Kanye West, arguably the most influential pop culture figure today, recently tweeted out his support for Republican President Donald Trump, sending shockwaves through the left.
“The mob can’t make me not love him,” Kanye wrote of Trump. His celebrity pals like John Legend texted him asking him to stop. Legend said this would hurt Kanye’s legacy and that “So many people who love you feel betrayed.” Kanye replied: “I love you John, and I appreciate your thoughts. You bringing up my fans or my legacy is a tactic based on fear used to manipulate my free thought.”
We know this because Kanye posted a screenshot of that conversation to Twitter. He then released an impromptu song where he and influential rapper T.I traded verses about Trump, with T.I. trying to get Kanye to reverse his Trump support. The song ends with Kanye insisting that no one will change his mind about the president. He has since posted text conversations about Lincoln and the Republicans, as well as his meeting with conservative commentator Candace Owens. He’s posted liberal rebuttals as well, as well as quotes from conservative intellectual Thomas Sowell, which made jaws hit the floor. What are conservatives to make of all this? Is Kanye West a conservative?
Not exactly. In between Trump tweets he also called the anti-Second Amendment activist Emma Gonzalez his hero. And a quick review of the majority of his lyrics will dismiss any notion that he is the Light of conservatism amidst the Vandal flood. It is embarrassing to see pundits, who just yesterday told artists to shut up and sing, portraying Kanye as Barry Goldwater with a drum machine. Yet this is nothing new: conservatives following Kanye’s career have long seen a strange and unlikely ally. Something distinctly classical stalks the imagination of the “Jesus Walks” rapper. Rather than embrace Kanye as a right-leaning propaganda czar, or snobbishly sneer at popular artists, conservatives should look at the man’s art. This will help us not only understand why Kanye West of all people is tweeting about Thomas Sowell, but why conservatives are so often missing from influential art.
So where are all the conservative artists? The right has seized on Kanye’s tweets because there are no influential right-wing alternatives to Kanye in pop culture today. Young conservatives fall over themselves to adjust Powerpoints at the Heritage Foundation and flock to other outposts of CPAC nerd-dom. But why are there no young conservative actors, directors, singers, writers, painters? Smug liberals might claim a conservative artist is an oxymoron. At a glance, we, too, might snicker at the idea of a conservative experimental poet. Do we forget T.S Eliot? In literature alone, conservatives used to be well represented: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh, to name a few. Perhaps liberal gatekeepers have weeded out conservatives. Yet it seems more like conservatives simply do not encourage each other to pursue art. One obvious reason for this could be that they find the decadence of popular art repugnant.
Flannery O’Connor said she wrote about “the action of grace in territory held largely by the Devil.” To even the most secular conservative, modern American culture can seem like the devil’s territory. Hip-hop in particular is known for the glorification of violence, the objectification of women, crass lasciviousness, and opposition to law enforcement. I am sympathetic to conservatives who dismiss it as blatant cultural and moral rot. However, hip-hop is also the dominant music form of our time. Regardless of your personal opinion, it has influenced young artists for over 30 years now. And if conservatives can only offer kids-these-days platitudes, then we relegate ourselves to irrelevance. Remember that conservative philosopher Richard Weaver grumbled about jazz. Then conservative judge Robert Bork complained about rock while pining for the good old days of jazz.
Even the “cool” conservatives who tell us that hip-hop is indeed great art don’t offer anything more to guide the young artist either. The most poignant criticism of hip-hop is that the repetitive and mechanical sounds are dehumanizing by their nature. The lyrics follow because the form limits what can be said about the human condition. All of these criticisms are addressed head-on in Kanye West’s most famous album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” through which we can see the thread that ultimately led to his current Twitter apostasies
“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is about a descent into the devil’s territory. It supplements hip-hop’s limits with classical elements and allusions from the Western canon to create art with a glimmer of grace. Largely considered his masterpiece, it explores themes of decadence and temptation, often juxtaposing heavenly violin arrangements with crass lyrics and electronic beats. It sounds like he is trying to say something bigger than hip-hop can allow, and this tension between expression and form drives the album’s mosaic narrative: a distinct tragedy that traces Kanye’s fall from the heights of Mount Olympus into the pit of hell in the epic poem tradition. The tale is redolent of Dante, and as in Milton, the devil is a primary character.
In this manner, Kanye sidesteps the most common conservative criticisms of rap. If you listened to 90 percent of the song “Power” you would have heard a celebration of the ego, prideful taunts, and bragging about drunk driving. But it ends with something more interesting. Kanye raps the line “I got the power to make your life so exciting,” but the last two words repeat and get distorted with synths until it sounds like the word suicide is being repeated. Then Kanye begins to sing about jumping out of a window. Like “The Inferno” and Christian orthodoxy, Kanye links pride and suicide. The majority of the song fulfills the genre’s expectations, but this last section with the introduction of strings and ominous laughter brings us back to the classical worldview, condemning the prior section and reminding us that this is a trip to hell. It is not coincidence that in the short film that accompanied the album, Kanye dates a harpy, the tormentor of suicides in Dante’s seventh circle.
The album is also filled with ridiculous lyrics that anyone with good taste would find repugnant. But Kanye’s self-awareness allows him to use this to deliver quick moments of real beauty where he does what all great music does: tries to convey the ineffable. Like when he places a quiet and sad violin arrangement between two bombastic rap tracks. And when he lets silence speak, the listener is reminded of all that is missing from baroque hip-hop. The album ends with Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “Who Will Survive in America.” Not necessarily a conservative favorite, but following this personal descent into hell, the words throw all of hip-hop’s deficiencies back in our face. Who among us can truly hold onto the permanent things in the midst of our culture’s constant temptations?
This pushing the limits of hip-hop relies on influences of high culture from the Western canon. Kanye as a creator justified the conservative critic’s notion of the canon as landmark works that inspire other artists. This means that, in a manner, whoever Kanye inspires will also inherit Cicero’s Sword of Damocles, Mozart’s Lacrimosa, and Dante’s Inferno. Who has done more to pass on the West’s cultural patrimony: the vast conservative pundit class or Kim Kardashian’s husband?
Cormac McCarthy said “the ugly fact is that books are written by other books, the novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” This is true of almost all art. It is a series of influences passed down through generations, and if we do not engage in the art of today, we consign tomorrow’s art to silence. If we want more conservative artists, we must offer them inspiration. Kanye West may have few furnishings from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, but he has more for conservatives to discuss then just pro-Trump tweets. If Western culture is worth conserving, then it demands new artists who will point to the future of art by conversing with the past.
James McElroy is a young novelist and essayist who works in Finance.