Kanye West is possibly the most polarizing celebrity alive. He is also a billionaire capitalist, with a clothing line and music to promote. Creating the moment, a tactic Kanye has perfected, serves his business aspirations well. That’s exactly what he was doing July 4 when he tweeted that he is running for president:
- Elon Musk tweeted his support.
- Journalists everywhere, no doubt cranky about interrupting their Independence Day, dutifully covered the announcement. Within a few hours, everyone from The Los Angeles Time to USA Today covered the news.
- Social media exploded, including speculation that West, who cozied up to Donald Trump in 2019, is trying to siphon the Black vote away from Joe Biden. It was as if Kanye provided a welcome distraction from a somber Independence Day amid a pandemic and social unrest.
In other words, Yeezy did what Yeezy does best: create the moment. It’s a skill he’s mastered for years.
This is not the first time Kanye has talked about running for president. In 2015, he announced his #Kanye2020 bid at the 2015 MTV Music Awards, and the reaction was just the same as it is now: social media lit up, and everyone with access to a keyboard (including me) fired off an analysis. At the time, I wondered how Kanye was any different than Trump, as both were (and are) known for their erratic comments and actions. This is what I wrote in 2015:
. . . the media coverage of #Kanye2020, which has put Kanye West on a platform alongside Donald Trump, forces you to ask: why is the white guy with the big mouth a real presidential contender gaining in polls, whereas the black guy with the big mouth is, at best, a farce? When Kanye disrespects Taylor Swift or Beck on TV, he is scorned. When Donald Trump makes disparaging remarks about women, insults Mexican immigrants, and kicks people out of press conferences, his popularity seems to rise. If Kanye were white, might he be treated seriously as a real candidate as Trump is? If Trump were black, where would he be in the polls?
Not much has changed since then, has it? And yet everything has changed. This, after all, is 2020, and anything goes. Trump has demonstrated that the Kanye approach — create one outrageous distraction after another, each one more outrageous than the last — builds loyalty among his core base. So what is Kanye’s rationale to announce a presidential bid, even though he’s missed the filing date to run as an independent in many key states?
First off, it’s useful to view the announcement in context: it’s the latest of many “look at me!” moments dating back many years. Within the past two years alone, Kanye has been all over the map, appearing with Minister Joel Osteen to announce that he’s both the greatest artist who ever lived and a servant of God, wearing a MAGA hat, referring to President Trump as his brother, and, most controversially, referring to slavery as “a choice.” Meanwhile, his business empire has expanded because of the popularity of his Yeezy line of sneakers. His new gospel musical has received mixed-to-lackluster reviews.
What does Kanye want? Is he serious about running for president? This much I know: for Kanye, being outrageous usually means he’s got something else to promote. Unlike Trump, Kanye uses outrage to build visibility even at the risk of alienating his core fans. So what’s Kanye selling these days? Let’s look at the two things he’s most serious about: being respected as an artist and as a business person. As to the latter aspiration, he said in 2015, “One of my dreams was to be the head creative director of the Gap. I’d like to be the Steve Jobs of the Gap.” Well, guess what: he’s just about getting his wish. He just signed a deal to bring his Yeezy line of clothing to the Gap in 2021, and as part of the relationship, he’ll have creative input into the merchandising. His financial stake in the deal is worth about $100 million.
But the Gap is in financial trouble as COVID-19 rages on. Kanye has every reason to promote the deal. And part of promoting the deal is drawing attention to himself. How does he do that? Through the art of outrage, a tactic that has worked well for him in the past. The numbers speak for themselves; Forbes recently announced that he’s officially a billionare, with his Yeezy sneaker line generating $1.3 billion annually in revenue. Kanye needs that Gap deal to work if he’s going to bring Yeezy clothing to the masses through the Gap.
As to Kanye the artist? Check this out: Kanye has new music out, a collaboration with Travis Scott known as “Wash Us in the Blood,” and he has announced a new album coming, “God’s Country.” He also said he will join his longtime Kid Cudi to voice characters in an animated show inspired by their 2018 album Kids See Ghosts. He’s also badly wanted respect for his forays into gospel (read more about that in my post, “Kanye West and Al Green: The Sacred and the Profane”). With music, it’s all about relentless promotion, especially when you’re taking your sound in a different direction, as Kanye has been doing with gospel (traditionally a niche form of music at best and hardly a money maker). When Kanye cozied up to prosperity minister Joel Osteen to raise awareness for Kanye’s gospel in 2019, the two talked seriously about going on tour together in 2020. COVID-19 put an end to that talk. Kanye running for president is Kanye’s solution. He gets the stage all to himself, and he can rely on digital aggressively as the two current candidates are doing.
Now it all makes sense, doesn’t it? Kanye has irons in the fire. And the fire needs stoking. Kanye has created his moment once again.