The old-school R&B group The Persuaders sang “It’s a thin line between love and hate.” There’s also apparently a thin line between genius and complete madman.
That case in point is Kanye West’s comments on “TMZ Live” Tuesday, when he suggested that the enslavement of Africans in America was a “choice.”
“When you hear about slavery for 400 years . . . for 400 years?” the singer said, “that sounds like a choice.”
In the same interview, he reaffirmed that President Donald Trump was “my boy,” and that he was a “free thinker” because he wore a Trump-signed “Make America Great Again” baseball cap. Of course, those comments about the developer-turned-politician could have been attributed to many others who also wore the cap, waved a Confederate flag or bemoaned the taking down of statues of certain historic importance.
The backlash was emotional and it was direct — even after the rapper tried to explain his remarks on Twitter.
The Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.am on Twitter: “. . . To say that was their choice is to blame it all on our ancestors & it Disrespects their suffering . . . .”
The Roots’ Questlove on Twitter: “What in the Andy Kaufman is going on here?”
Writer-professor Roxane Gay on Twitter: “He is not a free thinker. He is a free moron who doesn’t read.”
Actor Wendell Pierce on Twitter: “. . . For you to use the murder and holocaust of slavery for your own self aggrandizement is at the core of your vile appeasement of white supremacists.”
West’s comments on Tuesday were undoubtedly his most contentious. And that’s a high bar. Or a low one. But why does one of the most successful artists of his generation do it? Is he mentally unhinged and speaks without a filter but happens to possess a rare gift when he enters the studio? Or is this simply skillful manipulation of the media — befitting someone now a member of the Kardashian clan — guaranteed to keep his name in the headlines?
Either way, he seems to have more in common with Trump than a baseball hat.
Still, it’s difficult to reconcile the West of today with the artist who came to prominence producing Jay-Z’s stunning “The Blueprint” in 2001 before unleashing his own superlative “The College Dropout” in 2004 and “Graduation” in 2007. His masterful meshing of samples, melody and beats was a giant leap forward for hip-hop.
And it seemed as if he had something interesting to say, too. He echoed what many felt in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina about the treatment of New Orleans’ African-Americans when he said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” How shocked and disappointed we would have been if, in 2008, we could have flashed forward a decade to see the West of today.
His aerosol spray of controversy is wearing thin — at least to me. But apparently not to others, as again he has dominated the news cycle. Until he makes another great record or does something truly worthy of credit, can we all please not shower West with the attention he so desperately seeks?
Jeff Vasishta, a writer and music journalist, lives in Crown Heights.