When Our Heroes Fail Us
“When you hear about slavery for 400 years—for 400 years? That sounds like a choice. Like, you were there for 400 years and it’s all you all?”
These are the words of rapper, icon, creative genius, and now “free thinker” and apparent conservative, Kanye West. This was just one of many controversial statements he made during a surprise appearance on TMZ Live earlier this month, but it was by far the most impactful. It’s the one that led longtime fans to delete his songs and albums from their smartphones. It’s the one that sparked think piece after think piece about his impending downfall. It’s the one that inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates to write that Kanye wants “white freedom”(i.e. a freedom in which he can say whatever he wants without fear of consequence). It’s the one that finally made me stop and think, “Is it time to let Kanye go?”
To some, this might just be a matter of removing a song from a playlist or changing a radio station. But for me, even the thought of abandoning Kanye is one that deeply disturbs me.
On one hand, supporting Yeezy has always meant embracing some element of controversy. Whether he was speaking out politically (against George W. Bush during a 2005 Hurricane Katrina telethon), creatively (in the middle of Taylor Swift’s 2009 VMAs acceptance speech), or just nonsensically (again, at the VMAs, pondering a 2020 run for president), he was always speaking some element of truth, even if it wasn’t delivered in the most tactful way. But all those moments only intensified the potency of his music. He was an avant garde truthteller who spoke truth to power—in government, in executive boardrooms, in record labels, in his own family. He was a rapper unlike any we’d ever seen—an equally talented producer, an auteur, a middle class kid, an emotionally vulnerable black man. His music always challenged and intrigued me. Whether it was the stark electro of Yeezus or the massive ambition of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, nothing he’d ever said or done could change the way his music had impacted my life and my own creativity.
I never looked to him as a social role model—his lack of decorum has often been cringeworthy. I looked to him for artistic inspiration; he was, and I’m hoping still is, committed to his craft. He remains virtually peerless in the quality of music he releases. He boasts a catalog so strong that I saw no problem in separating the art from the artist. But now, he’s run afoul of the audience that built him, and I’m not sure I, or we, can all forgive him so easily.
I don’t need to spell out why his comments and actions in the last few weeks have been so disturbing. Though his music is loved and respected by the masses, he got his big break producing for JAY-Z. He created a career built on soul samples. He was embedded in, and a powerful critic of, hip hop culture. Speaking bluntly, his career has always been about black music. He has twisted and spun beautiful, new things out of it; he has combined it with other genres. But the core of what he does is black music—a music that is celebrated and cherished by black people. And to minimize the impact of slavery is to minimize the struggle of every black listener he’s ever had. How can any of us continue to listen to an artist who’s so out of touch with where he came from and with the people on the other side of his output?
I feel similarly conflicted about Junot Diaz, a gifted, Pulitzer Prize-winning artist whose entire bibliography I read last year. His output has been minimal but memorable. His sole novel and his short stories paint a vivid picture of immigrant life in the Tri-State area, of native life in the Dominican Republic. He writes effortlessly in an authentic voice that simultaneously pays tribute to his upbringing and opens up a new world to the reader. From the first page of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I was in awe of his ability. Immediately, I added him to my list of literary icons, right up there with Zadie Smith, James Baldwin, and Joan Didion. And then, the news broke.
He was accused of sexual misconduct and misogynistic behavior by a group, yes a group, of young women writers. In the two weeks since, his stories have been removed from anthologies, and Twitter’s literary circle has been ravaged by discussion of his behavior.
Unlike my relationship with Kanye’s work, I never had a reason to separate Junot Diaz from his art. In fact, so much of what made his art so true and so compelling was how much of him existed within it. But much like my relationship with Kanye’s work, continuing to show appreciation for it means questioning my morals.
How can I hold on to the era-defining work from both of these men without supporting their views or behavior? Is there a way for me to do that?
In a sense, I hate that I, like so many others, have placed so much value in idolizing or worshipping certain artists. Both Kanye and Junot are humans like us; they’ve just had an opportunity to share their otherworldly talents with a mass audience. But they’re still flawed; they’re still people. Yet somewhere along the line, once they began to rack up achievements, I, or rather we, expected them to be perfect. We expected them not to have dark pasts. We expected them to behave respectfully. We expected their lives to be as flawless as their work. Because we liked their books and their music, we expected to like every other part of them too.
And now, I wonder if I’m disappointed because they’ve revealed themselves to be somewhat despicable human beings? Or if I’m disappointed because they’ve failed to meet the expectations that I’ve set for them?
It’s not easy for me to answer that question. But I do feel let down. I do feel that they’ve failed me, in some way. I wanted to believe that these men, whose work I admire so dearly, were decent people. I fear that because they’re not, I’ll never see their artistic contributions the same way. In turn, it may lead me to view certain periods of my life differently. And still, in that process, it leads me to doubt whether I should look up to anyone.
Art versus artist? Art and artist? I’m not sure I can decide. When I see Drown on my bookcase, I’m not sure if it should stay there. When I listen to my wedding playlist and “Faded” starts, I’m not sure if I should skip it. It’s this indecision that now defines my relationship with my creative idols instead of admiration. It’s this indecision that’s a gamechanger in the worst possible way.