Famous musicians using their platforms to espouse their political opinions is not a new phenomenon. It is also not remotely new that even musicians who otherwise produce completely apolitical music use their fame to put forward these opinions. And this phenomenon has only increased as artists have wrestled their public presentation and narrative away from the press and into their own social-media-managing hands. It is rather new, however, for musicians to go a few steps beyond and run for office. Yet here we are, with one Kanye Omari West seemingly attempting a sincere run for president as a third-party candidate.
Mr West has little chance of success. Despite likely having significantly healthier cognitive function than both the main party candidates and an impressive level of name recognition, most will not take his campaign seriously or risk the spoiler effect by diverting from their candidate of choice. To make matters worse, he has already failed to get onto the ballot in 34 states. Some of these states do not even allow for write-in candidates.
Then again, it is possible that we are misjudging the success criteria for the “Birthday Party” candidate. Mr West has previously expressed his support for President Donald Trump, and his candidacy may be aimed at helping Mr Trump’s re-election by gaining votes that would otherwise have been cast for Joe Biden. Polling data shows, however, that when Kanye West is included in polling, Biden’s lead over Trump increases instead of decreases. And whilst extremely low polling and ballot access in only 10 states may suggest that Mr West has little hope of making any headway into 2020’s electoral college, one should remember that President Trump also ran in an unsuccessful campaign for president back in 2000 for the Reform Party – a stunt which enlarged his public image. Perhaps, then, we could see Kanye West running for the nomination of a major party in a decade’s time.
A Platform for Political Views?
Questions of success chances aside, though, this once again presents us with the dilemma of musicians and their political views. As citizens like anyone else, they are fully entitled to freedom of speech, and freedom to express whatever political view they align with. However, most artists expressing such opinions do so from a significant platform to a large audience accumulated on the basis of music, visuals, and branding, not on any pre-advertised political stance. To this extent, the public-facing side of an artist is more of a brand – more of a character for mass entertainment than a ‘real person’ like most of the ‘normal’ people you are friends with or follow on social media sites. The name ‘McDonalds’ may have actually originated from the two brothers McDonald, but I think we would find it more than a little strange if the McDonalds twitter started endorsing political candidates.
In addition, the musicians’ audiences on social media are often young and impressionable; some will lament the fact that young people might acquire political opinions as a result of following a band or artist. It is no coincidence that those most vocal with these concerns often lie on the political right – popular musicians almost universally hold left-liberal political opinions, and it is these views that they propagate through online platforms to their fans. Critics hold legitimate concern that a large cohort of young people will therefore become absorbed into these left-liberal positions without being encouraged to assess situations for themselves based on more expert opinion and evidence. More selfishly, of course, they are likely dismayed that a large group are being encouraged to hold positions different from their own.
Kanye West, however, in his political opinions and most everything else about him, is an exception. He has stated that ‘had he voted’, he would have voted for Trump in 2016, and has at multiple points expressed support for the positions of and the people in black conservative movement such as Candace Owens. The usual critics of musicians publicizing their political stances have been more silent in regard to these public political displays, likely as a result of Mr West holding opinions much closer to their own.
So, What’s the Verdict?
The question, then, of how celebrity musicians should act in public with regards to their political stances while being ‘responsible’, is still clouded. It is imperative to the function of our Western democracies that all citizens retain the right to freedom of expression, speech, religion, and that all retain the right to run for office. Few would raise concerns over celebrity musicians who held a strong public political stance ‘from day one’ continuing to espouse these stances through their communications with fans or even through running for office. Yet, the criticism that young, impressionable people (often children) are ‘lured’ into following a celebrity through being fans of their music and apolitical image only for that celebrity to suddenly start using this built up influence to push political messages remains legitimate – see Taylor Swift. After all, there is rightful uproar whenever it comes out that a school or teacher is pushing a particular political agenda to their students.
However, I am compelled to view Kanye West’s decision to run for president as passable and even responsible. I would be willing to put money on the fact that most of his audience are adults, and that he has been politically active in public since at least 2012 when he made a donation to President Obama’s re-election campaign. The platform Kanye West stands on differs greatly from those held by his contemporaries, providing valuable diversity of opinion in this sphere. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, Mr West’s unpredictability and eccentricity have always been part of his brand. After all, this is the same man who spent a reported million dollars producing an extended film he directed himself in order to promote My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, all without his label being the least bit aware.
So, if you are eligible to vote in a state where Kanye West is on the ballot, perhaps you should consider giving him a vote. After all, there is no better way in an election to signal to the political establishment your desire for change in the policy platforms of the largest parties than voting for a third-party candidate.