music artist cancelled. Credit: Rosie Moxham

Kanye: Art and the Artist at War

By Emma Dunn

It’s a war waging between fan bases with no sole aim or angle: the battlefield of the 21st century.

Being able to follow artists we idolise on social media is like having a virtual backstage pass to all their events, all the time. Have you ever been to a gig and seen the artist post about it on their Instagram or Twitter afterwards and not taken the “Thanks for coming out tonight!” comment personally? Or squint to try and find yourself in the photo of the crowd they uploaded from the gig? Yes, yes, I’m sure that hand belongs to you. Congratulations! You’ve made it! 

This sense of faux proximity to artists helps bolster our appreciation for them. Seeing icons who decades ago were shrouded in a cloud of mystery now post candidly about their day-to-day on Twitter makes us realise that they’re just like us. But, as all “normal” people do, they too can make mistakes. And in the age of social media, no mistake is forgotten.

Many artists have fallen victim to the infamous curse of “cancel culture”: a modern phenomenon in which public outroar is caused by an individual’s actions, usually resulting in a boycott of their music and other media. It’s the contemporary punishment for misdemeanours as trivial as discussing song lyrics, to those as extreme as outright xenophobia, such as the views expressed by Kanye West recently on Twitter. After publishing posts in support of Hitler, and sharing violent antisemitic messages and conspiracies, West has received a subsequent ban from Instagram and Twitter, and an onslaught of disapproval from fans online. 

Rightly so, the publication of these bigoted ideas caused a mass backlash, with users of social media platforms piling on Kanye, and condemning him for spreading hate speech. Despite brands such as Adidas and Balenciaga cancelling their contracts with him, some fans online continue to support his views. Those still in support of Kanye claim that it was just a joke, but this is hard to believe given the real-world ramifications of his rant, including a banner emblazoned with “Kanye is right about the Jews” hung in Los Angeles. Apparently displayed by a white supremacy group, it is a horrible reminder that speech like this, even if it’s “only online”, can embolden further hatred in the real world.

Before his Twitter suspension, West received a great deal of criticism from users of the site. However, reprimanding the rapper online seemed to have little effect on the rest of his actions. In fact, the only way to halt his hateful messages was to remove Kanye from the platform. So, what can fans do when wanting to speak up to artists like these? Usually, the response is either to speak up or to boycott the artist to demonstrate disapproval. Based on the premise that the listeners made the artist who they are by giving them an audience, boycotting music exercises the fans’ power over the artist.

However, it’s not only the fans who should keep the artist in check. With West, brands were able to exert their influence to display that they didn’t agree with him – common sense, you’d think, even if just to protect their own reputation – but essential in signifying to followers of these brands that West’s actions are neither acceptable, nor excusable. Social media sites and streaming services also have a role in responsibly deciding who to platform and when to intervene.

Although not responsible for artists’ behaviour, can fans claim to disagree with their personal actions while continuing to play their music and boost their royalties? Claimed to be responsible for redefining rap, Kanye has been hailed as “one of the most influential artists of his generation”. His music has been recognised by multiple Grammy awards and stretches at the top of the music charts. He currently has nearly 50 million monthly listeners on Spotify, representing only a fraction of his fanbase. Is it possible to be a bystander in a case such as this, where streaming music from the artist, no matter how good it is, gives support to a man who has publicly supported Hitler?

It is difficult to argue that you can fully separate the art from the artist. Their work is very much a part of them. The music may not embody all the artist’s misdeeds and wrongdoings, however, supporting an artist despite these can be perceived as an act of acceptance. However, it also seems that boycotting music by artists like these, especially as an individual, can be rather fruitless. Solidarity amongst fans is essential to bring about the changes intended.

Art in all its forms is a representation of the artist, not a direct reflection. The quality of the artist’s character is not often exposed by the quality of their media. Picasso was said to be a misogynist and a serial cheater, and yet despite his disregard for women, they were often muses for his paintings. Similarly, “greats” such as Kanye West who have asserted their irrevocable influence on whole genres of music, are still celebrated despite their damaging opinions and actions. 

There is no right answer on what to do as a fan of an artist whose actions may leave you considering your support for them. It is hard to give up music that you enjoy and, if you choose not to, it shouldn’t mean the responsibility for their actions falls on you. However, when faced with this as a moral dilemma, consider asking yourself: how do you support artists? Who are you providing a platform for? And what have they done to deserve it? 


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