Kanye West and I agree on one thing. We both miss the old Kanye.
Of course, he means it sarcastically. I mean it with a sense of desperate, quiet frustration. So maybe we don’t actually agree.
Kanye has always been a controversial figure, as genre-defining artists often are. It’s hard to overstate just how much he’s set the cultural and musical tones for the entire hip-hop industry — from embracing gospel influences to revolutionizing the way samples are used, from popularizing the voice modifier effects so common today to producing legendary albums for Jay-Z and other peers, Kanye West is an unarguable rap icon.
But that doesn’t excuse his recent behavior. When I — a longtime Kanye fan and, coincidentally, a Jewish man — woke up to the news that the rapper had threatened to go “death con 3” on my community, it felt like he had finally crossed a line. Because while Kanye has publicly acted out for years now, explicit hate speech is another issue altogether.
We all know that Kanye West infamously interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 Video Music Awards, causing an unexpectedly explosive backlash. But what we never could have predicted at the time is that this one drunken, split-second decision would set the stage for Kanye’s gradual transformation into a pop culture villain, ultimately costing the hip-hop megastar his entire empire.
Since the 2009 incident, Kanye’s behavior has become more problematic. The artist surprised everyone by vocally supporting Donald Trump in 2018; the same year he told viewers of TMZ Live that he believed slavery was a choice. In 2022, Kanye received more national media attention when he made a series of death threats against comedian Pete Davidson for dating his ex-wife, Kim Kardashian. Of course, all of this has since been overshadowed by the rapper’s choice to wear a “White Lives Matter” shirt at the Paris fashion week earlier this month and, just days after that, his unapologetically antisemitic Instagram rant.
Now, Kanye has functionally destroyed his career. Creative Artists Agency, one of the top Hollywood entertainment agencies, cut relations with their former client, as did MRC (the film and television studio behind an upcoming Kanye West biopic). And it goes beyond industry ties — Kanye has also lost millions of dollars from now-defunct partnerships with several major clothing retailers, including Adidas, Balenciaga, and Gap. Vogue editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour also announced that the fashion outlet would blacklist the celebrity, noting that the brand had no plans to ever work with Kanye again following his recent outburst.
It all makes me incredibly sad. However atrocious his behavior, Kanye has given so much to so many people through his music, and it’s painful to see him seemingly lose his grip on reality. Worse, Kanye hasn’t just betrayed his values — he’s turned on my community specifically, playing into the insidiously harmful, deathless prejudices and stereotypes that demonstrably endanger me and the people I care about. It may not have been anyone’s priority before this recent scandal, but antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the United States last year, and they show no signs of slowing yet. Kanye’s actions mainstream and normalize this behavior even further, telling the American public that committing hate crimes like attacking Jewish people on the street, graffitiing swastikas on college campuses, or slashing tires outside synagogues while patrons practice their religion are all perfectly acceptable things to do.
It’s difficult to counter any prejudice, but antisemitism presents a particularly unique challenge. It’s a hard situation for its victims — either we acquiesce and allow ourselves to be targeted, or we speak up, in which case our efforts to force consequences upon our bullies often only serve to confirm for them our supposed nefarious, cartel-like control of our national cultural institutions. When platformed celebrities like Kanye do what he did, they force the American Jewish community into a defensive, untenable position. And that can do serious long-term damage.
I, like British journalist Ben Judah, once believed that antisemitism was like a plague: devastating, yet historic. But — living through a real pandemic — I, like Judah, have come to an altogether more terrifying realization. “Now I realize that antisemitism is actually like the flu,” Judah writes. “Uncomfortable, sickly, occasionally deadly, but constantly with us. Every few decades, it mutates into an epidemic. The rest of the time it lingers, producing headaches, sweats, and dizzy spells. Not killing us, just wearing us down.”
Earlier today, I forced myself to skip “Drive Slow” when it began playing from one of my Spotify playlists. I used to love that song. If grappling with problematic behavior is hard, it’s compounded by the attachment I still have to the fallen hip-hop savant and his music. Because no matter what I do, I’m left with one inescapable thought.
I miss the old Kanye.