It has been a disorienting month for lovers of hip hop. First, the rapper Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2017 album DAMN, a milestone that marked how far the music genre has come since it was dismissed as “pornographic filth.” Just days later, fans found themselves baffled and aghast as the superstar rapper Kanye West deepened his bromance with US president Donald Trump. (“You don’t have to agree with Trump but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother,” West tweeted, among other things). Then, another giant figure in hip hop publicly fell from grace: The singer-songwriter Kelis Rogers (known just as Kelis) accused her former husband Nasir Jones, better known as Nas, of brutal, sustained domestic violence.
There has always been a contradictory aspect to hip hop, since it was born at house parties and street corners in 1970s New York. For some, the genre is a potent vehicle to speak truth to power. Rap feeds off the urgency for change, with songs that ignite hope and lyrics that frankly assess the ugly realities of systemic racism, historical inequality, and hatred. And although hip hop and its offshoots have taken root everywhere, from high-rise buildings of East London to the cities in North Africa, this is a fundamentally American art form. In fact, it now feels almost inconceivable that the story of America’s ideological creation could be told through any other medium but hip hop (thank you, Hamilton). If the revolution had a playlist, it would include Lauryn Hill, Public Enemy, Common, Dead Prez, The Roots, Immortal Technique, and, of course, Lamar.
But there is another strand, one that focuses on the potency of individualism—the one that’s about getting yours and getting ahead. “Fuck Black Caesar, niggas call me Black Trump,” Bun B rapped in 1992. As New Yorker writer Doreen St. Félix aptly notes, Bun B wasn’t the first nor the last rapper to embody a Trumpian brand. West too “thinks of himself as a rich Jesus, a persecuted fashion magnate, an anarchic Walt Disney, an artist-President, and now a new black Donald Trump,” St. Félix writes.
One by one, the male gods who straddle these dueling areas of hip hop are being brought low. Our idols are turning out to be “false prophets,” we’re told, by think-piece writers and rappers. “There was a time when this nigga was my hero, maybe,” rapped J.Cole in his 2016 single False Prophets, “That’s the reason why his fall from grace is hard to take.” The song is widely thought to be about West.
Many fan’s share Cole’s initial reluctance to dismiss West—a rapper with enormous, genre-shifting talent. And yet West himself prophesied his bizarre descent several times. In his 2016 single “Real Friends,” he raps over a haunting melody, frankly describing his growing isolation—“Niggas thinkin’ I’m crazy, you defendin’ me/It’s funny I ain’t spoke to niggas in centuries.” Fame already had him in a chokehold, but he wasn’t fighting it. His song “FML,” meanwhile, served as an eerie warning of what was yet to come, “You ain’t never seen nothing crazier,” he vowed. And in “I Love Kanye,” he gleefully mocks the chorus of fans who say they “miss the old Kanye,” telling them the Kanye they longed for doesn’t exist, or maybe he never did: “I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes.”
These words were accompanied by a series of attention-grabbing stunts. He said he would have voted for Donald Trump (if he had voted); he posed with the president-elect in Trump Tower as he prepped for his inauguration; and this week, in a series of tweets including a picture of an autographed “Make America Great Again” hat, West forced his fans to take seriously his support of a president widely seen as racist.
Trump was unsurprisingly pleased with the endorsement. He tweeted that “Kanye West has performed a great service to the Black Community – Big things are happening and eyes are being opened for the first time in Decades [sic].” And Trump’s fans were delighted, with the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones tweeting at West:“I admire your bold moves against the thought police.”
It’s a bizarre turn of events: A rapper who once accused a president of not caring about black people on national TV (video), and pointed out that regardless of the work black people put in, “the white man get paid off of all of that,” was being used to sell MAGA hats. Dragon brother or not, West might do well to recall Hill’s 20-year-old advice to “Beware the false motives of others.” In her single “Forgive Them Father,” from her groundbreaking debut album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Hill croons, “Be careful of those who pretend to be brothers/ And you never suppose it’s those who are closest to you.” It’s an apt warning today, for us as well as for West.
There is a temptation to pluck excuses out of thin air for West. Some speculate that the star, who is married to the reality TV icon Kim Kardashian, is trapped in the “sunken place”—a reference to the horror masterpiece Get Out, which has become a shorthand for describing the stifling impact of racial discrimination. Others suggest it’s just another example of someone being corrupted by fame and money.
Many feel betrayed, of course. But the problem with deeming West and Nas “false prophets” is that it buys into the idea that hip hop can be reduced to one person’s lyricism and voracious beats, or that these stars can and should somehow save us with their music. West and Nas aren’t false prophets, because they were never prophets in the first place. They are merely men. Their message can still resonate with us, even when the messenger has stumbled down a dark path.
April marked the 24th anniversary of Nas’s trailblazing debut Illmatic, an album so widely acclaimed that Nas is still living under its shadow (paywall). In Nas’s The World Is Yours, he raps “I need a new nigga for this black cloud to follow / ’Cause while it’s over me, it’s too dark to see tomorrow.” The unsettling couplet in this deeply moving song is one worth coming back to.
West seems to be under some sort of cloud. Then again, he might have finally found himself. Either way, it’s time to stop looking to one man to lead us out of the darkness, or the brightness of tomorrow will never come.