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Unpacking the Kanye conundrum
In the last months of 2022, renowned hip-hop artist Ye (he/him), who formally went by Kanye West, was seemingly canceled once and for all following his wearing of a “White Lives Matter” shirt — a message that has white supremacist ties — at a fashion show, and then, three days later, vowing to go “death con 3 ON JEWISH PEOPLE” in a tweet he later doubled down on. Both actions justifiably stoked public outrage.
When comparing Ye’s case to other celebrities that have been canceled, such as Amber Heard — an actor whose name has somewhat been dropped from mainstream headlines — Ye’s name is still prominent. He’s been averaging 50 million monthly listeners on Spotify. However, Ye’s case of retaining the same amount of fans after being canceled isn’t unique. For instance, when R. Kelly (he/him), was convicted of sex trafficking on June 29, 2022, his monthly listeners on Spotify during and after the conviction still remained the same. In fact, when he was convicted, the number spiked by almost 300,000 listeners before falling back down to around 4.5 million a month later.
When “Leaving Neverland” aired on HBO in 2019, which examined pedophilic grooming and sexual abuse alleged by two men who were close to Michael Jackson (he/him) as boys, the internet surged to cancel him. Jackson continually faced accusations of sexual misconduct with boys going as far back as 1993, but the King of Pop stayed. In 2019, Jackson maintained around 22 million monthly listeners during his posthumous cancelation. In fact, since the incident, Jackson has grown to over 30 million monthly listeners. All of these examples highlight the inconsistency with cancel culture: musical artists seem to be exempt from it.
Ye has continually illustrated that since he’s been crowned as a “musical genius,” nothing can topple him. It doesn’t matter how offensive or outlandish his behavior gets, he’ll never be in any real danger of losing his status because as long as he drops something new and continues to prove himself, his fans will back him.
This isn’t the first time Ye has been canceled. In the past decade, Ye was forced to call off his “The Saint Pablo Tour” in 2016 after receiving backlash for saying “I love Donald Trump” on Ebro Darden’s radio show. In 2016, Ye said that Bill Cosby was innocent after Cosby was convicted of sexual assault, and in 2018, Ye said, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” Despite these statements and the cancellation of Ye after each, his album titled “Ye,” released in 2018, reached No. 1 on the US Billboard 200. Over the years, Ye has been canceled numerous times, but each time, he bounces back to dominate the music industry over and over again.
Even though the majority of Ye’s fan base refuses to cancel him, corporate cancellation has come for him. Vogue and Balenciaga cut their partnerships with him. In 2018, when Ye defined his position on slavery, Adidas decided that while its position on human rights didn’t align with Ye’s statement, he was a major contributor to the brand’s comeback in the U.S. and an important part of its revenue strategy. Now, however, Adidas has finally severed its extremely lucrative relationship with Ye. Ye generated close to 10% of the company’s revenue, but it looks like Adidas has finally decided that Ye’s behavior finally outweighed the amount of money he brought in. Ye’s loss of Adidas reportedly left a $1.5 billion dent in his net worth, dropping him from billionaire status. Gap similarly announced it would shut down YeezyGap and pull the merchandise. It seems Ye finally stepped over the line for corporate businesses. While Ye may be exempt from public cancelation, corporate cancelation is a different story. Corporations appear to be the only ones that can hold music artists accountable for their actions.
It’s long been debated whether one can embrace the art without supporting the artist; Ye has a history of coming out on the winning side of that question. Spotify has even come out and said that while they don’t agree with Ye’s statements, his music won’t be taken down because the songs don’t violate company policy.
Fans have repeatedly used Ye’s bipolar disorder as an excuse for his actions, but mental distress is no excuse for hate, especially since Ye has purposefully stopped taking medication meant to treat his bipolar disorder.
The “de-platforming” of Ye is a strong and necessary check against hate speech, but will it last? Like before, when the newsworthiness of his opinion dies down, Ye will simply shift his focus elsewhere to make another problematic statement. He’s beginning to do this now by apologizing to the Jewish community, just as he’s done with previous viewpoints or symbols that once threatened to overshadow his legacy. Ye can’t be erased from the public eye like others; his contributions are always seen as outweighing his misdeeds. When he drops a new album, he’s always labeled a “musical genius,” and the list of willing collaborators has remained as expansive as ever.
Likewise, he’s continually deemed a worthwhile risk by major music labels to allow their artists to be featured in Ye’s works. Ye’s history defines the blatantly hypocritical flaws of cancel culture when regarding musical artists. Ye has shown time and time again that no matter what he says, people will continue to support him. So, Ye may be canceled for now, but he won’t stay canceled for long.