Tucker Carlson went to great lengths to remix Kanye West for his large conservative audience on Thursday night, calling him “an artist”, describing his erratic tweetstorms as “freeform social media posts”, and introducing him as a “Christian evangelist”. If you hadn’t been watching Fox News for the past 20 years, you’d never suspect this was the same network and time slot on which Bill O’Reilly once dismissed West as “the dopey little rapper”.
But the network’s view on West, who now goes by Ye, has shifted markedly in the six years since the rapper-fashionista has made a hard right turn towards conservative libertarianism. Carlson was warming his viewers up to West as a lead-in to an exclusive, two-part one-on-one interview, shot at West’s Yeezy fashion brand headquarters in Los Angeles.
For the better part of an hour, West was unsmiling and long-winded; among many other things, he likened his choice to debut a “white lives matter shirt” at Paris fashion week to Tonya Harding attempting a triple axel (“It’s using a gut instinct”), attributed the fashion-industry backlash against the shirt to a campaign orchestrated by Anna Wintour (“All her dolls had something to say”), and compared Donald Trump to Ralph Lauren (“He has his own buildings. He made Ivanka”). In Friday night’s part two, West took umbrage at public speculation over his mental health (“That hurts my feelings”) while also suggesting the Gap knew about the Uvalde shootings before they happened (“Have I reached Alex Jones territory yet?”).
And as he unspooled these dark, twisted fallacies with a lanyard showing an ultrasound draped around his neck, a visibly perplexed Carlson nonetheless nodded and smiled along while taking great pains to assure his viewers that the man he was humoring was definitely worth listening to. “You can judge for yourself,” Carlson said to the camera.
The tete-a-tete reminded me of another watershed moment in West’s career. In 2002, Dame Dash, head of the Roc-A-Fella label, bestowed his gold chain on West during a 2002 concert. It was the moment West – a knapsack-toting, retainer-wearing geek whom many struggled to take seriously as a beat maker – was officially recognized for his burgeoning talent as a rapper. And, verily, a superstar was born.
West had only been invited on Fox News because of his controversial show at Paris fashion week. West turned up to the “secret” runway presentation for his ninth Yeezy collection in a long-sleeve T-shirt; printed on the back were the words “white lives matter” – which the Anti-Defamation considers a hate slogan, used by the KKK, the Aryan Renaissance Society and other white supremacist groups.
This tone-deaf fashion statement was amplified by the supermodel Naomi Campbell, the odious rightwing pundit Candace Owens and Selah Marley – granddaughter of Bob Marley and daughter of R&B freedom fighter Lauryn Hill. “You can’t manage me,” West began, per the New York Post’s Page Six. “This is an unmanageable situation.”
Tastemakers recoiled in horror. Jaden Smith walked out of the show. Vogue’s global fashion editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson denounced the shirts as “pure violence” and West as “dangerous”. The rapper Yasiin Bey, a onetime West collaborator and early believer in his music talent, posted a photo of himself on Instagram wearing a similar shirt, but with the “v” in lives faded out to read “White Lies Matter.”
Diddy split the baby in half, branding West a free thinker before warning: “Don’t wear the shirt. Don’t buy the shirt.” But Marley stood by her choice to model West’s t-shirt. “Witnessing someone break free from ‘the agenda’ sends you all into such a panic that you will do whatever it takes to force them back into the box that you feel they should exist in,” she wrote in an Instagram story.
As the shirt remains the talk of fashion week, West revels in the attention. Asked by Carlson why he decided on that message, West said it was “obvious”.
It’s become cliché to point to the 2007 death of his mother, Donda, as the moment West unraveled, reasoning that’s reinforced in the Netflix docu-trilogy jeen-yuhs. In one scene she giddily recalls his schoolyard rhymes and marvels at his golden angel necklace – a new-money splurge. “You need an angel to watch over you,” she quips, adding that he had the rest of his life to use money wisely. Without her unwavering belief, goes the legend, Kanye never becomes the cultural iconoclast he is today.
But in the interview with Carlson, West scorned his mother, a former professor, as a “liberal actress” who ripped him from his conservative-leaning father, Ray West, an ex-Black Panther, laying the foundation for a strained relationship. Since his mother’s death, West said, he and his father had grown closer – to the point of laughing off the noise around the T-shirts; that his father approved of them too seemed an unmistakable point of pride.
To call West’s turnabout dramatic would be putting it mildly. A music industry underdog who beat the odds, West was a staunchly pro-Black pop star who sampled soul music and celebrated Black beauty. He threw his support behind Black causes, launching a foundation to combat dropout and illiteracy rates in Chicago and supporting Barack Obama’s presidential re-election campaign. He declared during a Hurricane Katrina telethon: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
But as West’s star rose, he’d quickly outgrow the Roc-A-Fella label, then hip-hop, then pop music, then the fashion industry. As he struggled for a new sense of belonging, his values took a backseat to his net worth. In 2016, he revealed he had $53m “in personal debt” and called on Mark Zuckerberg and other billionaire friends to bail him out. “I just feel rich people are always too cool to ask for help trying to impress each other at dinner parties,” he tweeted, adding that he wanted “to help the world” and needed “help to do it”.
It was around then that West’s closest confidants (the ghostwriter Rhymefest, the rapper Talib Kweli) began coming forward with stories about how they really couldn’t reach the guy anymore. Soon, West was turning up in the lobby of Trump Tower to endorse the Donald’s presidential run. West topping it off with the Maga hat was the coup de grâce.
On Thursday, West remained admiring of Trump but he criticized Jared Kushner for what he believes was his heavy-handed management of the former president. He also took aim at Jared’s brother Josh for helping himself to an outsized stake in the SKIMS fashion brand West co-founded with Kim Kardashian. That’s when West wasn’t scolding his ex-wife for her hypersexual public presentation and for being closely allied with the Clinton family.
Still: even as he embraced Trump and Owens, West pledged $2m toward the legal fees of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and set up a college fund for Floyd’s daughter. Even as West said slavery “sounded like a choice” or announced a presidential run under “the Birthday party”, he hosted pop-up gospel music concerts. There was always this sense that someday West would cast aside his theatrical shrouds and reunite with reconnect with his good sense.
But after his stunt in Paris, it’s clear the old Kanye is gone for good. By doubling down on the politics of false equivalency, West reminds us of who he’s been this whole time: a guy who will say and do anything to be relevant – whether that’s playing gospel music to hawk haute couture, or repurposing his hard-won cultural clout into a tool for white supremacy.
Worse, he’s too lacking in self-awareness to appreciate how often he undermines himself. In the interview with Carlson, he made a whole thing of how 50% of Black deaths in New York City are the result of abortion – a (not true) statement that shows how, despite his T-shirts, West wants to privilege Black lives in the moments it suits his rightwing, anti-abortion agenda. Even the idea that the shirts could be some Trojan horse gambit to siphon money toward the real justice movement died on Thursday night.
It’s high time we accept West’s rants aren’t some byproduct of outside forces, internal demons or family-guy evolution. They’re about prioritizing contrarianism and the ability to say something controversial over the literal meaning of whatever that thing might be, regardless of the potential consequences. And while the pivot toward arch-conservatism has undoubtedly paid off for West (who went from being $53m in the hole to a multibillionaire), the true value for him is being accepted again.
The interview with Carlson didn’t just mark West’s official entry into the mainstream conservative club. It made him a VIP.