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The Irreconcilable Differences between Controversial Creators and their Works

While our society grants creatives certain liberties, including freedom to express oneself through the arts, consumers inherently also have the freedom to express themselves through their opinions and perceptions of said art; whether that be to enjoy, reject, or grow offended by it. In her essay, “Confessions of the Human Shield,” Emily Nussbaum wrestled with […]

While our society grants creatives certain liberties, including freedom to express oneself through the arts, consumers inherently also have the freedom to express themselves through their opinions and perceptions of said art; whether that be to enjoy, reject, or grow offended by it. In her essay, “Confessions of the Human Shield,” Emily Nussbaum wrestled with another element of the issue, as she grappled with how to reconcile good art produced by questionable creators. Nussbaum concluded that while the art should not be entirely disposed of or erased, neither should the creator’s disgraceful past for differentiating the two would be “the sociopath’s approach: [treating] the artist and the art as separate” (144). Instead, she suggests that consumers analyze, scrutinize, and even embrace the art within the context of being created by controversial artists, to “chew on the rotten apple instead of spitting it out” (112). Kanye West’s latest studio album Jesus is King exemplifies and expands upon the issues raised in Nussbaum’s essay. West faced criticism of his own following the release of his debut gospel album, chiefly from the Christian community, in light of his own controversial and contradictory past. However, despite his controversial past and debatable character, the message he aims to share through his newest album should not be immediately nor entirely discounted, for art with meaningful and significant messages should be preserved, and its value assessed, within the context of the creator’s offenses.

Aside from many accolades, including being a Grammy-award winning rap artist and acclaimed fashion designer, Kanye West’s name carries with it an infamous string of controversies surrounding his radical publicity stunts and inflammatory behavior. Beginning in 2004, West solidified his narcissistic public persona, after notoriously brandishing his bravado, especially at award shows. After losing the American Music Awards Best New Artist award in 2004, West claimed that he was “definitely robbed” of the award (Montgomery). He also bashed MTV and declared he “would never return to MTV” upon losing all of the Video Music Awards he was nominated for in 2007, and most infamously, West stormed the stage at the 2009 VMAs while Taylor Swift was receiving the award for Best Female Video and declared that Beyonce deserved the award instead (Montgomery; “Top 10 Outrageous Kanye”). West’s scandals transcend the boundaries of the stage as well, as his internet presence is just as inflammatory. West’s Twitter account infamously harbors provocative comments including his defense of Bill Cosby, support of Donald Trump, and equating the music industry and NBA to modern slavery, among a host of other hot-button topics. It was not until 2016 that West’s inconsistent and radical behavior could be explained following his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, after which he converted to Christianity. Even still, he struggled to fully garner the support of the Christian community.

Ironically, one of Kanye’s early public incidents specifically offended the Christian community, sparking the community’s budding disdain for the rapper. In February 2006, West posed on the cover of Rolling Stone as Jesus Christ, his bloodied head donning a crown of thorns like Jesus notedly did in death. To further cement the artist’s allusion to the death of the martyr, the issue was even named “The Passion of Kanye West” after the Passion, the period in Christ’s life shortly before he was crucified. The combined elements of the magazine cover not only symbolize West likening himself to Jesus, but also effectively mocking him, resulting in West being accused of blasphemy, with the cover being dubbed “‘sacrilegious’ and an insult to Christians” (“Christians Angered”). Unfortunately, West’s god complex extends far beyond the magazine cover, as his song “I Am A God” features repeated declarations of the blasphemous statement. West’s lyrics cause more points of contention within the Christian community than merely being sacrilegious, for he has a reputation of utilizing particularly raunchy lyrics that glorify and condone explicit and offensive material, including misogyny, drug use, and premarital sex, all of which strictly contradict the tenets of Christian doctrine. Among West’s most provocative, and purportedly most NSFW lyrics, are lines from his song “Hell of a Life” in which he states:

“Tell me what I gotta do to be that guy/ Said her price go down, she ever f–k a black guy/ Or do anal, or do a gangbang/ It’s kinda crazy that’s all considered the same thing/ Well I guess a lotta ni–as do gang bang/ And if we run trains, we all in the same gang/ Runaway slaves all on a chain gang/ Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang” (Ruiz).

West’s behavioral and lyrical history understandably predisposed the Christian community to have reason to question his character and be skeptical of any messages that he might possibly want to share, especially as it pertains to Christianity. Even still, this response begs the question of whether West, as someone who has struggled to maintain a consistent connection within the Christian community, should create art for that community, especially if it also critiques that community.

Kanye West’s announcement of his thematically Christian, gospel-influenced album Jesus is King immediately faced mixed reviews. However, the bulk of the criticism is geared towards West’s faith as opposed to the work itself. Considering West historically made both blasphemous and critical comments about the faith, including that he would not “attest to any religion that tells [him] that other people gotta go to hell,” the Christian community expressed valid reservations about West’s intentions and alleged conversion (Klinkenberg). However, upon listening to the lyrics, one cannot deny the clear adulatory undertones of the album that revolve around offering reverence to God. Throughout the album, Kanye repeatedly praises God as he reminds the listener of “[God’s] mighty works and excellent grace and His mighty power” in the principal track “Every Hour” and calls for the listener to “Love God and our neighbor as written in Luke,” in his song “Selah” (West). West even transparently shares his own faith journey to Christianity through his song “Follow God” in which he discusses his personal faith struggles, detailing conversations about faith with God and his ongoing quest for a “bright light” as he is “lookin’ for a new way” through Christ (West). When viewed objectively, Jesus is King satisfies all of the requirements to be classified as a Christian album. Even still, many Christians questioned if West truly converted to Christianity and ignored the fact that, as promised, Kanye produced a Christian album with messages consistent with the doctrine.

Despite the majority of the lyrics involving Christian themes and revolving around praising and revering God, a major point of contention of the album for many critical listeners includes West’s critique of the hypocrisy of modern Christians and their judgmental nature in his song “Hands On,” as he states “What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?/ They’ll be the first one to judge me/ Make it feel like nobody love me” (West).  Because of West’s denunciation of the internal judgments and social ostracization that occur within the Christian community, many Christians took it personally, and thus attacked West on a personal front, choosing to discount the valuable messages laden within the album because of his past. As opposed to the quality of the work, the bulk of the criticism is geared towards West’s newfound faith, with “many critics both inside and outside of the Christian community dismissing West’s pledges of faith as surface-level and disingenuous” (Chow). Because of West’s alleged pseudo-Christianity, others accuse him of merely producing the album to gain a profit, and thus lacking in the authority to offer critiques of the community, or address it at all. However, even if West’s intentions were compromised, the fact remains that the messages of the album remain consistent with Christian doctrine, thoroughly praise God, and even offer valuable insights into flaws within the Christian community. Furthermore, in her essay, Nussbaum raises a valid point regarding the preservation of potentially compromised art. According to Nussbaum, we certainly should not merely disregard West’s self-incriminating past, nor should we discard his work. In fact, we should acknowledge it and perhaps, his accusatory past is what makes his newest album that much more valuable and profound. Perhaps the criticisms or observations that he offers of Christians are more valuable coming from him. Considering Kanye now considers himself a member of the faith, yet is relatively new to it, he possesses a unique perspective essentially because he is inherently more willing to observe and acknowledge its flaws.

A creator’s controversy arguably contributes yet another layer of depth to the work and an additional lens through which it can be analyzed or critiqued, particularly if the work offers invaluable commentary. Merely rejecting the work on the grounds of an artist’s personal life, particularly their past, presupposes that creators are not allowed to evolve and change their beliefs. However, an artist’s shortcomings should not necessarily be dismissed either. Should an artist act in a condemnable or heinous manner, completely ignoring their actions essentially condones them. By analyzing or consuming a work through the context of its artist’s controversy, one can, “scribble all over it in rage, confusion, in pleasure” and dissect the work from the perspective of the controversial elements, yielding an entirely new interpretation (Nussbaum 112). In the case of Kanye West’s Jesus is King album, considering his newfound Christian faith and subsequent commentary on modern Christianity offers an even more comprehensive understanding of his evolution as an artist matriculating from the secular to Christian realm and his concurrent faith journey, arguably making the album more meaningful. In certain circumstances, society needs outsiders, even if they come in the form of compromised artists, to make known issues within society. However, one would be remiss to pardon all works created by controversial artists, for this renewed analysis is not necessarily warranted in all circumstances, especially if a work does not offer a profound significance. Conversely, every controversial artist should not be given a second life nor does their work necessarily deserve attention, as Nussbaum suggests. Creating a standardized procedure for works created by compromised creators threatens ignorance to the specific circumstances. As Emily Nussbaum supposed, we as consumers are unable to successfully dissociate between an artist and their art. Therefore, sometimes celebrating a work of art is not worth celebrating its creator. Instead, one must approach every work by a controversial artist on a situational basis in which the rejection or acceptance of a work is largely dependent upon both the degree of the creator’s offenses and the art’s potential significance.

 

Works Cited

Chow, Andrew. “How Kanye West’s Controversial ‘Jesus Is King’ Is Dividing the Christian Community.” Time, 6 Nov. 2019, time.com/5716576/kanye-west-jesus-is-king-gospel-reaction/.

“Christians Angered by Kanye West Mockery.” Newsmax, 25 Jan. 2006, www.newsmax.com/Pre-2008/Christians-Angered-Kanye-West/2006/01/25/id/684017/.

Klinkenberg, Brendan. “Kanye West Reaches for Greatness But Falls Short on ‘Jesus Is King’.” Rolling Stone, 28 Oct. 2019, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/kanye-wests-jesus-is-king-904921/.

Montgomery, James. “Kanye West Loses It Again, Says He’ll ‘Never Return To MTV’: Report.” MTV News, 9 Oct. 2007, www.mtv.com/news/1569313/kanye-west-loses-it-again-says-hell-never-return-to-mtv-report/.

Nussbaum, Emily. “Confessions of the Human Shield.” I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, Random House, 2019.

Ruiz, Matthew I. “Kanye West’s Top 10 NSFW Lyrics.” Billboard, 11 Sept. 2016, www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/7503613/kanye-west-top-10-most-nsfw-lyrics-yeezus.

“Top 10 Outrageous Kanye West Moments – TIME.” TIME.com, 14 Sept. 2009, content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1922188_1922187_1922190,00.html.

West, Kanye. “Kanye West (Ft. Sunday Service Choir) – Every Hour Lyrics.” Genius, 25 Oct. 2019, genius.com/Kanye-west-every-hour-lyrics.

—. “Kanye West – Hands On Lyrics.” Genius, 25 Oct. 2019, genius.com/Kanye-west-hands-on-lyrics

—. “Kanye West – Selah Lyrics.” Genius, 25 Oct. 2019, genius.com/Kanye-west-selah-lyrics.

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