Update October 26, 11:15 am ET: Since this article first ran on Oct. 13, Ye has continued his antisemitic rants to much impact; on Saturday, a hate group hung a banner over a Los Angeles freeway that supported Ye’s comments while making Nazi salutes. In response, many businesses have cut ties with him, including Adidas, Balenciaga and talent agency CAA.
Ye cannot stop making headlines. While the man formerly known as Kanye West may have risen to fame for his standout production and lyrical abilities, these days his newsworthiness seems to have nothing to do with music.
On Monday, it was for tweeting that he would “go death con 3 on Jewish people.” This followed his Paris runway show in which he and model Selah Marley, daughter of Lauryn Hill and granddaughter of Bob Marley, wore “white lives matter” shirts. After fashion editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson called his choice into question, he used his platform to attack the Black journalist, opening her up to ridicule from his millions of social media followers.
For those who may have grown desensitized (and even exhausted) with stories featuring the rapper-turned-spectacle, it’s easy to misidentify some of the larger concerns and implications of Ye’s actions. And that’s because he is often covered without context.
For far too long, many media outlets have reported on Ye with kid gloves, refusing to justly rebuke him and identify the exact harm he is doing. This could be attributed to several reasons, including fear of losing proximity to Ye. The precarious state of journalism sometimes makes those who cover entertainment reluctant to cause friction with a celebrity of Ye’s caliber out of fear of missing out on access later. Another factor is the difficulty of accurately framing the narrative. This is a real and understandable dilemma. He is a man who is public about his struggle with mental health issues. No respectable journalist wants to run the risk of providing an armchair diagnosis and possibly inaccurately attributing his behaviors to his bipolar disorder. This would only further stigmatize those living with mental health challenges and, quite frankly, allow Ye to remain free of accountability.
Then there is the notion that many in media lack a clear understanding of how to cover the harm he does because his intersecting identities have made him the target of unfair attacks. Ye is a Black man with bipolar disorder from the southside of Chicago who managed to build an empire in America. No part of his path was free of racism, bias and systemic barriers. Still, the same nuance that allows us to understand that a person who has been harmed can also perpetuate harm is needed when covering Ye.
Covering him with nuance looks like acknowledging that multiple things can be true at the same time. People who struggle with bipolar disorder can also cause harm. It is also true that people from oppressed groups who have historically had to fight to have their voices heard sometimes echo the same racist sentiments that oppress them. White supremacy is etched into the fabric of this nation, and the threads are still visible in our politics, criminal justice system, media and, yes, even hip-hop. The grip of white supremacy is so relentless that unless you are doing the work to actively identify it and reject it, you are at risk of promoting it. People of color are not exempt from doing the work of white supremacy, as Ye has aptly demonstrated with his choice of T-shirt messages and utterances that slavery was “a choice.” It’s a contradiction that should compel journalists to discuss him with more nuance.
The way Ye is often covered is reminiscent of how the media dealt with Donald Trump’s 2016 election bid, when many networks and publications enjoyed a massive increase in clicks and views as millions remained glued to the spectacle of his campaign. He would make statements about Mexicans being rapists and about barring Muslims from entering the United States. Many journalists would report it without calling it what was — racist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic — or talking to voters offended and endangered by such rhetoric. By not acknowledging the impact of his words and actions, these media outlets helped normalize the racist, irresponsible and petulant actions of a man who later had to deal with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and was impeached twice. Even networks that didn’t create so-called alternative facts to support the candidate they favored still helped introduce his dangerous platform to millions of Americans with constant coverage that lacked context of how damaging his actions were to the safety and detriment of marginalized Americans.
Fortunately, unlike with Trump, Ye is not in the position to make decisions over policies that impact people’s lives. He does not hold the power to select a Supreme Court justice or determine how much aid a state receives during a crisis. This means the media can still pivot and correct their course. They can choose not to constantly amplify Ye’s actions as they did Trump’s in the 2016 election cycle. They can stop using euphemisms when reporting on him. When he is antisemitic, it should be labeled exactly that. When he is using his massive influence to draw attention to himself as he wears a shirt with “white lives matter” in large print, the media should identify it for what it is — Ye upholding the work of white supremacy by seeking to invalidate the original message and purpose of Black Lives Matter. When he weaponizes his substantial Instagram following to attack one of the few Black women in the fashion industry, the media should label it exactly as it is — bullying.
When media fail to cover Ye with nuance and use inaccurate language like “antics” to describe his harmful behavior, they perpetuate the dangerous notion that power protects you from accountability. Such coverage reiterates the worst and most corrupt elements of this nation and helps maintain a cycle of harm that seems to be granted only to those who can afford it. An affluent person causes harm, media fail to accurately acknowledge it, the affluent person avoids consequences, and harm is later repeated. Wash, rinse, repeat.
This does not have to be. A journalist’s job is to report on and investigate those with power and influence and hold them accountable. Rather than a call out, this is a “call in” for those in media — a position of power unto itself — to consider the ramifications of the way they report on Ye. This includes covering him with nuance, covering him with context and knowing when to ignore him.