The hip-hop mogul Kanye West has recently expressed his admiration for Republican presidential contender Ben Carson, and the two men have reportedly had several telephone conversations in which they have discussed America's political culture. Set against Mr. West's own presidential aspirations, first expressed at the MTV Music Awards and confirmed in various media outlets, a relationship between Mr. West and Dr. Carson has tantalizing prospects for a political realignment between African-Americans and the GOP.
After Mr. West announced his intention to run for president in 2020, the prevailing assumption was that it would be as a Democrat. Hillary Clinton even commented that she hoped he would wait until she was no longer on the ticket, and President Barack Obama offered him advice during a public fundraiser last weekend. This assumption reflects Mr. West's own political history. He famously said, George Bush "doesn't care about black people" during a Hurricane Katrina telethon, has attended various functions at the Obama White House, took a much-circulated selfie with his wife Kim Kardashian at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser, and, most recently, agreed to perform for a DNC fundraiser.
This assumption also reflects the troubled relationship between the GOP and African American voters. As explained by the historian Timothy Thurber in his thorough analysis "Republicans and Race: The GOP's Frayed Relationship with African Americans," many members of the GOP have considered it a waste of resources to actively campaign for black voters whose real-world experiences have led them to distrust the Republican message of limited federal government and the power of individual enterprise. Indeed, GOP candidate Mitt Romney received roughly 7 percent of the African American vote in 2012.
However, Mr. West's burgeoning relationship with Dr. Carson indicates that the performer is open to new political possibilities, and it is one that could benefit the retired neurosurgeon. Although a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Dr. Carson narrowing the gap with front-runner Donald Trump, his views on homosexuality, Muslims and abortion are considered too conservative to win over moderate Republicans in the primaries or cross-over voters in the general election. An endorsement from Mr. West could alter these weaknesses.
Dr. Carson has castigated the entertainment industry from which Mr. West hails for its contribution to America's moral decay. By working with Mr. West, Dr. Carson could develop a reputation as one who is willing to work with adversaries to achieve progress, a quality valued by the American electorate. That they have similar views on a "post-racial society" and on economic matters would give Dr. Carson a way to approach young voters. An endorsement from hip-hop's most unpredictable star could give Carson just the stir he needs, and give the GOP new inroads for reaching black voters and a new source of fundraising, given Mr. West's social media acumen and immense draw as an entertainer.
But is there a potential cost to Mr. West? Sammy Davis Jr. was the last major black celebrity to endorse a Republican presidential contender when he campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1972. Even though Davis had been one of the most successful celebrity fundraisers for the civil rights movement, that he formed a relationship with Nixon drew denunciations from the media and African-American leaders as a betrayal. He withdrew from political activism and his career, at its heyday in the 1960s, sputtered throughout the 1970s. Mr. West certainly wants to avoid that fate. But Davis was also hampered by his reputation as one who was always trying to "please whitey" — a reputation underscored by his position as a "lackey" to Frank Sinatra. These problems do not saddle Mr. West. Nevertheless, Mr. West has received ample criticism in liberal circles for not embracing the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. His endorsement of a Republican candidate would likely infuriate some on the left. However, it should be looked upon as an opportunity not only for Mr. West but for African American voters.
As Davis recognized in the 1970s, forcing the two national parties to compete for black votes would not allow any one party to take the constituency for granted. Indeed, even though the DNC wants to profit from a West fundraiser, the Obama White House has also prohibited Mr. West from giving the president any political advice at the event, an attitude reflecting Mr. Obama's general distancing from the hip-hop community. Furthermore, Ms. Clinton and Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders have not given much lip service to racial issues at their campaign stops. Such competition would benefit African Americans in terms of policy but also give them more of a presence in the White House, no matter which party was in power. Mr. West's interest in Dr. Carson should signal the Republican field that the GOP has the potential to reach African Americans, and that candidates should embrace opportunities to talk about issues that matter to black voters. It would be a shame for the Republicans, fielding the most riveting and diverse set of candidates in history, to miss this chance.
Emilie Raymond (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of "Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement" (University of Washington Press, 2015).