I met this guy when I was twenty-six years old, pregnant with my second child and headed towards bedrest. I was put onto Kanye’s music by my little sister; one of her TAs in college was from Chicago, knew the artist, and could even be spotted in the background of his Through The Wire video. One evening, at my grandfather’s internet-free house, I somehow pirated a weak wifi signal and typed in KanyeWest.com. Choppily, through my tinny Dell laptop speakers, the website played a song called Home, from his Freshmen Adjustment mixtape.
I heard a shofar blast moonlighting as a sped-up brass section and it stopped time. I sat down across the room from my grandmother’s 45s, and that sample of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Patti LaBelle and Her Blue Bells was Bobbie Jean’s music in a nutshell: young women singing about surviving an uncaring world, harmonies just on the right side of in-tune, harmonies that sent a chill down my spine.
I was in love.
That whole fall and winter, I grew my baby and played Kanye West’s music. In a pre-Spotify world, I bought every song he produced, chasing his signature sound: soul samples from my childhood paired up with contemporary beats. “Get By” by Talib Kweli sampled Nina Simone, Common’s “Testify” sped up Honey Cone. “All Falls Down” wove a last-minute Lauryn Hill cover through a self-deprecating take on consumerism in the Black community. I empathized with the struggle that came through his music: honoring our parents’ and grandparents’ American narratives while asserting our own. Mostly, I shared in the joy of finding commonality through their music—Motown, soul, funk, gospel, The Jackson 5, Ray Charles, Chaka Khan, Curtis Mayfield.
Kanye and I were the same age, the youngest Black Generation Xers, and from a cohort of Black middle-class kids who grew up trapped in a contradiction. We had just enough first-hand exposure to the crack epidemic to have survivor’s guilt; meanwhile, we uncritically consumed the jazz-soundtracked respectability politics of the Cosby Show. The Cosbys inhabited a soft-focus meritocracy where the devastating realities of Reaganomics and mandatory sentencing were rarely allowed to intrude and where education and racial uplift were seen as cure-alls for society’s ills.
Kanye’s trio of masterworks—College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation—challenged that narrative. Across the three albums, the artist returned to the Cosby Show’s extended universe, referencing its fictional Hillman College, its spinoff show A Different World, Cree Summers, Dwayne Wayne. I had just finished a master’s degree and was staring, dismayed, at the possibility of a PhD. I was exactly poised to hear the blasphemous idea that I couldn’t just educate myself right out of being a Black woman in America.
I loved and identified with Kanye’s wry self-awareness. When he mocked himself for preaching Black empowerment while accumulating chains and Versace—“I’m like the fly Malcom X, ‘buy any jeans necessary’”—it opened a Proustian portal back to my childhood. I had a clear memory of wearing a t-shirt bearing the Don Hogan Charles photo of Malcolm X holding an M1 rifle captioned “By Any Means Necessary” to my private school, where I was often the only black child in the classroom. Was my shirt an act of rebellion from the most well-behaved of scholarship students, a reminder to my teachers that I was fully aware of my conditional welcome? Was it a rebuke to the family who dropped me off in front of the school every morning, who derived such meaning from dedicating themselves to my personal uplift narrative?
Either way, the memory of self-consciously carrying the iconography of Black power into a building where I was surrounded by so much privilege was just as poignant and just as ridiculous as Kanye’s rhyme. Kanye documented his wrecked relationships and media gaffes, conspicuous consumption and hungover mornings.
But his self-awareness never came along with self-accountability. Again and again, the Kanye in his lyrics came face-to-face with the consequences of his own actions; but, like a side character on a weekly sitcom, he reset with the next track. He acknowledged his mistakes without mapping a path toward change; he wrote songs as apologies and then, within those songs’ verses, blithely sinned again. In fact, when the jokes and the late 80s nostalgia and the pop culture references were stripped away, an uncomfortable truth remained. Kanye’s confessional music documented causing harm—often, to women, and, most often, to Black women—without changing his ways or making restitution.
I spent a long time trying not to notice. If I’m being honest, I wanted the freedom to consume the music I loved uncritically. As I’d gotten older and had to explain myself to my children, I’d parted ways with Gone With The Wind, “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones, and dozens of other pop culture artifacts. Kanye’s music was okay, I rationalized, because it was far from the most misogynistic music on offer; or because his winks proved that he knew what he was saying was bad; or, really, because of lyrical runs like the last verse of “Gone”, where he coaxes Otis Redding into the recording booth and reframes his own origin myth. And yet even then, in that same verse, he also says “they got a new bitch / now you’re Jennifer Aniston”. The reference was clever and deeply misogynistic, easily shaming and discarding a famous and powerful woman, and every time I listened to it, it grated like the space where a loose tooth used to be. It was also my favorite Kanye song.
There were more such lyrics all the time. Women were sanded down into objects. Black women were repeatedly, insistently, and openly ranked below white women. And the lyrics began to bleed into real life, too, as further proof that the way he thought and the things in his mind were diametrically opposed to mine. Kanye stalked and harassed his ex-wife and threatened her boyfriend. He posted colorist casting calls and criticized Harriet Tubman. Yet that old music, those first three albums, kept feeding chopped-up soul into my daily mix, and I kept listening. If you’d asked me, I would have told you the first three albums were different. They were from before the fall, before he changed.
But more and more, the threat of implied violence followed him, expanding outward from the very real threat of his misogyny. There was a direct line from his donning a MAGA hat and palling around with Donald Trump to very real, very visible violence against people of color. He’d long since abandoned any critique of the Cosby Show, actually coming out in support of Bill Cosby and, thus, against rape victims. Even his “Slavery was a choice” quote was just a twisted revisit of the Huxtables: in his disturbing worldview, Black people are so very responsible for their own oppression that we learn enslaved people should have racially uplifted themselves right out of bondage.
I had bobbed my head, half-listening, through textual proof of all these attitudes and beliefs. And then, almost gleefully, he started in on Jews; not with lyrical winks, but with calls for deadly violence, and it shone a shameful light on my complacency. I’d enabled this, I fretted. I’d helped fund it. I’d ignored every other threat to myself, as a woman, a Black woman, a Black person, until I was still in a position to be hurt by a threat to my Jewishness. Like someone at the end of a bad relationship—because this is, of course, the end of a long, one-sided, parasocial relationship—I keep blaming myself. How did I let this relationship go on so long?
Even now, I keep catching myself poring over his lyrics, tracing back through documented evidence, compiled by reporters, that his handlers hid his antisemitism for years, trying to find the point at which the Kanye West I’m listening to has just espoused his enthusiastic support for Hitler. I have never entertained the possibility that any racist or antisemitic public figure was unproblematic until a tipping point; either they’re bigoted or they’re not. I’m not doing this for Kanye; I’m doing this for myself, and I’m going to stop. I accepted all of it. I made all of it okay. And, unlike Kanye, I have to accept my share of the blame.
It doesn’t matter whether or not I find some piece of conclusive evidence that Kanye West might have already read Mein Kampf—a book he admires—in 2004. That fact wouldn’t change the reality that Kanye West was promoting “White Lives Matter” and threatening death to Jews in 2022. I will never know if all this hatred was coiled inside the music the moment I was falling into my chair, stunned and delighted, at the first blast of a song that would change my life.
I’m devastated to find myself here again, letting go of yet another gifted artist whose beliefs and behaviors I minimized so that I could enjoy their art and my memories. I keep having this epiphany, yet I only seem to realize I’m complicit once the damage has been done. I know I’m not alone; we all just keep listening to the music. We need to listen harder.
Marcella White Campbell is, in no particular order, a Black woman, a mother, a Jew, a wife, and a writer. A San Francisco native, she holds a BA in English from Stanford University and an MA in Literature from SFSU, where she focused on the memoirs of early 20th-century Jewish American women writers. Her interests include history, food, music, afrofuturism, and unnecessarily complicated craft projects. She is a member of Lilith’s inaugural The New 40 cohort.
Image credit: AI of Kanye West in the style of Basquiat, created by the author.