How does it happen, that one day you are a revered musical artist, innovator and fashion empire-builder capable of turning everything you touch to gold, and the next you are a Trump-hugging, Holocaust-denying darling of the US far right, telling people that you hope Jewish children “look at their daddies and say ‘Why is Ye mad at us?’”? The Trouble With KanYe, the latest documentary by award-winning journalist Mobeen Azhar, sets out to answer not just this question – compelling though the evolution of musician Kanye-now-Ye West is – but the even more important one of where it might lead and what it might mean for us all.
Azhar takes us quickly but precisely through the milestones in West’s career. In 2003, he released his debut single and began his meteoric rise to fame, fortune and critical acclaim, selling millions of records, marrying Kim Kardashian and beginning a partnership with Adidas that would come to be worth billions. There were accusations of misogyny and the odd troubling remark – anti-Black, antisemitic – along the way, but nothing to scare the horses (or the sponsors).
Gradually the wheels came off. Forthrightness became outspokenness became unfiltered thoughts (“My mom saved my life because my dad wanted to abort me!”). Soon they turned into increasingly frequent and offensive anti-Black remarks and antisemitic diatribes. In 2016, the meandering political speeches with which he began peppering his gigs led to the tour being cancelled, West being admitted to hospital and reportedly receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
It seems to have been around this time that he embraced religion and began to find a new welcoming audience among the US Christian right. By November 2022, his kinship with them and the race supremacists often allied with it had apparently grown and he appeared – to widespread condemnation from others – at a Mar-a-Lago dinner with Trump and white nationalist Nick Fuentes. The programme shows a clip from Fuentes’ show where Fuentes lays out some of his tenets – “I believe organised Jewry is an extreme influence in the USA … I don’t support women’s rights, I don’t support LGBT rights, I believe in race and gender essentialism.”
Shortly after that, West appeared on Alex Jones’s far-right conspiracy outlet Infowars praising Hitler and calling himself a Nazi (Jones is best known for calling the killings at Sandy Hook primary school a hoax, for which unspeakably cruel claim he was eventually successfully sued). At which point even Adidas felt it was time to cut ties. When West ran for president in 2020, Fuentes worked on his campaign – and West is rumoured to be planning a more serious bid for 2024.
Azhar interviews individual friends and colleagues of West who clearly remain both baffled and hurt by his embrace of ideologies so different from their own, and offer explanations – including the feeding of his ego and his need for attention, however toxic.
The programme deals particularly admirably with two factors. The first is the argument that West’s mental health and bipolarity are the cause of his recent decisions, comments and alliances. Many have tried to push back against the suggestion that such disorders in essence conjure “evil” from nowhere, but they are rarely given much of a hearing. Azhar, by contrast, interviews poet Bassey Ikpi – who became a mental health activist after her own bipolar diagnosis – and resists the temptation to undermine or soften her very clear message that: “It is you, but magnified. I’m not making the case that he’s a lovely guy if he takes his medication. He’s probably a jerk.”
She does point out that if West lived a normal life he would have reached rock bottom by now: “Normally we would lose friends, money.” So, perhaps his symptoms are a more extreme manifestation than most people can sustain, but it doesn’t change her fundamental point about amplification.
The second great strength of the programme is that it never forgets about the broader implications of having West as a new figurehead for the far-/“alt-right”/neo-Nazi/white supremacist/nationalist/call-it-what-you-will movement. He reaches a vast audience and much of it is near-virgin territory. There is no need, any longer, to go down an internet rabbit hole in search of propaganda. When West says that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice”, he reaches untold numbers of people who would probably never have gone down internet rabbit holes to hear such beliefs. The Trouble With KanYe rightly lingers on the notion that the harm such reach can do – has surely already done – is incalculable. And yet, he maybe still has a presidential bid to come.
• The Trouble with KanYe aired on BBC Two and is available on BBC iPlayer.