Kanye West’s celebrity gives his brazen antisemitism a more toxic power, reach
As the United States increasingly grapples with racist and bigoted rhetoric entering the mainstream — accompanied by a rise in hate crimes, the extremism has tended to come from the margins of political life.
But for the last few weeks, a series of antisemitic and conspiracy-soaked rants has emerged not from dark corners of the internet, but from one of America’s most renowned rap artists and fashion icons: Kanye West.
The ugly, unrepentant nature of the comments by West, who now goes by Ye, present challenges in fighting hate, experts said.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, said it’s unusual and deeply troubling for such vitriolic hate-speech to come from a celebrity of West’s caliber — and it brings with it the danger of emboldening others, because his fame gives his ideas credibility.
West’s words have “greater significance” because of “how high a celebrity he is and just how violent the language is,” Levin said. “This is not a subtle-type of bigotry … it’s more brazen, it’s more violent and it’s unapologetic.”
West is facing increasing fallout from his recent hateful comments and controversial statements, including losing his talent agency on Monday. Adidas, which produces West’s popular Yeezy shoe line, announced Tuesday it was also ending its partnership.
After a week in which West promoted antisemitism and white supremacy, his business partners, from Adidas to Def Jam, may be distancing themselves from the star.
West drew widespread condemnation in recent weeks after making comments online and in TV interviews spewing antisemitic conspiracy theories. In his most jarring post, for which he lost access to his Twitter and Instagram accounts, West said he would “Go death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”
“There’s real harm about what he’s saying and doing,” said Melina Abdullah, professor of Pan-African studies at Cal State Los Angeles and co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter. “We’ve already seen a ramping up of [racist threats] as a result of his positioning.”
This weekend, demonstrators above the 405 Freeway hung a sign that said “Kanye is right about the Jews,” while giving Nazi salutes, according to images from local organizers and shared posts on social media. This followed multiple neighborhoods in L.A. finding antisemitic flyers dropped on doorsteps and windshields, which police have said they are investigating.
Fears that antisemitic remarks by Kanye West would spur additional bigotry came to fruition in Los Angeles on Saturday.
After making the violent threat toward Jewish people on social media, West made further antisemitic remarks in an interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News. In unaired footage reviewed and detailed by Vice News, he told the Fox News host that Planned Parenthood was founded “to control the Jew population,” among other rambling conspiracies.
Earlier this month, West appeared on the popular rap podcast “Drink Champs,” where he pushed other antisemitic ideas, including the trope that Jewish people run the media and have “owned the Black voice.” He also claimed, falsely, that George Floyd died from a fentanyl overdose, when pressure from a police officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck actually killed him.
West also faced criticism for wearing a “White Lives Matter” shirt to his YZY runway show during Paris Fashion Week in early October, a statement that the Anti-Defamation League has called a “white supremacist phrase.”
It’s far from clear how many people take West’s comments seriously or are inspired by them. The musician has struggled with mental health issues and has made outlandish pronouncements in the past, including promises in 2020 that he was running for president.
Part of what makes West’s recent comments concerning, Abdullah said, is the fact that he is a Black man speaking out against Black rights groups and widely held concerns of the Black community, which has made him a sought-after figure by right-wing, extremist and racist voices.
“Anytime that you have people that happen to be Black,” Abdullah said, “speaking out against the interest of Black people it emboldens non-Black people to be more audacious in their anti-Blackness.”
West’s embrace by groups and people who espouse racist ideas is not a new strategy, but one employed repeatedly by supremacist groups, Abdullah said.
“White supremacy has always searched for Black faces to put on it,” she said. “And there’s always been Black people, who are descriptively Black, who put their very selfish quest for either feeding their ego, or lining their pockets, or both, ahead of the interest of the collective.”
West’s popularity can make it difficult to counter or address, Abdullah said, even by a nationwide movement like Black Lives Matter, which has condemned his comments.
“We have a significant following and significant name recognition that doesn’t even begin to compare with what Kanye West has,” she said.
Rabbi Noah Farkas, president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, pointed out that West’s social media following is greater than the entire Jewish population worldwide, which is why the rapper’s unabashed comments — along with other displays of antisemitism and hate — have left L.A. Jews “on edge.”
“We know from all the research that hateful speech leads to hateful actions,” Farkas said. “When influencers like Kanye West have the opportunity to say what they say and it goes unchecked, ... it normalizes the experience of hatred.”
Levin said that normalization of such bigotry has statistically led to more crimes targeting certain groups.
“We’ve been seeing this relationship between these kinds of expressions online, and then its reverberations into actual action on the streets,” Levin said. “These these kinds of horrendous antisemitic hate groups will come out like cockroaches [from] under a rock, whenever they have an opportunity to further exploit this.”
Levin pointed to growing concerns about bigotry in the Pennsylvania governor’s race, after the Republican candidate made comments about his opponent’s Jewish schooling, which some have called an antisemitic dog whistle.
Rhetoric from former President Trump about the origins of the coronavirus in China has been attributed by some activists and others for a recent rise in anti-Asian hate across the U.S.
CAA, one of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies, has stopped representing the artist formerly known as Kanye West.
Levin said he’s also concerned that as the contentious midterm elections get closer, such rhetoric will only increase, something he said has historically occurred around elections.
“When a celebrity influencer is involved in an antisemitic rhetoric, it’s bad enough,” Levin said. “But having this occur around these conflictual election times is even worse.”
West’s standing in the music and fashion industry brings the danger of pulling historically fringe and antisemitic ideas to the mainstream, said Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism for the Anti-Defamation League.
“The lifeblood of extremists is the attention they are able to get,” Segal said. “So the ability to leverage a celebrity’s statement is gold for extremists.”
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