Over the last five years, Kanye West has morphed into one of the greatest live performers of our generation. His concert tours are routinely critically acclaimed, and his headlining show at Coachella in 2011 is in the running for the greatest performance in the festival’s history. So it’s perplexing that West has been the subject of three separate petitions this year created to keep him from performing at an event. It’s a disconcerting contrast that speaks in part to what a lightning rod West’s public persona has become, and how loud and inescapably race-driven the Kanye West hater echo chamber has grown.
It started back in March, when over 130,000 people signed a petition to stop West from playing the UK’s Glastonbury Festival. The petition organizer called West — who has sold 21 million albums — "an insult to music fans all over the world." Then there was the Ottawa Bluesfest, where West’s headlining performance was again challenged by a petition. That petition founder told Ottawa’s Metro News, "I feel the money should have been spent on relevant rock artists," and that West should do his own show, instead of "riding the coattails of this amazing festival."
And most recently, this week Toronto’s Pan American Games was the target of a 50,000-strong petition demanding that West be removed from his closing ceremony spot, because he wasn’t from Toronto.
To his detractors, West has come to symbolize something nefarious
By the end of all three performances, West had won over the crowd, and even critics as brash and insolent as Noel Gallagher had to admit that he put on a great show. But if this were as simple as people merely underestimating West’s talent, you wouldn’t be reading this and I wouldn’t have written it. To his detractors, West has come to symbolize something nefarious, and the hatred toward him is a systemic issue that has been brewing over the last six years.
Let’s not forget what started the Kanye West hate train: it was at the 2009 MTV VMAs that West took the mic from Taylor Swift, who was quickly becoming America’s favorite white girl, to proclaim she didn’t deserve the MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video over Beyoncé. Then West fell in love with Kim Kardashian, America’s most hated white woman, which only compounded the already palpable hate toward both of them.
When you contrast the first half of Kanye West’s career in the public eye (‘00-’07) with the second half (‘08-’15), the only major difference is West’s interactions with America’s two most high-profile white women. And if you believe the dramatic increase in unfiltered hatred and the complete dismissal of the talent of one of the most accomplished artists in a generation has nothing to do with the racial discomfort precipitated by a black man "scaring" America’s white sweetheart and entering into an interracial relationship with America’s favorite guilty pleasure, you're sorely mistaken.
There are a number of legitimate reasons to dislike Kanye West, reasons that have been around since he became a public figure in 2000. The oversized ego has always been there. ("My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live," West said in 2006.) He’s stormed stages and bashed award shows for awarding the wrong nominee. (If I don't win, the awards show loses credibility," West proclaimed at the 2006 MTV Europe Music Awards.) West even posed as Muhammad Ali and Jesus on the cover of Rolling Stone in 2006, long before he compared himself to them in his mid-concert speeches during The Yeezus Tour ("You want me to be great, but you don't ever want me to say I'm great?" West said in the profile).
No artist gets petitioned like Kanye West does
No artist gets petitioned like West does. The last artist to be petitioned over "artistic merit" is Jay Z at — surprise — Glastonbury in 2008. Neil Lonsdale, the man who organized the petition to stop West from performing at Glastonbury was so incensed by West’s headlining spot he "fought the temptation to scream and instead opted to hurl my iPhone across the room," Lonsdale told NME in an interview.
Lonsdale — who had never attended the Glastonbury Festival — went on to say he wasn’t racist, but freely admitted he thought West’s performance at the Brit Awards was "just threatening." Yes, Kanye West’s performance of "All Day" with some of the UK’s best grime artists made a grown man feel threatened, but somehow didn’t have the same effect on Taylor Swift.
If you’re a music fan who is content to merely ignore the abundance of popular music being made by artists of color, Kanye West hasn’t been making that very easy for you this past decade. West doesn’t do what he’s "supposed" to do; he isn’t capitulating to the "be quiet and entertain me" social contract most black actors, musicians, and athletes have passively agreed to over the last few decades. He could have stayed in his lane, far away from anything that could make the public at large uncomfortable; instead, he’s out here calling himself the biggest rock star on the planet (which he is), despite unwarranted criticism from rock’s aging elite. The Guardian’s Tim Jonze put it best:
"Ever since white guys got to rewrite rock history on their own terms (as Mos Def eloquently pointed out on his 1999 track "Rock’N’Roll"), they’ve been relatively content to pass down from white guy to white guy, but don’t seem to be able to handle it when it’s suddenly claimed back by a black man."
If public arrogance was enough to get you banned from a festival, the entire industry would cease to function. No, this isn’t just some gripe about personality traits. This is the kind of hatred that causes Noel Gallagher to refer to Kanye West as "boy," the common euphemism white people used when "nigger" was no longer acceptable in polite company.
Stereogum: "Do you pay attention to the music award shows at all?"
Noel Gallagher: "I’m aware of our mate Kanye being a bit of a buffoon at one of them, yeah. Didn’t he say Beck should "respect artistry" and pass the award on to Beyoncé?"
Stereogum: "At first. He wound up backtracking."
Noel Gallagher: "Well, No. 1, somebody should buy that boy a dictionary. And he needs to look up the fucking term "artistry" and then see if it reminds him, in any way, of Beyoncé. If shaking your ass for a living is considered art, then she’s right up there, no?"
Though it would seem that all this is playing out on an entirely different stage than the problems that arose after electing our first black president and the precipitous decline of race relations in America, look a little closer and it’s clear the hate toward Kanye West is borne of the same mix of xenophobia, racism, and the willful ignorance of the public to those realities that plagues them all. This kind of intolerance is rarely blatant — it’s hidden behind legitimately arguable gripes and clouded in half-truths. Our social discourse has become one where both facts and prejudice intertwine to produce a highly combustible climate prone to violent outbreaks and sustained racial tensions.
The Glastonbury protesters claimed they were of protecting the musical identity of a festival that has routinely featured rappers; the Pan Am petitioners hid behind the guise of nationalism while saying nothing about Pitbull performing. The unifying subtext, however, is a resounding "you don’t belong here," even though it's been half a century since since we dismantled restrictions on where black people could and could not go.
When publications are using common tropes utilized by white people when confronted by a non-deferential black person, telling West to mind his manners, and David Crosby feels the need to call West "dumb as a post" in a tweet, their true sentiments start to ooze out. West’s personality hasn’t changed much in the last decade, but the public’s resentment toward him has increased tenfold. And the louder it gets, the more its true intention reveals itself.
Update: July 29th, 3:56PM ET: Fixed a sentence where Liam Gallagher was used instead of Noel Gallagher.
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