OPINION - Appropriating dog-whistle slogans is a step too far even for Kanye West

Kanye West  (Getty Images For Balenciaga)
Kanye West (Getty Images For Balenciaga)

Kanye West does not deal in consistencies. Throughout the rapper’s colourful 26-year-long career, his currency has been unpredictability. But if there is one thing that Ye, as he prefers to be known, has been able to depend upon it would surely be a generous helping of the benefit of the doubt.

So when West sent “White Lives Matter” t-shirts down the runway at his Yeezy season 9 presentation at Paris fashion week on Tuesday, and later told his 17.9 million Instagram followers that “everyone knows that Black Lives Matter was a scam”, there was a collective intake of breath. Surely, no one could possibly be lining up to defend the indefensible this time?

The shirts, which featured a photo of Pope John Paul II on the front, were worn by models on the catwalk and by West himself, along with inflammatory right-wing commentator Candace Owens who was a guest at the show.

For those unfamiliar with the rapper’s turbulent past, this is not the first time he has found himself in hot water after appearing to court far-right ideas. But this latest stunt is again proof of the truth of the age-old adage, “when someone shows you who they are — believe them the first time”.

And West has been showing us, time and time again. From the harassment bordering on stalking of his ex-wife Kim Kardashian and chilling social media posts about her then-boyfriend Pete Davidson, to saying 400 years of slavery was a “choice” and that the American abolitionist Harriet Tubman “never actually freed slaves”, he has made no secret of his offensive views.

Whether, this latest provocation is a publicity stunt, as some are suggesting, or if he truly believes the sentiment behind the “White Lives Matter” slogan is almost irrelevant. What matters is that West is using his considerable celebrity to embolden an already febrile far-right, racist movement in the US, co-signing the legitimacy of a phrase used by white-supremacist organisations including the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, the family of Ahmaud Arbery – a 25-year-old black man murdered by his white neighbours in 2020 – have said that West’s conduct has helped to “legitimise extremist behaviour”.

There are, and always have been, real-life consequences to West’s actions. But always there are those who defend him. They treat his behaviour like a joke, dismissing it as just “Kanye being Kanye”. And often, as if on cue, they peddle the same line: that West is a misunderstood genius operating on a different plane.

Here’s the thing: I understand the impulse to immediately jump to West’s defence. There is no doubt that he is an astronomically talented musician and it’s natural that we want to be able to like him. His wit and candidness have in the past been refreshing. But why are some so quick to excuse the behaviour of men with the assumption of superior intellect, or trivialise it with some variation of “boys being boys”?

There are also those who point to West’s 2016 bipolar diagnosis for answers. He has famously referred to bipolar disorder as his “superpower,” and spoken about the stigma around mental illness. Watching anyone experience mental illness is challenging and complicated, and with someone like West it is difficult to know where his ego ends and symptoms of bipolar begin. But it is clear that he is struggling, and that he does not have the support around him that he deserves. He is a money-making machine, and as long as he continues in the public eye even to his own personal demise, someone is profiting.

The Kanye West show is, and has always been, a highly addictive rollercoaster, compelling in its incessant unpredictability, shocking in its provocation. Whether it’s artistic brilliance or disturbing outbursts, it is impossible to look away. But it has gone too far. It is deeply unsettling to see dangerous and hurtful behaviour being consumed as entertainment online. For all of our own good, including Kanye’s, it’s time to switch it off.