There is no doubt that Kanye West cares deeply about Chicago, the city that gave birth to his meteoric rise to superstardom. He has spoken about his desire to end the gang violence that has become epidemic in the city. When he met recently with President Trump and Jared Kushner Thursday, Oct. 11, at the White House, the topic of reducing gang violence was at the forefront of the conversation.
Although known for his confrontational style and dramatic outbursts over the years, West is nothing if not sincere. His “wear it on your sleeve” sincerity is probably one of the character traits that has drawn West and the president together. After all, it is quite an unlikely pairing on paper. Just over a decade ago, West appeared on national television during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and declared that President Bush “doesn’t care about Black people”—the implication, and the reality, being that West does care about African-Americans.
Now he stands in President Trump’s corner, a man considered by some to be far to the right of President Bush and certainly, in the eyes of some critics, no friend to Black people. Given the ostensible polarities, it is with some note that West and his celebrity wife Kim Kardashian were able to petition for and receive the commutation of the prison sentence of Alice Johnson, an African-American woman who served 21 years of a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense.
Chicago’s gang violence has been a human rights debacle for more than a decade. Most of the thousands of victims killed by gun violence in that time have been minorities, mainly African-American and Latino, a trend that continues this year. President Obama made a great public show of pretending to address Chicago’s problems and often waxed poetic about the tragic loss of some poor youth in yet another senseless homicide, but he did nothing to curb the violence. For that matter, neither has Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s hand-picked choice to run the city and keep it safely in Democratic hands for the past decade. In fact, gun-related homicide has skyrocketed under Emanuel’s watch.
But, let’s get back to Ye. Born Omari Kanye West in 1974, the rapper-turned-entrepreneur grew up on the South Side of Chicago during another turbulent time in America’s history. He rose to become a shining emblem of that time and place. A man who is acutely aware that he has a place in the wider societal perspective, he needs his roots to sustain him. Wouldn’t it be a major win for all involved if West and Trump could create a positive, much-needed progressive plan of reform for the city? It remains to be seen whether such a project will happen. But this meeting, if nothing else, puts West front and center as one of the few African-Americans who have the president’s ear.
Through all of this, let’s not forget to enjoy the drama that seems to follow West. His star keeps crossing with a singer-songwriter who is testing the political waters for the first time—Taylor Swift—first during the 2009 MTV awards when West barged onto the stage to confront Swift in a melodramatic rant, protesting her award for best pop video. That’s an act that is hard to follow, let alone forget or forgive. This time, though, at the 2018 American Music Awards, they seemed more like strangers in the night than stage adversaries.
Whereas Swift recently made her first public political endorsements, for a slate of Democratic candidates from her home state of Tennessee, perhaps a reaction to the media’s depiction of women during the Justice Kavanaugh nomination saga, West seems to be eyeing a different prize: bringing positive change to his hometown and reducing gun violence, with the help of the president of the United States.
Both West and Swift aim to use politics to help others. Civic engagement among these entertainment icons bodes well for emerging leaders of younger generations, regardless of their political leanings. Although both have taken criticism for speaking out, neither West nor Swift has betrayed fans by voicing sincerely held beliefs about the betterment of their respective communities. They are trying to figure it out, as are we all. By adding their voices to the national debate, these young artists are performing a civic duty.