In a Twitter storm on Monday evening, Kanye West referred to himself as slave rebellion leader Nat Turner and the biblical figure Moses. The creative superstar also said he won’t be making any more music under contracts with his current record labels, Sony and Universal, which he referred to as part of a music industry “slave ship.”
Clearly the entertainment superstar and current presidential candidate has a lot to say, particularly about how he and other Black people are treated in the musical industry and America. But perhaps with all this on his mind, it’s also time to do what many have previously suggested: West should drop out of the presidential race and focus on what he uniquely excels at – creating movements that other rebels fail to imagine.
Despite a near constant presence in the media, often for sensational reasons, it’s hard not to acknowledge that West has the Midas touch when it comes to his creative endeavors. From his genre-redefining music to his trend-making Yeezy apparel line, West has broken the mold. He harnessed his own creative energies to reshape the power of artistic imagination in his partnership with Adidas, landing him on Forbes list of billionaires. He is partnering with Gap to develop a new line of clothing. And he continues to push the edges of musical experimentation with his ever-evolving catalog of commercial and critical hits.
Prior to to the start of his Quixotic presidential run, this spring West’s actions spoke louder than his words. In June, West made more than $2 million of donations to support the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, including legal fees for Arbery and Taylor’s families. He also established a 529 education plan to fund the college tuition of Gianna Floyd, George Floyd’s the 6-year-old daughter, and he contributed to organizations in Chicago addressing issues of racial and social justice.
More recently, however, it is West’s perplexing and erratic presidential candidacy that captures headlines, including reports that West’s qualification in several states was aided by Republican activists who also support President Trump. Several of those qualifications have since been thrown out for being defective. And of course, there was the surprising news that West had been in regular touch with President Trumps son-in-law and campaign advisor, Jared Kushner.
All of the news about Kanye have only exacerbated perceptions that West’s candidacy would have the intended effect of even more deeply fracturing an already tense presidential campaign at a time of substantial national challenge. There is also the sense by many that West’s campaign is more spectacle than substance, and that it is bereft of the typical genius that West brings to most of his endeavors.
Even West’s tweets on Monday night show that he has something seemingly more important on his mind – his music and his contracts with Sony and Universal.
All of this is why it is time for West, who turned heads with his 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, to become a presidential dropout.
It’s not that West doesn’t have something to add to this current political environment. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. What West can do to contribute to one of the most consequential political seasons of our lifetime isn’t being on the ballot. It’s being back in the lab, helping design and create the type of ground-shifting ideas that can help shift American democracy. Perhaps a Kanye West civics lab, blending his talents and perception with some of the leading political and policy ideas, could help foster creative efforts to get out the vote, fight economic and racial injustice, and reignite a greater sense of American possibility. Kanye running for president won’t do that – Kanye running a creative democracy lab could.
In his Monday tweetstorm, West refers to himself as Nat Turner, the Virginian slave and preacher who led the most significant slave rebellion in American history. Turner, who was hanged after evading capture following his doomed rebellion, is famously quoted as saying (in the Confessions of Nat Turner)
“… I had a vision — and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened – the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams – and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bear it.”
While many would argue West is no Nat Turner, he may be on to one thing that Turner knew well – the power of having a vision and then being called to bear it. So while everyone dismisses West’s presidential run, and his tweets, as a vanity project, a disguised effort to aid President Trump, or delusions of grandeur, let’s give the artist a moment to step back, drop out, and then step up. West has a remarkable ability to help make America, its culture, and its democracy, great again, but it’s not by donning a red hat or being on a state ballot. It may not even be by making music. It’s by doing what Kanye West does best…
Seeing… and designing…the future.