Thirteen years ago, Kanye West stood next to Mike Myers during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina and uttered loudly — as if there’s any other way for Kanye West — “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The moment transformed West from budding music superstar to bonafide household name. It also made him something of a political lightning rod.
But while that moment became iconic, the follow-up to that statement is rarely talked about. Here’s why: There never really was one. West didn’t explain why he thought Bush didn’t care about black people, because, well, he didn’t have the capacity to speak in-depth about Katrina and the clear racial indignities that came from the Bush administration’s response to the natural disaster. He’d said something seismic but didn’t have the bandwidth to actually address the nuances of it.
In those days, Ye could get away with a half-cocked move like that one. It captured the national consciousness and started a dialogue. It was a different era — when the idea that disaster relief could be influenced by systemic racism seemed revelatory to many people watching the Katrina telethon. In 2005 that worked; in 2018 that shit doesn’t fly. Times have changed, and for better and worse, the requirements for social awareness have increased.
The message for Ye is clear: either put in the work or get left behind.
Take, for instance, Kanye’s tweets this week about the 13th amendment. On September 30th, Ye shared his desire to abolish the 13th amendment: “this represents good and America becoming whole again. We will no longer outsource to other countries. We build factories here in America and create jobs. We will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment. Message sent with love.”
Kanye seemed to be indicating that he wants to get rid of the 13th amendment’s ability to virtually enslave people who commit crimes in America, as brilliantly articulated in Ava Duvernay’s The 13th documentary. West, however, took the bare minimum understanding of that concept and tweeted it out. His lack of understanding led to people assuming he was trying to express a desire to bring back slavery, which is what abolishing the 13th amendment would effectively accomplish.
Even calling West’s tactics “ignorant” is letting him off the hook a bit too much. In this day and age, ignorance is a choice. We as a society have more access to information than ever before. Google is in our pockets. Scholarly works on any subject are accessible 24/7. And conversations with actual experts are — certainly for someone of Kanye’s stature — just a tweet away. So his consistent, persistent, unyielding lack of any semblance of intelligent thought about the deeper topics impacting this country is an active choice. And as the country teeters on the brink of an unbreakable chasm between opposing sides, willful ignorance is becoming increasingly deadly for the most vulnerable among us.
Of course, this isn’t a phenomenon specific to the rapper from Chicago. When Sean Penn pops off about his perceived dangers about the #MeToo movement, he’s perpetuating an idea that women lie about rape, thus threatening their lives. When Tomi Lahren makes up stats about #BlackLivesMatter protests, she’s endangering the lives of black men and women who are simply trying to stop police violence. And when Kanye West tries to downplay the effects of slavery, whether he’s trying to or not, he’s part of erasing the generational trauma and systematic oppression black people are still suffering from.
There just is no such thing as a harmless hot take when it comes to subjugated people. That’s why celebrities get called out so swiftly and passionately when they say something that can impact the real lives of people. One Kanye endorsement leads to more money for a Trump reelection campaign which leads to a greater chance of four more years of immigrant children locked in cages. On the flipside, the fear of such a backlash from social media’s “cancel culture” is causing celebrities to fear speaking up. I can’t tell you how many athletes and entertainers I’ve heard from who are wary of putting themselves in positions to have to answer questions about mass incarceration, immigration policies and LGBT rights because they have the self-awareness to know that having a firm grasp on these topics takes a ton of work. Hell, I do this for a living and I would have a hard time speaking off the cuff on most of these issues at length. So imagine the fear busy athletes and entertainers would have on post-game press conferences or sitting in front of interviewers on Good Morning America.
That’s why celebrities like Beyonce, Serena Williams, LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick have worked hard to make sure they can speak in controlled environments where their messages are the most streamlined and cogent. They’ve taken efforts to ensure they are the most informed and able to articulate their thoughts as precisely as possible. These are efforts that Kanye West simply isn’t taking. As a result, even when he tries to make an important point about mass incarceration or racism in fashion (as he tried years ago), he falls short. Others, like John Legend, spend countless hours engaged in “the work” to be informed enough to go on hour-long podcasts and mix it up with those who specialize in these topics.
Okay, so what about white celebrities (or just white people in general)? They have as much of an obligation to disrupt oppressive societal norms as everyone else, because, after all, the privileged among us are the most capable of dismantling these structures. For them, a simple Google search isn’t enough. Being as informed as possible can only go so far for those who have not lived the oppression they are speaking out against. For them, the first step is listening. Listen to the black men and women. Listen to trans people. Listen to parents separated from their children at the border. This step is what is often missing. The intersectionality gets lost in the shuffle — the connection between sexism and racism, ableism and homophobia, and everything in between.
This is where the real work comes in. It’s about getting out of the echo chambers and truly challenging the status quo. But it’s also about starting with listening to the actual people on the margins.
We have good examples of this too. We have people who are doing the work — the kids who survived the Parkland Massacre. They were thrust into the spotlight when their friends were killed. Since then, they’ve tried their hardest to raise awareness about their core cause (guns) while also uplifting black voices when possible and truly creating an intersectional movement for the future. Anyone trying to be an “ally” in our present political/ social moment needs to take the same approach. Put in the work. Listen. Follow through and be prepared to accept the calls to do better when necessary. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. And if you don’t feel like putting in the work, then just sit this all out (recognizing that this ability is another gift of your privilege).
Otherwise, you’re going to end up going full Kanye. And you never want to go full Kanye.