The Don of ‘Celebrityhood’: The Dynamics of Celebrity & Politics in the Kanye West & President Trump Meeting by Shayna S. Israel
Kanye West’s visit to the White House last Thursday sent shockwaves throughout the country—and not in the sudden surprise kind of way—in the wide-spread shuttering effect it produced. For some reason, although the President himself is a celebrity and businessperson, the compounding effect of two celebrities in the oval office at the same time, really cemented the fact that politics, all along is moving closer to the grand illusion we all believed it to be but hoped it would not.
Celebrity interspersed with politics is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, the charismatic leader has always been both envied and feared by political or establishment leaders. One has risen to his status via the conventional pathway, and the other based on being who he is. A standard is easier to replicate. A way of being is gifted.
There have been many debates about whether charisma can be taught and whether it is inborn. The same thing can be said about leadership. Yet, charisma and celebrity are two separate things. Charismatic figures attract followers. Conventional leaders seek opportunities to compel people to follow. Some charismatic people may not even be aware of what they possess. Establishment leaders on the other hand, are all too aware of what (what number of followers) they do not possess.
Hence, we have Trump making up numbers about the amount of people at his inauguration. The Obama and Trump presidencies are a classic case of the charismatic leader and the leader jockeying for power. A separate dynamic between that of Kanye West and President Trump, however, exists. Theirs is of the unique phenomenon of “celebrity politicians.”
Celebrity interspersed with politics is not a new phenomenon.
It is important to not confuse celebrity with charisma. They often are unevenly paired. Celebrity depends on cameras and huge social media followings, in this new day and age. Charisma only has to be felt by one person for it to be seen. Look at the cameras in the photo of Kanye West and Trump (See below). The entire picture itself is of them surrounded by cameras.
In an essay titled “Celebrity Politicians: Popular Culture and Political Representation” by John Street, we learn that “celebrityhood” is donned by politicians and their like. Street writes about two kinds of phenomena as examples of “celebrity politicians”—the first being “the elected politician or candidate who uses elements of ‘celebrityhood’ to establish their claim to represent a group or cause” . The second variant is the “celebrity—the star of popular culture—who uses their popularity to speak for popular opinion .
“When conventional politicians adopt the guise of celebrity, when they pose as rock stars,” Street goes on to ask, “do they appeal to images and identities that have no place in representative democratic politics?” . Specific to the Kanye West and President Trump’s meeting, Street’s question could potentially translate to: “Was either person acting in a form of minstrelsy by proximity?” Or, I would ask, “Was there something more nuanced there?” Are figures like Mr. West and Trump appealing to the fact that their realities, their positions depend on how they are representing themselves? And to whom they are representing?
On some level, ala Saturday Night Live’s rendition, the Kanye West and Trump meeting was a comedy. On another level it was speaking to the nature of politics as a form of democratic and republican representation.
Entertainment is about speaking to an audience. Who is the audience for politicians? Their constituents. Who is the audience for business people? The market. Thus, although in different sectors, Kanye West and Trump speak the same language. The question is what was the impact that each sought for their respective audiences? Constituents?
Ahead of his meeting with Trump, Mr. West went into Thursday’s meeting with the specific agenda—to talk about factory jobs, violence in Chicago and prison reform . This was days after Trump announced that he would implement a new stop-and-frisk policy in Chicago . Celebrities have a platform. They often, or more often should, use their platform to champion causes. As a Chicago native Mr. West is sensitized to the stigma that has befallen the city.
For the artist, her native land is her first audience. By announcing during that sit-down with Trump that he is moving back to Chicago, Mr. West is recognizing that his responsibilities as a “celebrity politician,” in its truest form, is to his community. It is said that a prophet is not welcomed in his hometown; yet, it seems in the fashion of a reverse migration, celebrities are.
For the artist, her native land is her first audience.
Noting the power of his platform Mr. West writes, “It’s not just about, you know, getting on stage and being an entertainer and having a monolithic voice that’s forced to be a specific party” . In moving back to his hometown, Mr. West is choosing to vote with his presence.
In meeting with Trump, Kayne West is using his voice—and his knowledge of optics—to advocate for a different approach to policing in Chicago. He sought to correct a narrative, at stereotype—although in certain ways he walked right into the trap of reproducing certain stereotypes.
Yet, in his own way, Mr. West came prepared. Aware that the shooting crime rate in Chicago, has precipitously dropped by 17% , hearing that a new discriminatory policing policy was proposed that would disproportionately affect people of color, Mr. West sprang into action. A fool’s errand for some. A noteworthy action for others.
While there are many potentially contestable statements that Mr. West made during his meeting, it is important for people to read the full transcript in context. Yes, Mr. West talked about focusing less on “the overall lack of reparations” and more on the fact that blacks were afforded the 13th amendment .
But Mr. West also spoke with the President about adding Trump factories to the Midwest and Yeezy ideation centers to promote more educational and empowerment opportunities for underserved communities . He said as follow up, “We have to bring jobs into America because our best export is entertainment and ideas” .
Kanye West also talked about the pressures that good cops are facing with having to enforce inherently discriminatory policies and the need to release, what he calls, “the love throughout the entire country and give opportunities” .
The criticism that Kanye West and Trump were met with was in response to a sense that there was no substance to their conferencing. While Mr. West had an agenda, people wondered about follow up notes and actions steps. Notable figures like Al Sharpton thought the meeting was more of a free- wheeling, freestyling masquerade of real political action.
On MSNBC with Alex Witt, Sharpton said “I think the subjects that were raised need to be raised,” citing Trump and Mr. West’s first meeting in 2016, “We were told they were going to work together on criminal justice reform, violence in Chicago, jobs…I thought we were going to hear what they had done in the almost two years President Trump has been in office…For them to go through a redo of what they did under the escalator at Trump towers right after the election, to me, was insulting to the public. There was no report of what he had done in the year and in the almost two years. There was no announcement of ‘therefore this is my program going forward’ .
John Legend, recording artist and philanthropist, said, regarding Mr. West, “I don’t think he’s done a lot of the work and research to really understand what is going on,” and “that a lot of time he presents opinions that are a little bit undercooked” . Professor Michael Eric Dyson said that the meeting was “the grand display of mass ignorance in the face of the downfall of democracy” and it was “white supremacy through ventriloquism” .
There was no announcement of ‘therefore this is my program going forward’ ~Al Sharpton
It can be argued that much of the revolutionary and political action from celebrities that the United States has seen during the 60s and 70s is seen as less prevalent in the 2000s. Yet, it can be equally argued that with the rise of social media and the everyday person becoming internet famous, we see more ordinary people being considered “local celebrity politicians.” Politics serves as a kind of communication, a signal, a representation. When the mediums of communication shift, the nature of celebrity within politics shifts as well.
Street writes, citing Paolo Mancini and David Swanson book, Politics, Media and Modern Democracy, “Celebrity politics, and the cult of the personality that it embodies, can be seen as a product of the transformation of political communication…The breakdown of traditional social structures under the strains of modernisation have created the need for a form of political communication” . For Street, that new political form of communication is one of ‘symbolic realities’ that create ‘symbolic templates of heroes and villains’ . Between Kanye West and Trump, who is consider the villain and who is the hero is as diffused of question as this one: “Who is leading the current political and social movement(s) we are hearing more and more about each week,” especially leading up to the 2018 midterm elections.
While, at some level, Mr. West’s meeting could be seen as a ventriloquism of white supremacy, at another level it is Mr. West exemplifying how in tuned he is with the new political realities of political symbology. Learning from his prior missteps and doing better research, he may be showing a new kind of artistic maturation—one of a celebrity politician.
There might be a global trend of artists rising to become elected and political figures. In countries like Uganda, for example, where nearly 80 percent of the population is under the age of 30, being savvy on social media is a currency for moving the youth vote . The Ugandan ragga singer Bobi Wine “shocked the ruling party when he went into politics and won a seat in Parliament by a landslide last year” at the age of 36 . He was catapulted into fame the year prior as a result of his song going viral, “Freedom,” which spoke out against the establishment party for atrocities perpetrated against its people.
Kanye West now is a very different artist than a Bobi Wine figure. Yet, Kanye West back in the day, was more in league with the revolutionary spirit we come to expect from rappers, master MCs. Just take a look at his song Through the Wire (2003).
By speaking truth to power, he is signifying to the Signifier-in-Chief via the language of optics and cameras that our current president understands. By advocating for Chicago, Kayne West is advocating for his native land in this new world, in this new media landscape. Let’s hope…