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Same Kanye, New Tactics

The rapper hasn’t become a different person since he said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He’s using a new approach on a new president.

April 27, 2018

Cross-posted from Slate.

Kanye West set social media ablaze on Wednesday in typical Kanye fashion, making a provocative, out-of-the-blue statement in a matter-of-fact way. He said he loved Donald Trump, calling him his brother who’s filled with the same “dragon energy.” Even though he doesn’t agree with everything the president does, West said, he admires Trump’s independent thought. Kanye was energized and basking in the attention he’d commanded. Even President Trump responded to ’Ye twice, thanking him for his support and tweeting “MAGA!” in solidarity.

That Kanye is a Trump supporter is somewhat unsurprising and unremarkable. After all, like other black celebrities and athletes, he famously made the trek to Trump Tower shortly after the 2016 election to meet with the president-elect. And exit polls showed that about 1 in 8 black men supported Trump. Kanye, then, is just Brother No. 8. Black folks know lots of Brother No. 8s.

But how could he support a president who manages to see the goodness in white nationalists filled with racial vitriol but calls black football players protesting racial injustice sons of bitches? Where did the post-Katrina, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” version of Kanye go?

Nowhere. He’s the same ’Ye.

As Lupe Fiasco put it, “remember this the same dude that when he speaks, U.S. presidents respond.” He’s simply changed his approach to get the ear of a new president. This tactic is part of a long tradition of black political behavior. Certainly, this could be nothing more than a publicity stunt to draw attention to his forthcoming music; Kanye’s politics are far from clear. But his approach provides a glimpse at the evolution of black political expression before and after Obama.

An unresponsive government is nothing new to black folks.

The story of black America is one of frustration and dissatisfaction with our democratic institutions’ lack of responsiveness to policy demands. Seeking ways to gain access to, and exert pressure on, political leaders has long been the name of the game.

There’s a political consistency in Kanye’s slamming Bush on live TV in 2005, high black electoral participation in 2008 and 2012, the emergence of Black Lives Matter during a black presidency, and the manner in which some black folks engage with Donald Trump today. Each of these strategies was employed to get the president’s—and the nation’s—attention.

What Kanye did in 2005 was give voice to black suffering in a way that President Bush and the nation couldn’t ignore. Whether he meant it this way or not, it was a political act that exerted pressure on the policy apparatus to be more responsive.

When Obama ran for president, black political expression was heavily electoral, with black Americans mobilizing and voting at historic rates in 2008 and 2012 to make him a two-term president. By consolidating action within democratic processes, black America ensured that the president would serve as its advocate and voice whenever policy was formed and debated.

By his second term, however, much of black America had become sick of the backlash that inevitably came every time Obama mentioned race and had grown frustrated by the nation’s insufficient responses to the public deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of law enforcement. Unable to compel change through democratic institutions, black activists invoked the tradition of protest. The youth-led rise of Black Lives Matter was matched by the exit of young black voters from the electoral process in 2012, a group that said, essentially, “We tried to change the nation the ‘right’ way, now we’re going to do it our way.”

For all the critiques black Americans may have had of the Obama administration, there was never any question that we at least had a voice. When Obama left the White House, access to and influence on the policy process left with him, creating a vacuum for black political expression.

For black folks attempting to get their policy concerns heard and addressed by the White House in 2018, calling Trump names will not work. Using protest and activism also won’t work during his presidency in the way it did during Obama’s. Praise, however, seems to reach him. But given the scores of racist remarks he’s made for years, winning Trump over with compliments feels especially unacceptable. But black politics has never required a politician’s good heart to precede good policy.

It has long been the mantra of purists that black America has no party, only interests. This was at the heart of Chance the Rapper’s tweet in support of the spirit of Kanye’s comments if not the letter: “Black people don’t have to be Democrats.” Black political interests do not require loyalty to any party or person. The presidents of historically black colleges were widely criticized for engaging Trump, but they did it anyway because they felt it was in the interest of black America. Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus met with Trump because they felt it was in the interest of black America. And the black celebrities and athletes meeting with Trump say the same thing.

When West met with Trump after the election, he tweeted, “I feel it’s important to have a direct line of communication with our future president if we truly want change.” Retired football players Ray Lewis and Jim Brown said they met with Trump to advocate for helping black people through urban development and job creation. Steve Harvey discussed inner city housing with the president.

It must be said that Trump has yet to deliver on any of these fronts—in fact, his administration has done harm to these causes. And this is to say nothing of the political opportunists who will hijack comments for their own purposes, like the conservative media outlets who are now fawning over Kanye after years of chastising him or the libertarians and democratic socialists alike who are now parroting Cardi B’s talking points on tax brackets and Social Security.

While Kanye’s politics are far from clear, his tweets praising Donald Trump provide a glimpse at the evolution of black political expression before and after Obama.

An unresponsive government, however, is nothing new to black folks. And failing to engage the president is an act to be undertaken at our own peril. With this administration, any hope of political engagement seems to require leading with praise. And, let him tell it, Kanye has the answer.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.