Josh Glancy

Why can't I stop listening to Kanye West?

The American rapper’s open admiration for Hitler has raised a difficult moral question

May 04, 2023 13:13

I’ve been struggling to sleep of late. For some reason, my mind won’t slow down as it should. So instead I’ve been walking, tramping the streets of London day and night like a poundland Charles Dickens. I’ve been walking along the South Downs, up and around hill and hedgerow. Walking to burn energy and hoping that exhaustion follows.

As I walk, I’ve been listening to one song again and again. Come to Life by Kanye West. I don’t think I’ve ever been so addicted to a piece of music. “Don’t you wish the night would go numb,” raps Kanye. After enough walking, sometimes it does.

The song is a euphoric, piano-heavy ballad from West’s 2021 album Donda. It’s about his messy breakup from Kim Kardashian and his confusion and yearning are woven through every verse. It is a howl of pain, a soaring lament about God and women, a poem of loss. “Yeah you know where to find me, riding on a silver lining,” says Kanye, finding hope amid his despair.

This is art doing its job, I think. In fact, it is surely the highest objective of any artist to pour out the inner vibrations of their soul and have them somehow reach the souls of others, to use music or painting or poetry to convey an essential part of themselves and find that it is echoed in another, establishing a deep, unspoken human commonality. It’s what art is truly for.

The only problem is, I’m supposed to have quit Kanye. It was the Hitler stuff that did it, of course. Back in December, a clearly unwell Kanye appeared on InfoWars, a programme presented by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and went off the deepest of ends. “I love Nazis,” he said. “We’ve got to stop dissing Nazis all the time.” And the chef’s kiss: “I do love Hitler.”

This was the culmination of West’s sad and dangerous descent into antisemitic conspiracy mongering. And it had real-life consequences. It provoked vile expressions of support online. An antisemitic slur was projected onto a building in Florida. It was all so ugly. So I quit. “Listening to Kanye now just brings me immense sadness,” I wrote in a Sunday Times column following the incident.

Yet here we are, a few months later, and I’m listening to more Kanye than ever. I’m putting money into the pockets of a professed antisemite daily. How can I explain this? I could offer some mitigations. Kanye said some appalling things, but he didn’t physically hurt someone.

He’s never attacked or abused anyone that I know of. He has obvious mental health issues and I don’t actually think he’s a Nazi.

All these mitigations matter, as they keep him just about viable for me. But the real reason I’ve come back to Kanye is that I want and need his music in my life. The early bangers swamp me with waves of nostalgia, taking me back to the summer of 2004, when I was leading RSY camp and listening to Never Let Me Down in my dorm room on repeat. Kanye’s quest for love and acclaim resonated with my own adolescent dreams.

But it is Come to Life that I really can’t quit. The best way I can explain this is through the concept of duende, an idea made popular by poet Federico Garcia Lorca (and then his superfan, Leonard Cohen). The origins of duende lie in flamenco music but can really apply to any art. Duende has been described as a “poetic emotion that is uncontrolled”. It is an unfiltered expression of the soul, putting the tragic, beautiful song that lives inside each of us out into the world. It is a state of artistic grace that can inspire tears or shivers or intense joy.

I can feel Kanye’s duende when I listen to Come to Life. I can feel his undiluted humanity, his longing to be free, to be loved, to be alive. As the crescendo approaches, my own soul rises with his. It has become a religious experience of sorts for me.

Yet the man who inspires all these wonderful emotions is also a self-obsessed fool, a boastful bigot and an antisemite. How do I reconcile this? Well, I don’t really. Except to say that the human soul is a vast and contradictory place, where beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty, good and evil can all co-exist. In the soul of a genius, which I believe Kanye to be (though others may demur), these qualities can sometimes be accentuated. It’s the same reason I haven’t given up on the poetry of TS Eliot or the operas of Richard Wagner, despite their well-worn aversion to Jews.

So I listen to this song because it makes me come to life. I listen because I want to hear Kanye’s duende, his deep, messy humanity and the way it speaks to mine. Because I don’t have to forgive his sins to love the best of him. That’s how I reconcile it, I guess.

May 04, 2023 13:13

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