Kill Our Darlings: J. Cole, Kanye, & the Problem with Rapper Role Models

"It turns out our heroes aren’t false prophets, just humans. It turns out so are we."
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The history of J. Cole’s relationship to his idols—from JAY-Z to Nas—is well-documented by Cole himself. But perhaps none has received more attention than his relationship to Kanye West. As Genius laid out, aside from their one collaboration (“Looking For Trouble”), Cole has spent much of his career admiring Kanye from a distance, from flipping Ye beats for his own mixtapes to consistently referencing his lyrics. Even on his new album, KOD, Cole gives a nod to The College Dropout track “We Don’t Care” on “1985.”

And yet, all of his admiration seemed to have dried up in 2016, when pre-4 Your Eyez Only single “False Prophets” took aim at Kanye for what Cole perceived as his fall from grace:

"Ego in charge of every move, he's a star / And we can't look away due to the days that he caught our hearts / He's fallin' apart, but we deny it / Justifying that half-ass shit he dropped, we always buy it / When he tell us he a genius but it's clearer lately / It's been hard for him to look into the mirror lately"

When the song was released, I was uncomfortable with the way that many people were taking aim at Kanye at a time when he was clearly in need of help. Even before his off-the-rails diatribe that asked DJ Khaled and JAY-Z not to send “killers” for him, and his subsequent hospitalization for exhaustion, the video for “All Day” featured an unreleased song entitled “I Feel Like That,” where Kanye recited questions similar to those in depression inventories, then sang back, “I feel like that all the time.”

Cole’s assertion that “[Kanye] grows out of control / Into the person he truly was all along” felt—and still feels—to oversimplify a complex health matter. Of course, as some of the lyrics on KOD are being picked apart, Cole’s moral intentions do not always translate to the most nuanced takes on addiction and mental health (nor did JAY-Z practice nuance when he called Kanye “insane” on 4:44).

Despite my discomfort with “False Prophets” at the time—and my standing critiques of some of its assumptions—the harder pill to swallow is that J. Cole wasn’t all wrong about Kanye. In that fateful final concert of the Saint Pablo Tour, Kanye stated that he would have voted for Donald Trump. As nice as it would have been to brush that off as part of a larger, mostly confusing onstage breakdown, Kanye would eventually sit down for a meeting with Trump. To be fair, there is a larger debate to be had about the merits of trying to build a bridge with a president who was entering the Oval Office whether any of us were happy about it or not. But Kanye appeared to genuinely like Trump, even though Kanye’s music and interviews have long spoken out about racism in all of its forms, and Trump’s rhetoric is consistently derogatory toward Mexicans, immigrants from mostly non-white countries, Africans, Muslims, Black Americans, and… you get the idea. Years after Kanye’s debut lamented that “Racism still alive / They just be concealin’ it,” it felt like he no longer believed his own words.

It’s entirely possible that a lot of people already forgot about Kanye’s stamp of approval on the Trump presidency, no doubt because the hype for his two albums in June is high and his return to Twitter has been just as exciting as ever. But then, Saturday brought back a painful reminder (or confirmation) that Kanye really seems to have changed his stance on racism. “I love the way Candace Owens thinks,” he tweeted. And if you don’t who Candace Owens is (it’s okay, neither did I), activist Shaun King tweeted about her “critiques” of #BlackLivesMatter (to her, it’s a chance to “whine and get attention”) and her belief that oppression no longer exists.

As much as Kanye wants to say that his opinions are all about free thought and not following a crowd mentality, it is hard to hear all of this from a man who spent much of his early career speaking out against oppression. From his personal experiences with racism recounted on The College Dropout to his laments about government-endorsed anti-blackness on Late Registration, Kanye was the first person to challenge systems of power for an entire generation (myself included). Kanye was the one who made me realize that rap could be a tool to resist structures that set certain groups up to fail, which too often, as he would say, is something “that the pastor don’t preach” and “a teacher can’t teach.” I credit Kanye for moving me to a higher level of race consciousness.

For a man to use his voice protesting the systemic mistreatment of Black people from Chicago to Hollywood, only to later align himself with white supremacist sympathizers and racism deniers, I can’t help but feel like I am losing a mentor I never really knew—which, I must assume, is a lot like what J. Cole felt when he recorded “False Prophets.” It’s hard to live up to what our mentors have taught us; it’s even harder to point out—and hopefully move beyond—their shortcomings. Perhaps we should strive to uphold ideals but not idols. After all, Kanye himself reminds us that “no one man should have all that power,” or, as J. Cole would offer, “No role modelz to speak of.”

Apart from this, we still must ask ourselves how to continue loving someone—if at all—when their words or actions are problematic. Recently, Killer Mike sat down with the NRA to talk about Black gun ownership, which the NRA subsequently posted to coincide with the student-led March for Our Lives, and the media maelstrom criticizing Mike came out in full force. On social media, people pressured Mike's Run the Jewels partner, El-P, to disavow him for the interview, to which he responded in kind. On one hand, El-P firmly stated his support for the students and clarified that just because he and Killer Mike are in a group together does not mean they share the same political opinions. On the other hand, El-P balked at the idea that he would disavow his friend for making a mistake. Mike is someone, El-P stated, who “consistently and ferociously tries to bring some light and love to this world.” Killer Mike, taking into consideration the criticism surrounding him, apologized and followed up with a more nuanced take on his points, which are certainly worthy of debate.

I am not sure that there is someone in Kanye’s life who, like El-P for Killer Mike, can push him to reconsider his ideas and think about how harmful they are when persistent forms of racism are plaguing everyday life. It’s hard to believe that “False Prophets” changed his mind—or that the sometimes frustrating way things play out on Twitter did anything to remind him that he is loved—but Kanye needs to be held accountable for what he says and who he backs. Discourse too often turns to digging our heels in and deepening opposing lines instead of asking what it will take to get rid of lines altogether. 

I’m not suggesting harmony or accommodation here, nor am I suggesting that we sympathize with oppressive forces in any form. What I am suggesting is that there must be a way to separate Kanye’s present denial of racism and his past resistance to racism, to appreciate what he stood for once, and to hope now that someone near him can remind him of that once-impassioned voice. 

I must remember that Kanye—the icon in my mind—is just a person, a person like those in my family who also endorse bigotry, but whom I am tasked with loving and challenging all the same. Certainly, not everyone is called to this as many people rightly need to protect themselves from non-affirming postures toward their unquestionable humanity. But many of us have privileges we need to leverage to challenge the people we called our heroes, to kill our idols while we uphold the ideals that drew us to them in the first place, and to care enough to push back against the destructive forces that dehumanize and divide.

It turns out our heroes aren’t false prophets, just humans. It turns out so are we.

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