Kanye West and Cancel Culture - Sazi Bongwe

Few names are attached to as much controversy as recently declared billionaire, Kanye West’s. It seems as if Kanye is able to exist as a musical icon and simultaneously as a perennial celebrity, embracing every last connotation of the word. But this dichotomy is what Kanye West fans and the music world as a whole have struggled with the most. From statements like “slavery was a choice” and the tweet attached below, to his endorsement and affiliation with that most problematic man who occupies the presidency of the United States of America, Kanye’s adult life has been steeped in controversy and dispute. When you bear all of this in mind, it becomes hard to appreciate his music, which is undoubtedly some of the best and most enterprising ever released. The dilemma of Kanye West provides us with a lens through which to interrogate one of modern society's most complex questions : can an artist’s works, in this case music, be held separate from their actions and opinions? It’s a question that I’ve grappled with a lot internally, yet I still can’t say that I have reached a definitive answer.

A tweet from Kanye West's twitter (The Guardian)

Before I go on, I think it’s important to note that at no point do I aim to condone the discriminatory or bigoted actions or statements made by artists. Rather I’m trying to understand and delve a bit deeper into the reactions we as a society have to these and how we chose to go on engaging with them and their content. Prejudice is prejudice and hate is hate, no matter who it comes from.

In an attempt to answer this question, the phenomenon of cancel culture was born. Essentially, cancel culture dictates that if somebody does or says anything deemed to be problematic, they (and their work) should lose all credibility, social standing and currency. The notion is that the action or statement in question warrants the complete loss of their voice and platform to go on and say anything else. It’s my view that out of this arise two main arguments. The first, in favour of cancel culture, is that if somebody abuses their voice in society they no longer deserve to have this voice, as clearly they’re not fit or trustworthy enough; and that furthermore the consequences of this abuse spreads into everything within their influence, and thus all of that should be held in the same vein. The second, condemning cancel culture, ultimately amounts to change - everybody is capable of change and improvement and deserves a second chance. Although they both seem to be compelling arguments, they are seldom presented in this manner, and this is where cancel culture falls apart. It’s premise, and any discourse surrounding it, is obscured by subjectivity and personal affiliation.

At this point I think it's important to make the distinction between ‘cancelling someone’ and cancel culture. Cancelling someone involves calling someone out for their problematic behaviour and this in and of itself has value - for starters it triggers accountability and ownership. Cancelling someone, in modern media, means that they are no longer able to occupy their platform, they lose their voice and credibility, and their art is boycotted. Relations and partnerships with them are often severed entirely, and it's an attempt to strip them of everything essentially. Whether you agree with this or not, the idea itself is effective in its purpose - condemning the celebrities and their actions and making sure that they see the scale of the consequences, and that the victims or those offended receive closure.

Sourced from “Understanding online shaming - a guide for parents” from parentinfo.org

In my view, cancel culture in popular media and society has strayed away from this initial intent. The culture around cancelling is more the tendency towards this behaviour, how this principle realistically is carried out and the discourse that surrounds that. If you haven't picked it up already then I think it’s important to note now that cancel culture holds a lot of destructive power. One common decision could in effect change somebody’s life forever, and more often than not, for the worse. Also - it's extremely subjective. This relationship between immense power and unending subjectivity is a notably hard balance to strike, and I think the difficulty in maintaining it is where the unsustainability of cancel culture seeps through. Cancel culture is reactionary; somebody will only be subjected to cancelling should they do or say something problematic, and the nature of human beings is that we react to things in considerably different ways. So I think whether you find value in it or not, the fact that there’s no measure to discern what or who should be cancelled, yet cancelling possesses the power to alter lives so dramatically, puts it in dangerous territory to begin with.

Conversations around cancel culture have centred around an exploration of whether the practice is ultimately a good one or a harmful one. Few things in the world are black and white, and cancel culture, in this respect, is most certainly not one of them. Nuances exist on both sides, and unfortunately it's application often diverts away from its initial, intended premise.

For all the good and the social progress that cancel culture aims to achieve, it seldom reaches these objectives. Cancel culture breeds both harm and good. Part of the harm is that it often acts as a mechanism for people to avoid actual engagement and analysis. In the way in which it is carried out, it can oversimplify. Firstly, we’ve seen cancelling somebody being used in so many different situations that ultimately it becomes hard to separate one from the other and the authenticity of cancelling in various situations loses a lot of its effect. The nature and definition of cancelling somebody means that the term carries a lot of significance; so when cancelling is reverted to a measure taken in trivial instances, as it often is, it loses this value and bit by bit chips away at the term’s significance in situations where it’s necessary and truly applicable. One of these applicable scenarios is R Kelly - he felt the full wrath of cancel culture, and rightfully so, to the point where a documentary was made entitled “Surviving R. Kelly”, and this was one of our society’s most inclusive and unifying moments yet. Last year he was charged with 18 federal charges, including child sexual exploitation, owing largely to the exposure that cancel culture played a part in. The danger is in the fact that if society hasn’t reached its saturation point with this term already, I’m sure it will soon and it will be rendered to something of a cliche, and this would have a profound effect on how issues are looked at and the aftermath of them in media and society. A tendency to use the term in trivial situations undermines its usage in those of importance, and undermines our view of cancel culture as a whole.

Secondly and more importantly, cancel culture’s applications often run the risk of working in opposition to any form of progressive discussion. In a sense, when you cancel somebody for something problematic that they’ve said, two outcomes can arise. One works in a harmful way, and involves the absolving of the accountability and a lack of cognisance of the actual initial transgression. This outcome works to undermine social change and mutual intellectual growth. The person, while ostracised, seldom recognises the hurt they’ve actually caused and people subscribe to cancelling them in a sort of herd-like manner, meaning they too don’t understand what the problem is. Ultimately, what you get is an obscuring of the narrative; away from the actual problematic nature and harm of the action or statement, to a grievance against the person, without a sense of understanding. While this isn’t inherent to cancel culture, it’s often what happens, especially when notably prominent celebrities are called into question.

In a far better outcome and one that we should aspire to, the artist doesn’t disappear from the discourse and ultimately constructive discussions arise on both sides. What should follow in society from what we currently understand as a situation necessitating that somebody be ‘cancelled’ is a conversation on the impact of the transgression and a way forward. Why something was problematic, why it was especially hurtful from whoever it came from, and how we ought to behave around the issue going forward. From the artists’ point of view, whatever level of ostracisation they face should be a call for them to reevaluate their actions, words and views. Beyond cancel culture, people will naturally distance themselves from behaviour they find problematic, but the herd-like way cancel culture is perpetuated in calls out for discussion. In my experience of the phenomenon, the first outcome occurs more often than the second, sometimes subconsciously, which is why reservations around cancel culture arise. In and of itself, cancelling can be a good and altruistic movement, but cancel culture unfortunately has strayed far from this to the point where I think it’s of more value to discuss how this pans out rather than the movement itself.

Cancel culture has validity in that it sets an unwavering and tremendously valuable precedent. In its most well founded form, cancel culture makes clear to anybody, from the most popular celebrity to the common citizen, that they ought to be informed, politically aware and maintain a level of cognisance and empathy so as to keep these attributes attached to them. Now whether you frown upon that because you think that it shouldn’t take the fear of being cancelled to motivate somebody to ‘tow the line,’ you cannot fault its effectiveness. At the end of the day, people are cancelled because their words and/or actions cause offence and hurt. As humans we’re inclined to utilitarianism and it follows that we support the least amount of harm and offence through any means, and I think this one is somewhat viable. The precedent is set in that when somebody is cancelled, it says to the world that this behaviour won’t be tolerated. With every cancelled person comes a glaring display of what not to do and how not to act. This means that not only can the hurt be minimised in the process of silencing this person, it means that we learn from the situation to. Rather than for the situation to exclusively inflict pain, as a society we’re able to make lemonade out of the sour lemons, and update our definitions of what we find acceptable. Artists are able to recognise that as influencers they have a responsibility to give a platform to inclusive, constructive content, and that failure to do so results in the loss of their voice and a boycotting of their art.

Lana Del Rey’s comment on a post on Kanye West’s instagram

Every scenario in which this dilemma is presented is immensely complex, and it’s important that cancel culture doesn’t work to devalue this complexity. I’m thus led to believe that this same complexity is where you find your answers. Lana Del Rey could’ve just flipped a huge zap sign to Kanye West, but rather, she took the time to delve into why Kanye’s actions were so detrimental and problematic. Fionna Apple, when addressing the same issue in a youtube video intended for Kanye, explained clearly the pitfalls of associating with Trump and why it was such a bad move. I think that as a society we ought to follow this same trend. Yes, while we severely condemn these celebrities for comments and actions that display insensitivity, prejudice or any obstruction of justice and hold their discographies and art under scrutiny and in review, the conversation does not end there. Just as we’d expect of anybody in society, what should follow is an acknowledgement of the harm and the issue, and then accountability toward rectification and a growth of understanding. This might not always be the case; people are often resolute in their opinions (something that Lana recognised as she signed her comment off with : “message sent with concern that will never be addressed”). However, it will only ever be enabled through a nuanced discussion surrounding the issue. We need to take steps beyond cancel culture. Rather than to refute the subjectivity that is apparent, it is through this subjectivity that we arrive at the best way forward in each leading controversy, in a way that hopefully provides a sense of closure for all who are offended, aggrieved or hurt in each unique scenario.

As I write this I’m still attempting to arrive at my own definitive answer. Although, in the same way that I embraced complexity earlier, I’m gonna have to do the same again. It’s extremely complex, and I don’t think I have a concrete answer. I do, however, have a better understanding of how to interact with dilemmas like Kanye West’s, and I hope that you do too. There is no general formula. As much as I see the validity behind cancel culture’s premise, I think that there are better ways to approach these issues. Each grievance will be as nuanced as the next one, and so our reactions should too be nuanced. If it happens that the artist’s problematic behaviour follows through into their art, then their art also needs to be held under scrutiny and relooked at. As a global, and indeed virtual community, what we’re looking for most is unity and cohesion. I think the aftermath of an artist's fate should be centred around whether, going forward, they’re able to contribute to that, or undermine that, and that’s an increasingly difficult question to answer. Furthermore, our reactions to the artist will always be in support of victims or those who’ve been hurt, and they should always come first. And so, I eagerly anticipate the next big controversy. I will relish the opportunity to define it on my own terms, as I believe we all should. If it so happens that we arrive at the same conclusion, then it’s either the cancel culture herd has prevailed and this editorial was meaningless, or it means that as a society, we’re truly getting there.