by Ayla Shiblaq
"In the end, Jesus is King still met my expectations — it was a perfectly decent album written by a growingly indecent man."
Following the release of Kanye West's new album, 'Jesus Is King' (2019), public opinion has been heavily split by the former King of Hip Hop's Damascene conversion to Christianity. Activist Ayla Shiblaq, formerly of the Ocasio-Cortez and Clinton campaigns, asks whether it's even possible for us to separate Kanye West's musical career from his public persona.
When I was approached to write this piece, I was initially pretty excited. Rather than theorizing on Kanye, I wanted to take a look at this from a new angle. What angle, I didn’t know. I thought I could use creative framing to look at Kanye through the lens of a Greek tragedy.
Everything lined up: the triumph, the flaw as his hubris, the downfall — sure, great idea, but how would this pan out? Days and days passed and honestly, I realized I was doing exactly what I didn’t really want to do — frame Kanye into my own perfectly crafted spectacle.
Should I really have felt bad about that? No, I don’t necessarily think so. Some, including Kanye, have chosen to put themselves in the spotlight. In many ways, Kanye has made himself a spectacle. But now, the situation is a bit more complicated. Whether that’s my thought process or a reality, I couldn’t tell you. I have realized that the difficulty in writing about theYe- and Jesus is King-era Kanye is that our ability to separate the artist from his disagreeable public persona has become genuinely impossible.
Related: Who is Ye?
Have we ever been able to disconnect the art from the artist? Let’s think about Azealia Banks who, despite her incredibly problematic statements about the LGBTQ+ community, her feuds with almost every living artist within her periphery, and general lack of filter, still maintains fans from the communities she’s offended. Then, we’ve had the opposite occur, when action is taken against the artist, like when Action Bronson was moved from an open, public performance to a ticketed venue during NXNE’s 2015 festival. I’m nearly positive I signed the petition that got him moved, but even four years since this incident, I don’t think I can answer my own question. The only thing I can really say is is that these people are human and humans can be shitty.
I’ve found myself asking myself these questions with incredibly unsatisfying responses. I tried to return to a time that was seemingly more simple, which was pretty much pre-Brexit (for maybe a whole 5 months, but I digress). A black man was president of the United States and Kanye West was the King of Hip Hop. He was still a controversial man, but controversial in a way we could handle - even love. I’m in the Copenhagen metro, and the stream of Life of Pablo has just gone live. From the opening from Chance to the clever placement of the Desiigner sample, Pablo served as a worthy follow-up to Kanye’s earlier works. I startle everyone around me with my hands in the air — this fucking slaps.
Many of us still want to believe that the Kanye that we once knew is still there; that’s there’s this hope that he’ll change back to the expectation of who we thought Kanye was. Was that my hope for Jesus is King? Maybe not, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't hoping to find a reason to like Kanye again. In the end, Jesus is King still met my expectations — it was a perfectly decent album written by a growingly indecent man.
Jesus is King was an opportunity for Kanye to confess and repudiate his past sins. If Kanye is offering us a blank slate, we then are given the opportunity to choose whether the Kanye we see before us is the one we choose to assume Kanye as and/or we can continue to miss the old Kanye.
Maybe it’s time to face the facts and accept that this free of sin Kanye is “the real Kanye". Kanye uses his power in irresponsible ways to push problematic viewpoints that very often exist to spark controversy such as telling people to not take their medication for their mental illness, to his support of a truly horrible and destructive president.
I have come to the conclusion that the more I’ve digested the art Kanye has put out since Pablo, that I haven’t been able to keep a clear conscience. This is not just because this is the same man who said that slavery didn’t happen. He’s also a man who’s suffering from a mental illness, and while we can’t use his mental illness as an excuse for him for consistently doing questionable and problematic things, I can say that it’s time to stop giving this man the space to suffer in public. If we continue to make suffering people as a spectacle, we aren’t making anything better. Sure, there’s a lesson, but there must be other ways we can learn that and not at the expense of other people.
In saying all of this, I’ve still managed to do everything I didn’t want to do: I still made Kanye a spectacle and I theorized about him and the world around him. I’ve come to no real conclusions about how I feel. I don’t hate Jesus is King and I don’t hate Kanye and maybe that’s the wrong thing. But, I realized the only way I could write about Kanye was to not write about him at all.
Kanye's latest video from 'Jesus Is King', 'Follow God'
Ayla Shiblaq is a masters' student in political science at the University of Copenhagen. A long-standing activist, she has previously worked on the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Hillary Clinton election campaigns.