The Kanye quandary: can we separate art from artist?

Connor Foote, Editor-in-Chief

“But he made Graduation!” You know the familiar cry. An anguished soul, desperately trying to rectify their dueling feelings. On one side, the greatest musician of the 21st century, and on the other, a man who has disgraced himself fully and unabashedly.

Since the birth of modern celebrity, names like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley and their problematic behavior have plagued the minds of the masses, putting them to an ethical test with no conclusive answer. Elvis fits this mold. Perhaps the first true rockstar, Presley wowed with his glamorous getups and swingin’ dance moves, not to mention his rich voice. However, much of his catalog are songs originally attributed to Black artists: Hound Dog is originally attributed to the much less famous Big Mama Thornton. Did he intend to set back Black artists? Probably not. Did he do it? Yes, he did. Even more famous than Elvis in their respective times, Ye, formerly Kanye West, is the eventual focal point of every art vs. artist debate.

Ye’s first appearance was on Gravity’s 1996 album “Down to Earth”, where he produced eight tracks and rapped on two of them. The then-19-year-old West would go on to produce for other rappers, most notably Jay-Z and duo Black Star. His debut album, “The College Dropout”, landed in 2004, beginning one of the most polarizing musical careers ever.

Just days after Hurricane Katrina, in a nationally televised event organized to raise money for victims of the disaster, West declared that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” I will stay away from unraveling the details of that statement, instead choosing to focus on what is often ignored about his appearance: he gives a nuanced take on how the media portrayed white families as searching for food, while Black people were cast as rioters, a clear double standard. Unfortunately, this is where the “good trouble” ends.

Celebrity changes people, and West is no exception. In the past, his comment on how “slavery was a choice,” public endorsement of Donald Trump and outbursts of ego have paved his name in the controversy hall of fame. But his personal life isn’t easily distanced from his musical career. His 2009 incident with Taylor Swift at the MTV Music Awards and the media and public pushback that came with it created “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” (MBDTF) a consensus excellent album. Even before this, art and artist have merged. West has always been personal with his music; his first single “Through the Wire,” is about the near-fatal car crash that almost ended his career before it started, “Roses” details his grandmother’s death and his revolutionary 2008 album “808’s and Heartbreak” grapples with deeply personal lost love. Like “808’s”, MBDTF is in direct correlation to his personal life. Without the artist, there can be no art. West not only raps as a true rendition of himself in those moments, it is hard to envision the LP as best without keeping in mind the circumstances that birthed it. The same can be said for 2016’s “The Life of Pablo,” 2018’s “Ye” and “Kids See Ghosts” with Kid Cudi. Without considering Ye as a person, these albums, while still incredible, are worse.

West has not always been a disreputable man. Decades in the spotlight changes a person, but still there is no excuse for how he has acted in recent months. Regular anti-semitism has given way to associating with white nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes, a proposal for Donald Trump to be his running mate, and praise for Hitler. There is no need to say that he’s unequivocally a bad person, but his music is still out there. Typically, this type of discussion is given as a black-and-white, pick a side argument and in these situations the discussion has failed before it can even begin because of its premise. There is no black without white.

Ye’s music cannot possibly be separated from his character, this is true. As most great, meaningful music is, art and artist are meant to be observed as one, not just because it enhances the experience, but because that’s how it is meant to be listened to. This article won’t have changed your opinion on whether it is or isn’t ethical to listen to one of the greatest and most troubled musicians ever, but I hope to have shed nuance on a discussion that lacks that factor. Totally boycott West for his hate or continue listening to his records because they’re a sonic achievement while viewing it through our current perspective. Whatever you do, know that it’s impossible to separate art from artist, and we, the lucky consumer, are all the better for it.