TV Fundraiser.(8) His second studio album Late Registration went on to sell 3.5 million copies after that public display.(8) There’s the infamous Taylor Swift situation at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, where West upstaged Swift’s win for Best Female Video to insist that Beyoncé was robbed for her performance in ‘Single Ladies’ by physically hopping on stage to grab the microphone.
Visually, these outbursts make aesthetic sense –– Kanye is a Black man standing up for, in these cases, fellow Black people dying in Katrina because of strategic ignorance from the government and a fellow Black artist and friend who he felt was robbed of a laureate. This aesthetic also makes sense with the idea audiences had of Kanye from 2005-2009. That image of an outspoken pro-Black artist pushing boundaries was something Kanye reappropriated from predecessors such as KRS-One, aka ‘Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone’, a prominent conscious rapper of the 1980’s. However, the key difference between Kanye and KRS-One is the potential for mass-appeal Kanye had, whereas KRS-One remains to this day an underground hip-hop pioneer. It made sense to audiences in the early 2000’s for Kanye to be boundary pushing because he showed potential as a Black artist – the same would not be true if Kanye were white. By that, I mean to suggest that Black artists have to push boundaries to get anywhere in the entertainment industry, yet also have to push just the right boundaries to keep their image at a marketable level. If Kanye were white, this notion would not be something for him to consider as his whiteness would function as that marketability. Effectively, that kind of compartmentalization is a microaggression that present-day Kanye West tackles with an ironic approach.
Kanye’s recent support of Trump does not make aesthetic sense. Trump’s platform stands against this idea of progressive, pro-Black rhetoric audiences equate with Kanye from the early 2000’s. There have even been recent aesthetic decisions Kanye has made that comically do not make sense, such as his YEEZUS tour tee-shirts with prominent confederate flag graphics in 2013, his bottle-blonde scalp and eyebrows first seen by the public when he exited a mental institution in 2017, and of course, his MAGA hat. These aesthetic decisions combined with his recent sensationalist pro-Trump statements raise questions among the public as to who Kanye West really is –– aesthetically, he has betrayed his previous image, and socially, he has donned a completely different political alignment. Considering this all a part of a “higher plan,” if you will, is Kanye trying to get us to fixate on whether or not he’s an out-of-the-closet Republican, or is this merely an example of a larger question as to how people consume him as a Black artist?
The Society of the Spectacle
Guy Debord is among many philosophers who approach the evolution of media representation with a dystopian structuralist gaze. He does this most notably in The Society of the Spectacle, which hypothesizes a completely image-based future where everyone interacts with images as representations of people, places, and things rather than the people, places, and things themselves.(9) Presently, Debord’s work becomes alarmingly accurate with both the existence and prominence of Instagram, which is essentially the shallow-image based future he predicted.
There is also the aspect of seeing and being seen, which Kanye has publicly addressed in his hatred of the paparazzi. Kanye is someone whose artistic actions as well as his low-profile public appearances highlight a desire for control over what people see of themselves separated from their art. For example, his past three collections for his Yeezy clothing line have been debuted on Kim Kardashian as casual outfits, with the background knowledge that she is constantly photographed by paparazzi. He curates Kim in that way, which serves as an indicator to how personally involved Kanye is in his own image –– he styles himself and he manages his own social media. In the philosophy of Debord, Kanye asserts his autonomy in an information highway that seeks to take it from him.
Not only is Kanye a commodity that has become a spectacle for audiences to participate in, but he himself profits from it. Debord writes that “The spectacle, like modern society itself, is at once united and divided. The unity of each is based on violent divisions. But when this contradiction emerges in the spectacle, it is itself contradicted by a reversal of its meaning: the division it presents is unitary, while the unity it presents is divided.”(10) Essentially, through contradicting the spectacle, what is unified and what is divided become inversely proportional. All aspects of this idea apply to Kanye West, except the fact that he is not the ultimate subjugated figure Debord seeks to both represent and defend. Kanye is the one profiting off of his own consumption, while simultaneously critiquing the way he is consumed.
I believe Kanye’s most recent work points to a larger performance art project within the curation of his personal life and his work as the simultaneously united and divided spectacle. Combining the figure of Trump in 90s hip-hop as a metaphor with Kanye’s provocative style that earned him his celebrity in the first place, I believe his recent pro-Trump actions are a piece of performance art in which he implicitly represents himself as the “Black Donald Trump,” to challenge how audiences consume Black artists only to make a sort of aesthetic sense for themselves, never to know the artist. In this age of radical transparency, audiences only want to consume and image, and when that image doesn’t make sense, the misnomer of transparency becomes clear.
‘XTCY,’ ‘I Love It,’ and Memes
Kanye’s track “XTCY” directly mirrors a Trump controversy that arose at the beginning of his campaign in what I see as a form of memeing. When questions of Trump’s legitimacy as a presidential candidate arose in 2015, a disturbing interview from The View in 2006 emerged, with Trump talking about his daughter Ivanka’s figure, stating that “perhaps if she weren’t my daughter, I’d be dating her.”(11) In “XTCY”, Kanye raps over distorted moans “You got sick thoughts? I got more of ‘em / You got a sister in law you would smash? I got four of ‘em / Damn, those is your sisters, you did something unholy to them pictures / Damn, you need to be locked up, nah, we need a bigger hot tub.”(12) There are clear similarities between this verse and Trump’s statement, which I feel is a part of Kanye’s intent with producing this song. “XTCY,” when combined with the first public image of Kanye standing next to Trump presents the audience clear grounds for comparison.
Not only is this verse a direct appropriation of Trump’s statement, suggesting an aesthetic similarity between him and Kanye, but it is so absurd and laden in visual literacy that it functions like a meme. Lyrically, after every verse in “XTCY,” Kanye says, “I thought of all of this on Ecstasy,” referencing the popular street drug known for inducing extreme euphoria often linked to a heightened sex drive. As an endpoint to every verse, this line doesn’t invalidate all of the “sick thoughts” Kanye both has and is socially aware of, but it makes fun of them by means of playing up the shock factor.
Another song that has the same effect is “I Love It,” the last single Kanye released in 2018, only eight days after “XTCY.” “I Love It” features Lil Pump along with standup from Black comedian Adele Givens, framed by the statement, “You’re such a fucking hoe, I love it,”(13) The video is jokey, with Kanye and Lil Pump dressed in giant plush box versions of their clothing, following a giant Adele Givens while they rap. When Kanye performed with Lil Pump on Saturday Night Live at the end of September 2018, the two dressed as a bottles of Perrier and Fiji water respectively, continuing the theme of strange costuming surrounding “I Love It.” Everything about this song is an exaggeration –– the collaboration of Kanye and Lil Pump, a prominent one-hit wonder from Soundcloud, the costuming, the use of a comedian in the intro and outro.
The effect is that of a meme, which Google defines as “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation.”(14) What constitutes a meme is fluid because of this definition, however what defines a meme is its iconography and immediate recognition as something to be disseminated via these non-genetic means. Essentially, Kanye’s last two singles are memes, done in completely different ways. “XTCY” calls upon uses Trump’s quote about his daughter as a meme through imitation, while “I Love It” seeks to establish its own iconography through an exaggeration of the absurd. What both singles say about Kanye’s new work isn’t that he’s lost his charm, but rather the opposite –– that Kanye is acutely aware of the cultural landscape, and that while his comparisons of himself to Trump seem serious, there is an aspect to his representation that verges on the meme.
We arguably don’t know anything about Kanye West; we see what he wants us to see. As loaded as that sounds, the way he approaches his art as well as how he interacts in the public sphere answers this question of identity for us. Kanye very clearly bifurcates himself, as great authors do, to show a front presented as a means of protecting or concealing the self. In a contemporary age of faux “transparency,” Kanye continues to radicalize his symbolization of himself to make a dual point. At face value, he’s trying to promote a diversity in how people consume Black people as holistically representative of their art through his statements. Intrinsically, his actions of donning Trumpian aesthetics pose the question of, “does he actually believe that?” with consideration to his radically pro-Black vision. It is this confusion layered within “does he actually believe that?” that I think is Kanye’s intention, which he contextualizes in our current cultural moment through memes and exaggerations. With combining all of these factors, what is found is that Kanye is merely a man with his own artistic vision that shouldn’t be taken so seriously as to limit him with absolution –– in fact, that’s his point. Behind our representations, we are real people. As a celebrity, West’s work serves as the representation of Kanye Omari West, the person. Whether or not that person mirrors the work he produces is for him to know, and perhaps, never share.
“Skypager” by A Tribe Called Quest (1991)
“Protect Ya Neck II The Zoo” by Ol’ Dirty Bastard (1995)
“Incarcerated Scarfaces” by Raekwon (1995)
“New World” by NaS (1999)
“Can I Live” (2001)
“All Falls Down” by Kanye West (2004)
The ninth track on Kanye West’s seventh solo studio album The Life of Pablo (2016)
“Top 10 Outrageous Kanye West Moments.” Time, Time Inc., 14 Sept. 2009, content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1922188_1922187_1922183,00.html.
“Chapter 2: The Commodity as Spectacle.” Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord, Black and Red, 1977.
“Chapter 3: Unity and Division Within Appearances.” Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord, Black and Red, 1977.
‘XTCY’ from XTCY – a single from Kanye West (2018)
‘I Love It’ from I Love It – a single from Kanye West (2018)
Google Dictionary definition of meme