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You don't have to be obsessed with pop culture to know that something is going on with Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West. Recently divorced from the reality show star and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian, he's been at the center of several controversies: He was banned from performing at the upcoming Grammy Awards. Before that, he was suspended from Instagram for a day after making racist comments directed at The Daily Show host and upcoming Grammys host Trevor Noah after Noah raised concerns about Ye's conduct.
That conduct includes relentlessly trolling his former wife and her current beau, the comedian Pete Davidson, and releasing a disturbing music video that shows a Claymation figure — with a remarkable resemblance to Ye — kidnapping and gruesomely dismembering another figure that bears a remarkable resemblance to Davidson. Ye has claimed all of this is an effort to win back his former wife and reunite their family.
Aisha Harris of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour joined Michel Martin to break down how she's thinking about Ye's recent behavior. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Martin: I get the feeling that talking about Ye is something that critics, people who write about and talk about culture for a living, have been struggling with. Would that be accurate to say? And why is that?
Harris: Oh, yeah. I mean, where do you even begin? Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are two of the most influential people of the last 20 years. Ye, obviously, is an artist who has been acclaimed for most of his career, has gotten all the accolades, won Grammys. People love him. He's been declared a genius by any number of prominent critics. And then you have this sort of decline, both in his public persona and also, some would argue, in his music. There's this weird conundrum that they're facing: How do we separate the art from the artist?
And then with Kim, she is someone who has been criticized. She's not really someone who people consider to have a sort of talent of any sort — unless being a businessperson or a salesperson is considered a talent. And so she hasn't always had a lot of public goodwill in terms of the way she's appropriated other cultures, or the fact that she's had a very, some would say, negative impact on beauty standards over the last 15, 20 years. Some would say it would be hard to feel bad for her when this is all happening. And so those are the sort of problems and issues that are arising when we talk about both of these people.
When talking about Ye on a recent episode of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah made two points about the situation: One, in any other context other than Hollywood, people would see this as harassment. And he also made the point that people can look at this and take cues about what is considered acceptable. What do you think?
We can see this pattern of what's happening to Kim Kardashian that happens to women all the time. And I hope that we can take the lesson that this is not just an isolated case. This is something that happens to women every day. Yes, it's important to pay attention that this is happening to Kim Kardashian, but it's also something that needs to trickle down into the real world, for the rest of the women who don't have those resources and don't have that power.
Looking at this from another vantage point, Ye's supporters have made the argument that this is all performance art, and therefore, it's off-limits to critique on other-than-artistic terms. Trevor Noah also made the point that Kanye and those close to him have disclosed that he has mental health issues. But other people have mental health issues and don't harass people, right? So I'm wondering: Does the audience have some role in this? And if so, what is it?
Kanye, from the beginning of his career, has made himself part of the art. He's not Banksy. He's not a performance artist who you only know who he is based on his voice; you don't know his personality. That's not him. And if you listen to the lyrics in "Eazy," a lot of those lyrics are actually reflecting things that he's said on social media and in interviews. He mentions: no more counseling. I don't negotiate with therapists. He's been open about not taking the medications that he's been prescribed. And so when that's happening and it's all coming together in the art, you can't just say you have to separate the art from the artist, because it's playing out right in front of us.