I’ve been a Kanye West fan for years — ever since I learned of his physical and mental fortitude: He went into the studio after fracturing his jaw in a 2002 car accident and recorded one of the most memorable rap songs of all time, “Through the Wire.”
In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Kanye spoke for many when he said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He — like me and thousands of others — was disturbed by the treatment of residents in New Orleans after seeing the lack of response by the federal government to a natural disaster that displaced millions.
With that, Kanye West had literally become a black America super hero. To many he was T’Challa long before the “Black Panther” blockbuster movie. Even when some didn’t agree with him, they still respected him for his willingness to speak out at a critical time. Those words will live forever on any list of “Most Iconic Quotes Ever.” But somewhere along the line something changed, and so did his view of the world. His superpowers began to diminish.
He raised many eyebrows in 2016 during his visit to Trump Tower to meet with the newly elected president of the United States. And he alienated many with his impromptu photo-op with President-Elect Trump. But even then, most of his fans forgave him for those indiscretions. And some thought Kanye’s actions were just a stunt and part of an ingenious marketing strategy.
But Kanye’s recent comments cost him his credibility — and over 9 million Twitter followers. In a TMZ interview last week he stated, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years?! That sounds like a choice."
It was like he was possessed and speaking in tongues. It was like a foreign alien had taken over his body — maybe the Russians?
A year ago, I conducted a genealogy search on my family and learned that my great-great grandmother was born in 1863 in Mississippi, the year the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. The documents I discovered described her occupation as a “laborer.”
Although the Emancipation Proclamation was made in 1863, many enslaved men and women living in rural areas didn’t learn of this executive order setting them free for many months. Some of those who did learn that they were “free” had no place to go, so they remained on the plantation. In other cases, the slave owners refused to abide by the new law thus refusing to set their slaves free. Some black people even lost their lives trying to leave a terrible situation that had, at that time, been abolished. And that was after they were set free. Imagine how difficult it would have been to leave when slavery was the law of the land.
When I heard Kanye’s comments about slavery being a “choice,” it reminded me that he may have had a few shining moments, but he also has a track record of making erratic and unfounded comments. (Like: “I am a proud non-reader of books” or “My apartment is too nice to listen to rap in” or “I’m too busy writing history to read it.”)
There’s no doubt in my mind that being a slave in America was not a “choice.” And I realize now that Kanye is just a misguided man who doesn’t know or understand the history of the American slave trade and how it directly impacts us today. Maybe he doesn’t know that less than 100 years ago it would have been illegal in many states for him to marry his white wife, Kim Kardashian, and that doing so could have resulted in his imprisonment or lynching.
And for the people who believe that Kanye is having mental health issues, so, he should be forgiven for his outlandish comments, I get it, but I don’t have sympathy for a multi-millionaire who, in his words, refuses to take his medication as directed by his doctors.
I have more sympathy for the young brother standing on the street corner tonight with a nine-millimeter, who has a heroin addiction but no access to health insurance to pay for his overpriced medication for bipolar disorder. Or the brother who’s hallucinating and hearing voices in his head but can’t afford the cost of seeing a psychiatrist.
I stopped looking to entertainers for their perspective on history and society a long time ago. But Kanye has a national platform and a lot of young kids are listening. So Kanye, be careful. You talk about wanting to write history, but you don’t have the right to re-write it.
Kevin Shird is author of "The Colored Waiting Room" and a youth advocate. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.