Kanye West and Antisemitism Today

Mason Rath, Staff Writer

Whether they paid attention to him or not before, the music artist Kanye West has almost certainly been on the radar of everyone recently due to his outbursts in the media, especially concerning Jewish people. His sudden fall poses the question, how could this Grammy winning billionaire artist have fallen so fall from being named, possibly, the most influential artist of the 21st century?

Kanye’s upbringing, especially the background of his father, is important to understanding his story. He grew up in Chicago, notably living in a middle-class family. Much of rap music at the time leaned heavily into poverty and barely surviving in the city, so Kanye’s background already gave him trouble making it in the industry. His mother, Donda, was a college professor, but his dad was a photographer and former Black Panther. The Black Panthers were an organization that started by patrolling Black neighborhoods to protect against police brutality. However, as they gained numbers, they became more and more radical, shifting their focus to arming African Americans, removing them from drafts, etc. After the movement died out, it resurfaced again later under the same name but led by totally different people. These people did not have the original interests of the Black Panther movement at heart, resulting in the group being deemed as a racist, antisemitic hate group. Fortunately, Kanye’s father was in the group during the first phase, when it defended innocents from police brutality. It is possible however, that the ideas of the movement stuck with Kanye later in life.

After dropping out of Chicago State University, Kanye went to New York to pursue a career in music. He began as a producer and gained notoriety for work with Jermaine Dupri and especially for Jay Z at Roc-A-Fella Records. He leaned heavily into the classic hip-hop concept of sampling, taking pieces of old songs to use in a new one, and quickly made his way to the top. As mentioned earlier, he was turned down when he attempted to make his own music because of his middle-class background, but when he finally released his debut album, The College Dropout, he became a smashing success and quickly rose to the top of the hip hop scene. He picked up multiple awards not only for his debut album, but for his work with Alicia Keys. His next album, Late Registration, was also a hit, winning him many awards. Kanye still executively produced all his songs and with his sudden fame, continued to work as a producer for many other famous artists such as Nas, Mariah Carey, and Beyonce. With every album he would release in the future more awards would roll in, and he would even create a successful fashion line called Yeezy.

What about Kanye’s music and overall presentation made him so popular? To start, as mentioned before, he heavily utilized sampling. He especially liked sampling soul singers such as Otis Redding and Chaka Khan, taking these iconic singers and twisting their songs into something new. Besides such heavy use of sampling, his style of rap was also different in that it was a bit more elevated than its predecessors. Even in the album design of The College Dropout the ornate golden leaf border sets an example that rap does not have to be all about making it on the streets in queens, but about a high rise in Brooklyn. Kanye did not just make his name off his first album, however. He continued to change his style as he progressed through his career. Often his new endeavors would bring the rest of the rap genre along with him. The best example of this was his third studio album, 808s and Heartbreak, in which he exchanged his usual upbeat style for a melancholier sound, as he channeled feelings that came as a result of the loss of his mother Donda and his engagement with Alexis Phifer. Most of the lyrics were sang through autotune and he used the sounds of 808s to create a whole new type of rap. Many rappers were so inspired by this that this album almost single handedly created a whole new genre of rap. Notable examples would be Juice Wrld and XXXtentacion. While he never made another album quite this influential again, each album he released had the rest of the rap world watching closely and trying to follow suit. Finally, and possibly most importantly, Kanye lured listeners in with his grandiose and flamboyant personality. In his music, many of Kanye’s songs have a feeling of almost majesty, and the best example of this is Rolling Stone’s seventeenth greatest album of all time, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This album came after a period, as will be touched on later, where Kanye was publicly shamed and had essentially gone into exile. Songs like “Power” and “All of the Lights took” 5,000 plus hours to make and when listening to the album it’s impossible not to be caught up in the fantasy he creates. Some of the many features include Elton John, John Legend, Chris Rock, and even Rihanna. Britannica describes the album as “a monumentally complex exploration of the nature of success and celebrity,” and this theme is common throughout many of Kanye’s other songs like “Saint Pablo.”

As stated before, one of Kanye’s major appealing features was his flamboyant personality. With his success and billionaire status he had money to spend and lived a lavish lifestyle. With this also came a certain personality, and Kanye was not afraid to say what he was thinking. One of the first examples would be his outburst on a 2005 live telethon raising money for Hurricane Katrina. In the middle of the program, Kanye went off script and said out of nowhere, “George Bush does not care about Black people.” Tone Deaf provides context for the seemingly random remark, saying that “the rapper was frustrated at how mismanaged the relief efforts were in New Orleans, with predominantly poor neighborhoods destroyed.” However, the incident seems to mark a trend of Kanye not being able to hold his tongue. 2009 marks possibly the most famous Kanye outburst, taking place at the MTV VMAs, Kanye stepped onstage and remarked to an award receiving, 17-year-old Taylor Swift, “Yo Taylor, I am really happy for you, I will let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!” Kanye received heavy backlash online for this event and it was ultimately what sent him into his self-imposed exile, producing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye’s next notable statement would come amid the 2016 election when he would publicly express his love for Trump. He made sure to note that he had not voted and that he still believed in Womens’ Rights and the Black Lives Matter movement, but that he liked a lot of things about Trump’s campaign. Needless to say, this was a rather perplexing statement and controversial for many. Kanye’s potentially most controversial statement would come in 2018, where he would say, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” He would try to back up this horrifying statement by clarifying what he meant, as he was trying to make the point that slavery had not only physically imprisoned hundreds of slaves but had mentally imprisoned black people as a whole. In usual Kanye fashion however, he took a somewhat reasonable idea and wrapped it up in an emotionally charged, highly controversial statement. Shortly after this statement Kanye would release a pair of albums. The first was Ye, in which he opened up about his bipolar disorder. This was a rather revealing piece of information, as Kanye’s behavior throughout the years made much more sense knowing more about his mental health. The second album, Kids See Ghosts, with Kid Cudi, was less significant but also about mental health.

Kanye’s series of antisemitic statements began on October 3, 2022, when he wore an oversized t-shirt with the phrase, “white lives matter” on the back. This phrase has been known to be used as a clap back from white supremacists to the Black Lives Matter movement. It also carries some antisemitic weight, though not directly. Kanye claims to have worn it only because he thought it would be funny for him to, but the shirt nevertheless was very controversial. On October 7, Kanye would begin a streak of antisemitic hate speech on social media. He first suggested the producer Sean Combs (Puff Daddy) was being controlled by Jewish people and was accordingly banned. He would follow this with a twitter post cited by the New York Times, “that he would soon go ‘death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE,’ a reference to the United States’ defense readiness condition, known as Def. Con.” His Twitter account was locked, and a total fallout followed. Kanye lost partnerships with all of the companies he was working with, including his collaboration with Adidas, reportedly worth billions. He would continue to make comments about Jewish people and falsely suggest George Floyd died from Fentanyl use. The final nail in the coffin, however, would come when Kanye appeared on the InfoWars Podcast to claim that he saw good things about Hitler. Upon his eventual return to Twitter, things would only get worse when Kanye posted a swastika within the Star of David. The final words Kanye shared in his series of terrible claims, came when he appeared on another white supremacist, antisemitic podcast and said that Jewish people should forgive Hitler and deserved to work for Christians.

Many do not realize how prevalent antisemitism still is in America and the world as a whole. Just because the days of the holocaust and Nazis are over does not mean that their ideas are too. The American Jewish Society conducted polls centered around antisemitism and they found that 43 percent of American Jews though that antisemitism was a seriously prevalent problem, while at least 46 percent found that it was somewhat of a problem. However, when they surveyed the general American Public, they found that only 22 percent of people found antisemitism to be a serious problem. In regard to Kanye, all students interviewed seemed to not be fully aware of what he said, and the severity of his words. It is also debatable why Kanye said the terrible antisemitic things that he did. For example, sophomore Sawyer Frye thinks that his actions were “definitely for attention and to get people thinking about him,” while senior Faith Szabo adds that, “I do not know if people would go that far for attention, so I think he probably believes that on some level and that he is misled.” While it can be argued back and forth over how far celebrities may go for attention, there is definitely something to be said about the pressure and scrutiny that comes with being in the public eye. Especially for someone that is bipolar like Kanye, as freshman Evan Nevils points out, “There is a lot of stress being that famous, and when you are famous you just say what you want sometimes.”

Kanye West serves as an example of how putting celebrities or anyone famous on a pedestal can make for very drastic consequences. The AJC found that 82% of American Jews felt as if antisemitism has been increasing in recent years, likely due in no small part to Kanye West being able to use his platform to share his hateful views. These views are often rooted in fact and as junior Ashlyn Higgins says, “it is not ok to say those things when you aren’t educated on the subject.” Since Kanye has been given such a superstar status by his fans, they have continued to follow him and try to deny or rationalize what he has is saying. This allows his platform to continue and creates more and more hate directed at Jews. The only way to stop these kinds of people and hate in general is to not allow those who spread these types of beliefs to have a platform.