Celebrity Voices in the Political Arena

We have a celebrity for president. With each passing day that he occupies the Oval Office, the rules are being rewritten. Celebrities, particularly in America, have always been political in their own way – bastions of wealth and pop culture influence whose opinions on many things, not least politics, go a long way with their fans. Back in 2013, Louis Tomlinson of my favourite band One Direction tweeted a misogynistic joke at his then girlfriend, something along the lines of the classic ‘get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich.’ At the time, it was my opinion that we couldn’t put celebrities on pedestals and expect them to be perfect – after all, no one is perfect and people in the spotlight, I thought, had just as much a right to make mistakes as the rest of us do. I still think the second part of that is true. But what was so wrong with Tomlinson’s tweet (and my reaction to it) was that I gave him, as a celebrity, permission to make mistakes without acknowledging the wide, rippling repercussions of his words and actions. (As of this article’s publication, the tweet is still on Tomlinson’s account.) 

Over the past few days, Kanye West, self-proclaimed genius, visionary, and artist extraordinaire, has gone on quite the Twitter rant. I won’t quote any of the tweets here; Google is free and the tweets are easy to find. For someone who has long been outspoken on topics of racism, class divisions, violence in his hometown of Chicago, and other political matters, it has been shocking to witness his seeming embrace of right-wing absurdity. The dark, deep abyss that is discussing celebrities as political figures has been ripped open yet again, as we argue about whether or not Kanye is a legitimate political force (he has previously stated his intentions to run for president in 2020).

Apparently it has not become clear over the last eighteen or so months that identity politics are as important as ever (when I use the term ‘identity politics,’ I am referring to the politicization of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. as tools of discourse and movement). Of course, those who wish to diminish the importance of discussing identity politics are precisely those whose identities never cause them any real disadvantage or harm (except, perhaps, their wounded pride when white privilege is mentioned). With the intersection of the #MeToo movement and the Trump presidency, there are opportunities aplenty to discuss the very real effects of ignoring the dangers posed by allowing celebrities to simply be whoever they are for all the world to see, without facing any consequences. The very same people who scoffed at the potential of Oprah Winfrey making a presidential run want us to just let Roseanne Barr do her political thing; only when it is convenient to one side do we want to just let celebrities entertain us.

The hypocrisy of jeering at Jimmy Kimmel when he combines his own life experiences with his high-profile platform to raise awareness about healthcare issues, but laughing at Kanye West and refusing to take his recent Twitter outbursts seriously is the very danger of which we should all be aware. There have been a few reactions to his recent embrace of Trumpism that want us to believe Kanye is just out to get attention. Surely he isn’t serious, he just wants us to give him the worship he thinks he deserves, or perhaps it’s just publicity for his upcoming album. This is the sort of privilege that makes West immune to the dangers that people with skin like his are up against in America. West can tout his support of Trump because the policies of the Trump administration (and past Republican administrations) don’t really apply to him. 

It doesn’t matter if West is just trolling us, if he logs off Twitter and chuckles to himself that he’s played us for fools. What matters is that he is choosing to disregard his privilege as a wealthy celebrity – and at least other celebrities like John Legend, Jimmy Kimmel, the women of #TimesUp, and so on recognize that they have power and a platform and choose to use it for the greater good. As Spencer Kornhaber writes in The Atlantic, some view disapproval of Kanye’s tweets as hypocritical, “given the enthusiasm with which the media seemed to spotlight pop stars who spoke up for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But the distinction is that when, say, Beyoncé supported Clinton, she connected that support with her music’s messages about gender equality and racial justice. Jay-Z’s friendship with Obama, too, has been leveraged for advocacy around the drug war and incarceration.”

So we can continue to believe that West is harmless, but what he is really doing is encouraging racist, oppressive behaviour by announcing his MAGA ambitions. His wife Kim Kardashian West tweeted that he doesn’t agree with Trump on everything; why can’t Kanye just have his own opinions? Leave Kanye alone! Here’s the thing: West is free to believe whatever he wants. But his position of power comes with responsibility. His 2013 album ‘Yeezus’ was a social awakening for me and taught me more about race relations in the US than I ever anticipated. People listen to Kanye West. You might not take him seriously, but there will always be people who do. Anyone with power who openly declares a dangerous belief (whether it be racist, sexist, xenophobic, or other) simply paves the way for anyone else who has kept their beliefs to themselves for fear of societal ostracization. Now they have another champion, someone who is willing to take the heat for ‘controversial’ positions. The same was true for Donald Trump not long ago. Many of us, myself included, branded Trump as a delusional celebrity who was spouting nonsense and shouldn’t be taken seriously. Look where that got us.