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Kanye West and us

It's too easy to attribute all of Kanye's mistakes solely to his psychiatric condition

Kanye West and us It's too easy to attribute all of Kanye's mistakes solely to his psychiatric condition
Aymane Alhamid

The slogan of "White Lives Matter" first appeared on the American scene starting in 2015. Made popular by the Texas-based white supremacist group Aryan Renaissance Society (whose name alone would be enough to explain its principles), it then spread among various smaller groups affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. The slogan originated as a violent counterpart to Black Lives Matters, the BLM movement that had invaded American streets after the murders of first Trayvon Martin and then Eric Garner. White Live Matters was often talked about, although the slogan rarely crossed the U.S. border. At least until Kanye West came along. 

During the strange and at times absurd Yeezy Season 9 presentation Kanye wore, made Candace Owens and her models wear, a sort of t-shirt commemorating Pope John II's 2000 Jubilee on the back of which was written "White Lives Matter." Why Kanye chose to make that tee is not exactly clear; it would even appear that no one present - from models to guests - was aware of what many said was a sudden and unexpected decision. Kanye himself declined to comment as the garment "speaks for itself." The whole running of the show was, after all, chaotic: Kanye started more than an hour late, after first arguing with a PR agency, only to find one at the last minute that helped him with what was certainly an alienating show, in some ways hypnotic, in others very problematic. During the show Jaden Smith, along with others, walked out of the room at the onset of Kanye's delirium and the appearance of the T-shirt. Immediately afterwards Edward Enninful and Gabriella Karefa-Johnson criticized West, accusing him of unacceptable behavior and pointing out how he lacked the principles to call Kanye's art installation even provocative. 

In the days that followed, the situation only escalated: on Instagram, Kanye lashed out first at Karefa-Johson herself, through a childish personal insult, and then at LVMH - getting Matthew Williams into trouble with a post that was later removed. He talked about Arnauld, brought up Virgil's memory, and called Black Lives Matter a "scam." It is difficult to bring order to Kanye's myriad of externals, complex to reconstruct the logic from which they derive, but absolutely impossible not to notice the wrongness of their form and substance. Osman Ahmed on i-D who had given extensive coverage of the show almost exclusively wrote:

«It’s dangerous to underestimate the power of fashion’s ability to communicate to the world. Already, that T-shirt has vindicated an entire swathe of the population who believe in white supremacy, who have revived the hashtag #WhiteLivesMatter with considerable enthusiasm. They now have a stamp of approval to wear their views on their sleeves as a fashion statement, and this T-shirt will probably become an easily-replicated object of political ideology». 

The outcry from the fashion system and the black community within it was immediate and in some ways much more pointed and forceful than Kanye's previous crazy outbursts. Karefa-Johson is, moreover, one of the most respected fashion journalists in the world, the same goes for Enninful. Stirring up even more uproar was the post by Tremaine Emory, freshly appointed as Supreme's creative director, who lashed out at Kanye in defense of the memory of Virgil Abloh, who was called out by Kanye himself. According to Emory, Kanye was, in short, extremely and brutally jealous of Abloh's success. The two were not on the best of terms at all to the extent that Kanye would not be invited to Abloh's private funeral. Emory is one of those figures who enjoys infinite respect within the industry and the black community - a black community from which Kanye never felt accepted and which, after all, Kanye never represented. And the relationship of that community, and of Kanye West as an African American and as a designer, to the fashion industry is much more intricate than it seems. All of this, and the fact that all of this is happening at fashion week, is not coincidental. 

In order to really understand Kanye's relationship with fashion, we need to take a quick step back to that famous photograph taken in Paris itself in 2008. They portray Kanye together with Virgil and Don C, in looks that are as far from the modern vision of themselves as we have today. That photo has become historic because it marked the last moment when either Abloh or West were "excluded" from the circuit that matters most in the fashion business. That was the same time when Kanye accused the fashion world of being racist, of being too white, and of rejecting the mere idea of a black designer. Off-White had just been born, and Virgil was far from completely revolutionizing the concept of fashion. The same is true for Kanye, who over time has risen so high that he is now the muse and sodal of perhaps the most influential mind on the entire circuit: Demna Gvasalia. Kanye was as right at the time as he is wrong today. That circuit was racist, and it certainly took a movement of global proportions like Black Lives Matters to make it a little less so, that the Virgil Abloh and Edward Enninful of this world existed. And while it is hypocritical for a part of the fashion system (the white one) to call Kanye a racist today, it is at the same time impossible not to notice that it is precisely that movement that Kanye now calls scam that is the main reason why today, Kanye West manages to paralyze the fashion capital of the world for an event announced at the last minute. 

Not every story has good guys and bad guys, and this is one of them. The Kanye West we are getting to know today is nothing more than an extremely exaggerated version of the one we have always known, which can be recognized from the images of jeen yuhs, the documentary that chronicles his rise. It is too easy to trace all of Kanye's wrong attitudes always and only to his certified mental illness; just as, however, it is journalistically insane to find ourselves here every time Kanye West says something more wrong than the previous time. Maybe times are different, but between "Slavery was a choice" and "BLM was a scam" there is not that much difference after all. The mainstream media built a platform of resonance around Kanye that suited everyone, a platform that was fueled by the most banal artistic rhetorical device ever: genius and unruliness. Today Kanye has gone beyond that, the dross of Virgil Abloh's death and the void of all that Virgil stood for are just gasoline on a fire that could not be avoided and that was started at the same time that Kanye West changed the fashion world, turning it inside out like a sock, and forcing everyone to play the same game he did. 

Moral judgments about Kanye West are of course immediate; what we perhaps need to question are moral judgments about ourselves. We allowed - rightly or wrongly - that this was Kanye West's world and we strongly wanted to be part of it. Today that world is burning and its flames may not be so easy to tame precisely because it is not just about Kanye West, it is about us.