kanye, tr*mp, rocky and proximity to power

July 26, 2019

A$AP Rocky is not a rapper I ever expected to hear a controversial arrest-and-incarceration story about. He’s a heartthrob fashionista whose music hovers away from thuggish ruggish dealer braggadocio in favor of references to Rick Owens and Martin Margiella. Sure, he says he used to be a d-boy — but, really, he’s part of a modern vanguard of soft rappers like Kanye West and Drake and Travis $cott, guys who rap about fashion and feelings, guys who stand apart from street MCs like Jay-Z and Nas, men whose hard past is central to their sense of authenticity and manhood. And yet here we are. 

Rocky remains in a Swedish prison charged with assault and headed for trial next week after a videotaped street fight. For a long time it felt like you had to have been in or around the game to be considered a top rapper, as if the streets were a necessary proving ground for getting on the mic, but now there’s a large community of MCs who’ve never lived that life. Rocky may have been on the corner years ago, but his appeal and aesthetic have nothing to do with that. Of course the king of the modern soft MCs who seem more at home at Barneys than on the block is Kanye West, who inserted himself into Rocky’s story by calling (Not Our) President Tr*mp and asking him to get involved. Tr*mp tweeted that he would try to help. And that gave me pause.

Kanye injected himself as a sort of ambassador for hip-hop, one of the few people that truly care about Rocky who could have alerted Tr*mp that there was an American citizen in a foreign prison and in need of help. I don’t know if Kanye had to tell Tr*mp whether Rocky is “one of the good Blacks” or something, because Tr*mp seems to believe that prison is pretty much where Black men belong. Thinking about Kanye’s ability to call Tr*mp, I wondered, “Should I be grateful that there’s someone who can stand up for MCs, someone who can be a diplomat on behalf of the culture to this monster?” Perhaps. Tr*mp said he called the Prime Minister of Sweden — I can only say, he said he called, because who can trust anything Trump actually says — and, as usual, accomplished nothing. Even though the Tr*mp failed yet again, there is an inherent power in the office that’s critical for Black people to be able to access when real trouble arises. Yet when I think of Tr*mp, the first word that comes to mind is “racist.” His rhetoric has been hateful and directly aimed at stoking white privilege, white entitlement, white fear, and white supremacy. His policies have done little for Black folk and even the much-ballyhooed low Black unemployment numbers he loves to tout are not the result of any Trump policy — it’s part of a long-established economic trend that started in the first term of the Obama administration. King Birther ain’t really done shit for Black people except shit on Black people. That means I have to ask — if you’re friends with him then how can I trust you? 

I treat Trump like the anti-King Midas. Everything he touches turns to shit. For example, once, after a terrible night’s sleep I woke up with my neck super-sore and bought a MyPillow I’d seen advertised on TV a thousand times. I loved it and slept well for several weeks. Then I learned that the owner of MyPillow was a huge Tr*mper, and I threw it out. How could I sleep well knowing that? I was a fan of the New York Jets football team for years, until their owner Woody Johnson became Tr*mp’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom. I had accepted Johnson’s support for Romney in 2012 — we could agree to disagree — but his love of Tr*mp was unforgivable. So should I throw out Kanye, too? That was harder for me.

Many people have tossed out Kanye because of his MAGA affiliations, but I remain on the fence because his music is deeply meaningful to me. As a suburban kid who went to prep school, I feel a deep tie to the Soft rapper movement. They’re my people. I loved hip-hop from the first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight” on the radio, but it wasn’t until I heard De La Soul’s debut album that I felt like I was really acknowledged by hip-hop. De La marked the first time I saw MCs who were truly like me, who were an expression of who I would be if I could rap. De La are the forefathers of that school, of soft rappers who mean so much to me. 

Being part of hip-hop — and being a man — without having to be hard is deeply important to me. So it’s hard for me to quit Kanye as he takes on that De La mantle that had made me feel so liberated. But each time he wears that stupid Make America White Again hat, each time he cozies up to Tr*mp for a photo op, I throw up. I’m not sure why he supports Tr*mp, he’s never been clear about it, and I’m not sure what he thinks he’s getting out of the relationship. We’ve seen this before — both Sammy Davis, Jr., and James Brown publicly supported President Richard Nixon — but Tr*mp’s overt racism makes this much more dire.

If I reduce their interaction to the most pragmatic terms, who’s getting more out of the Kanye-Tr*mp relationship? Kanye is getting access to power that lets him and his wife call Tr*mp, and beg for certain Blacks to be released from prison. That’s something — even if it didn’t help Rocky one bit, and it doesn’t help the millions already incarcerated. Meanwhile, Tr*mp is getting a useful pawn that he can use to thwart charges of racism. With Kanye by his metaphoric side, Tr*mp can deflects charges of racism with one of the biggest names in Black culture? The “Black Friend” card is gross, but grosser still is that Kanye allows himself to be that card, and allows himself to be the human embodiment of gaslighting. The monkey wrench in your argument with your Tr*mp-loving uncle. It’s enraging that Kanye allows himself to be used this way and doesn’t even seem to notice. 

The anti-King Midas touch is real. Kanye’s worst album was his last, Ye, the only solo album he’s made since Trump became President. I still love most of Kanye’s music — half of the Kid Cudi album, Kids See Ghosts is great — but increasingly, I play Kanye and only see him in The Oval Office rocking that red hat, playing Tr*mp’s tool. Tr*mp’s failure to help Rocky is just the latest proof that Kanye is getting the short end of the deal. For now I will continue to listen to Kanye but he’s making it harder and harder and harder.