Ye and the Problem of Fascist Art

The rapper’s embrace of Nazi ideology is strange and awful, but it can teach us a lot about how far-right politics spread.

(Content Warning: Antisemitism, misogyny, hateful language)

Ye—or, as he used to be called, Kanye West—is a Nazi sympathizer now. At least, he’s become someone who hangs out with neo-Nazis, repeats antisemitic talking points, and openly praises Hitler. His motivations are a little unclear: how much is genuine belief, and how much is just a juvenile desire to shock and offend, like an edgy teen carving swastikas into a desk? What role does the rapper’s diagnosed bipolar disorder—which he now claims was misdiagnosed by a Jewish doctor plotting against him—play? I don’t know the man, and don’t care to psychoanalyze him from afar. In any case, I don’t think it matters very much. To a large extent, you’re defined by what you do in the world, and Ye’s actions speak for themselves.

Since 2022, he’s hired far-right creeps like Milo Yiannopoulos and avowed Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes to work for him in various roles, blurted out “I like Hitler!” during an interview with Alex Jones, and tweeted that he wants to go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.” In short, he’s done and said some of the most heinous things it’s possible to do and say. More recently he made a perfunctory apology in Hebrew for “any pain I may have caused”—a choice the Anti-Defamation League cautiously welcomed but the American Jewish Committee called “bizarre and possibly a ploy to gain more attention.” Really, the whole thing has been bizarre. But by studying Ye and his Nazi turn, we may be able to gain some valuable insights into the way far-right ideologies spread, how they appeal to people, and even how to defeat them. 

The first problem is that, alongside his increasingly depraved politics, Ye is still a supremely talented musical artist—and he continues to be a commercially successful one too. On February 10, he released a new album called Vultures 1, the first installment of a planned “Vultures” trilogy in collaboration with Los Angeles rapper Ty Dolla $ign.1 And although you might think saying “I like Hitler!” in public would put a dent in anyone’s career, it seems that’s not the case. Instead, Vultures 1 debuted at No.1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, outselling even Usher, who headlined the Super Bowl halftime show that same month. It wasn’t just the top rap album, but the most popular album of any kind in the United States. More recently, the song “Carnival” hit No.1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for individual tracks. This turn of events makes Ye a unique, paradoxical figure in the cultural landscape. He’s an iconic Black rapper who is simultaneously a Hitler-loving antisemite, and he has a best-selling album in the charts. We’ve never really had a cultural figure like that before. For music fans, and for would-be critics, it’s a difficult moment. 

One possible response is to dodge the dilemma: to insist that all of Ye’s music since he started ranting about Nazis and Jews is simply bad. This is the approach taken by Anthony Fantano—the self-proclaimed “internet’s busiest music nerd” and one of the most popular music critics on YouTube with 2.8 million subscribers. In his video on Vultures 1, Fantano says it’s “completely unreviewable trash.” In a series of tweets, he goes further, calling the album “pure shit” and “100% uncut bile pouring out of the speaker.” This is the kind of hyperbole that social media rewards, but mainstream critics have expressed similar feelings. In his two-star review for the Guardian, Alexis Petridis dismisses what he calls “weak lyrics from a witless edgelord,” while The Times’ Will Hodgkinson calls Vultures 1 a “dismal effort” which is “lacking any wit or innovation.” Harsh stuff.

I suspect there’s a little self-deception going on here. You could argue that Vultures 1 shows a diminished Ye, a step down from his past output; that’s perfectly fair. Nothing on the new album reaches the soaring heights of “Through the Wire” or “Gorgeous,” songs where he was really firing on all cylinders. But “unreviewable trash”? In the words of our president: c’mon, man. That’s a cop-out, or a coping mechanism. It’s the same one people use when they talk about the Harry Potter books, suddenly deciding that they’re badly written after J.K. Rowling became a vicious transphobe. And it’s easy to see the appeal. It would be comforting if the logic were true—if becoming a horrible person in your public life caused your creative work to also become horrible, like flipping a switch. If good art and moral personhood were synonyms. But they’re not. Rowling was a talented children’s author before she went berserk with hatred—there’s a reason thousands of kids lined up at midnight to read the Potter books—and Ye is still recognizably himself. His beats and rhythms are still catchy, the flow of his rap near-flawless. (For reference, compare his newest tracks to the forgettable filler Drake is putting out these days—or if you’re really feeling masochistic, to Jack Harlow.) Writing for Variety, critic Stephen J. Horowitz came closer to the mark when he called Vultures 1 “a musical return to form, but a lyrical minefield.” The artistry hasn’t suddenly dried up; it’s the social and political content that’s gone rancid. 

In fact, Ye presents one of the thorniest examples of what Paris Review essayist Claire Dederer calls the problem of what to “do with the art of monstrous men.” In her recent book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Dederer examines a variety of artists—mostly, but not always male—who exemplify this problem. Each is a kind of Jekyll and Hyde figure: both a virtuoso in their particular art form and someone guilty of a terrible act, from Virginia Woolf’s antisemitic writing to Pablo Picasso’s serial domestic abuse. In each case, a familiar pattern presents itself: 

They were accused of doing or saying something awful, and they made something great. The awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing. Flooded with knowledge of the maker’s monstrousness, we turn away, overcome with disgust. Or… we don’t. We continue watching, separating or trying to separate the artist from the art. Either way: disruption.

Especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, this question of the monstrous artist has been on a lot of people’s minds. It’s easy to think of examples: Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, R. Kelly. In recent months, Ye has gone out of his way to embrace this “monster” role, comparing himself explicitly to Cosby and R. Kelly in his lyrics. He has also been making public appearances in a Jason Voorhees mask, in case anyone missed the point. It’s like he’s taunting the audience with his own self-awareness, daring us to find a solution to the “monstrous artist” conundrum.

What would such a solution look like? Dederer names one possibility: “we turn away, overcome with disgust.” In other words, we discard any art that’s been tainted by its creator’s misdeeds, no matter how compelling the art itself might be. In 2018, Spotify took a step down this road, announcing a policy regarding “hate content and hateful conduct.” In a fairly tone-deaf move, the company selected two Black men as the first “hateful” artists to be removed from its default playlists under this policy: R. Kelly (for obvious reasons) and the Florida rapper XXXTentacion, who confessed to some truly vile acts of domestic violence against his partner in 2016. But as it turned out, this wasn’t a very popular initiative, and after an industry backlash—including Kendrick Lamar threatening to pull his own music from Spotify in protest—the “hateful conduct” policy was quickly abandoned. (As ever, the only thing corporations truly believe in is the bottom line.)

In a lot of ways, I can sympathize with the desire to just discard the work of “hateful” people and walk away. It’s hard to read personal accounts like that of Rabbi Tamara Cohen, who writes for the Jewish culture blog Kveller that “A lot was hurting within me and around me” when she heard her teenage son play Ye in the car. I certainly don’t blame her for not wanting to hear the rapper’s voice; I feel a little queasy about it myself, these days. But on the other hand, if we discard the monstrous—if we decide R. Kelly shouldn’t be on people’s Spotify playlists, or that you’re a bad person if you laugh at a Woody Allen movie—how many of the treasures of human culture do we lose? There are allegations that David Bowie had sex with his underage fans; do we stop listening to Station to Station? What about Michael Jackson’s Thriller? Should the large community of LGBTQ Harry Potter fans give the books up because Rowling chose to betray them? 

Well, what if they don’t? That brings us to the second option in Dederer’s formula: “We continue watching, separating or trying to separate the artist from the art.” In theory, this is doable. We can revile, for instance, Picasso’s abusive behavior and still enjoy his paintings. We can hate H.P. Lovecraft’s well-documented racism and still get a thrill from “The Call of Cthulhu” at Halloween. One of the most remarkable examples of this mental balancing act came from the Black Marxist historian C.L.R. James, who condemned the crimes of colonial Europe but still embraced its cultural fruits—most notably, his beloved game of cricket. This is, more or less, the solution Dederer reaches when it comes to Roman Polanski. She writes as a survivor of sexual abuse and is viscerally horrified by Polanski’s crimes. But at the same time, she’s unwilling to abandon films that have become an important part of her life:

I have the memory of these monstrous things being done to me. I don’t come to these questions with a coldness or a dispassionate point of view. I come as a sympathizer to the accusers. I am the accusers. And yet I still want to consume the art. Because, out in front of all of that, I’m a human. And I don’t want to miss out on anything. Why should I? Why should I be deprived of Chinatown or Sleeper?

This sentiment lies at the core of the old “death of the author” conceit, which a lot of people misunderstand. The point is not to ignore the author’s life or pretend it doesn’t exist. Even if that were possible, it wouldn’t accomplish anything. Rather, the point is that the author doesn’t get any special authority over the work. Their actions don’t—or shouldn’t—have the power to dictate how anyone feels about their art because their art doesn’t belong to them anymore. The reader (or viewer, or listener) brings just as much meaning to it as they do. Chinatown is as much Dederer’s as it is Polanski’s; classic albums like 808s & Heartbreak are as much mine, or yours, as they are Ye’s. It’s a lovely, anarchistic idea. 

In practice, though, the idea has limits. There’s a certain category of art that defies any attempt at separation: namely, the cases where the horrible thing about the artist is present in the art itself. As Dederer points out, Woody Allen’s Manhattan is like this. It’s a romantic comedy about a middle-aged man dating a teenager, which echoes the disturbing allegations about Allen himself. Try separating that. And unfortunately, Vultures 1 is like this too. It’s both a well-crafted album and an extremely ugly one. Intertwined with the usual hallmarks of a Ye project—soaring choruses, eclectic samples, beats that irresistibly make your head bob—is a dark, nihilistic atmosphere that seems distinctly related to Ye’s new fascination with Nazis and the far right. The song “Carnival,” for instance, begins by sampling a crowd of Inter Milan football fans chanting “GO, GO, GO, GO,” all aggression and machismo, followed by some of the most degrading lyrics about women I’ve ever heard on a record. As Fantano puts it, the track “sounds like a [expletive] fraternity hazing ritual.” The visuals (apparently AI-generated) for the music video don’t help: more football hooligans, most of them skin-headed, brawling in the street and waving a “VULTURES” flag. 

There are heinous lyrics scattered throughout the album too, like nasty little surprises for the listener. Some of them are just openly antisemitic, while others trivialize and dismiss the very idea that there’s anything wrong with Ye’s recent behavior. A few of the worst are as follows—content warnings, obviously, apply:

  • Keep a few Jews on the staff now / I cash out (“STARS”)
  • “Crazy, Bipolar, Antisemite” / And I’m still the king / They thought headlines was my Kryptonite, bitch / I’m still the king (“KING”)
  • I’m not racist, it’s a preference (“PROBLEMATIC”)

And perhaps the most disgusting:

  • How I’m antisemitic? I just fucked a Jewish bitch (“VULTURES”)

You get the idea. This isn’t just “problematic” art—a vague, squishy word I’ve never had much use for anyway. It’s not the same thing as Thriller, or even a Woody Allen movie. It’s art with a fascist worldview, and with recurring nods to fascist aesthetics and iconography. (Apart from the skinheads in the “Carnival” video, there are a few too many double-headed eagles on the album merchandise for comfort.) 

Ye is not the first artist with fascist sensibilities, although he’s the first to be a rapper specifically. In the past, literary giants like Ezra Pound and Yukio Mishima embraced some version of fascism, to the extent that Mishima organized a right-wing militia called the “Shield Society” and launched a coup against the Japanese government in 1970. (It failed.) A little earlier, Richard Wagner was a raging antisemite whose aesthetics inspired the Nazi Party.

But how do we think about Ye? For me, there’s no possibility of being able to enjoy a piece of art like Vultures 1, or divorce it from its politics. However, I don’t think we should simply discard Ye and his noxious album either—or, for that matter, any of the artistically gifted fascist sympathizers who came before him. But I also think everyone is asking the wrong questions about Ye. 

Questions like “how should I feel about this art?” or “am I morally bad if I consume it?” aren’t the most interesting, because they’re all about the individual experience of the person asking. Frankly, they’re a little self-absorbed. What’s interesting about fascist art—and why I find Ye’s Nazi turn morbidly fascinating—is that it provides a useful avenue to analyze fascism, antisemitism, and far-right ideology itself. Not as nebulous embodiments of evil (though they are evil), but as concrete phenomena that exist in the world and have material causes. To cure a disease, you have to first put it under a microscope. The more interesting question is this: why would a gifted Black rapper adopt Nazi beliefs in the first place? Why would anyone?

To find the answer, we first have to understand who Kanye West was before he was Ye and what he meant to people politically. The whole idea of him becoming a neo-Nazi is bizarre and surreal because for most of his career, he was a loudly progressive figure. A lot of people know about his famous off-script moment from 2005, where he hijacked a charity telethon for the victims of Hurricane Katrina to tell the world that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” Years later, Bush said it was the worst moment of his presidency—apparently worse than the suffering of the Katrina victims themselves, which ironically proves Ye’s point. But for a lot of people in the TV audience, seeing a Black man call out the president of the United States like that was a life-changing thing. For the Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith writes that the moment was an important step in a “rebirth of Black rage” that eventually led to the Black Lives Matter movement. That was the kind of thing Ye was always doing in the 2000s. He also spoke out against homophobia in hip-hop in a 2005 interview with MTV, at a time when it was considered perfectly normal for artists like DMX and Eminem to throw the F-slur around in their verses. He wrote “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” an extended meditation on the ethics of wearing “ice” when it might harm workers in Africa. At the same time, he pretty much single-handedly ended the gangsta rap era and pioneered musical styles that are still in heavy rotation today. If you told anyone in 2010 that he’d eventually start having dinner with Holocaust deniers and rambling about Hitler, they wouldn’t take it seriously for a second. It’s an unbelievable, tragic fall from grace—like Anakin Skywalker succumbing to the dark side and becoming Darth Vader. 

As strange and awful as it is, though, that transformation has a cultural and historical context. For decades now, there has been a distasteful trend of antisemitic lyrics and ideas creeping into rap. Two of the most important focal points for this trend have been the teachings of the Black Hebrew Israelites—a loose and diverse collection of fringe religious groups that claim African Americans are descendants of the Biblical tribes of Israel, making white Jews impostors, according to some—and those of the Nation of Islam, whose longtime leader Louis Farrakhan blames Jews for the Atlantic slave trade (among other things). Over the years, several high-profile rappers have been drawn to these ideas. Ice Cube, for instance, is a vocal defender of Farrakhan, and has rapped things like “you let a Jew break up my crew” after the acrimonious breakup of N.W.A. in 1991. Kendrick Lamar has identified with the Black Hebrew Israelites, saying “I’m a Israelite, don’t call me black no mo’” on 2017’s “YAH.” And for his part, Ye has referenced both currents, rapping “Just talked to Farrakhan, that’s sensei” on 2015’s “All Day” and bizarrely defending himself by saying that “I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew also” [sic] in the “death con 3” tweet. But where other artists might have rapped an offensive line on occasion, none of them let antisemitism and far-right politics consume their public identity the way Ye has, or went as far as actually praising Hitler—who, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, hated and persecuted Black people. Clearly, there’s more going on here. 

Historically, one of the ways an ideology like fascism spreads is by appealing to people’s real grievances, but misdirecting the blame. Where socialism identifies the main source of inequality and injustice as the economic ruling class, fascism narrows the scope, blaming a particular minority group. Often it takes up preexisting prejudices like antisemitism or the fear of immigrants and weaponizes them. In his 1933 essay “What is National Socialism?”, Leon Trotsky perfectly described this dynamic: 

Hitler began with grievances and complaints about the Versailles terms, the high cost of living, the lack of respect for a meritorious non-commissioned officer, and the plots of bankers and journalists of the Mosaic persuasion. There were in the country plenty of ruined and drowning people with scars and fresh bruises. They all wanted to thump with their fists on the table.

In times of crisis, all this thumping and talk of “Mosaic” (meaning Jewish) plotters is extremely convenient for the actual economic and political elite. Anger about “the high cost of living,” or whatever the pressing issues of the day might be, can be directed toward a minority scapegoat. Class antagonism, which could threaten the established order, is subsumed by mere bigotry, which only keeps everyone divided and conquered along ethnic and religious lines. Over and over through history, we can find this pattern recurring. For instance, there’s evidence that the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion were fabricated by agents of Imperial Russia and used as a propaganda weapon to slander the Bolsheviks, who were accused of being part of a huge Jewish conspiracy. When Hitler came to power in Germany, he was bankrolled by wealthy industrialists—including some connected to Prescott Bush, George W.’s grandfather!—who likely found his antisemitism a useful weapon against a rising socialist movement. Each time, there are plenty of people who fall for the con—who are convinced to blame the world’s problems on Jews, or immigrants, or some other scapegoat rather than simply rich and powerful people of all backgrounds. 

Ye has, we might surmise, been deceived in this way. Over the past few years, he has raised legitimate criticisms of the way the music industry is run, and who ultimately owns the product of artists’ labor. In 2020, he called record labels “modern day slave ships,” criticizing the way many musical artists don’t own their master recordings:

When you sign a music deal you sign away your rights. Without the masters you can’t do anything with your own music. Someone else controls where it’s played and when it’s played. Artists have nothing accept [sic] the fame, touring and merch.

The comparison to a “slave ship” is a little inflammatory, but he’s basically right here. The recording industry is exploitative, and it’s an issue plenty of artists are concerned about—including Taylor Swift, who has re-recorded entire albums with the label “Taylor’s Version” so she can officially own them. Notably, Swift and Ye have both feuded with the same music executive, Scooter Braun—who happens to be Jewish. But where Swift came up with a clever solution, Ye just started ranting about “getting screwed by the Jewish media” through “being signed to a record label, or having a Jewish manager.” In other words, he seems to have fallen for the age-old con, replacing anger against capitalism with anger against a scapegoat. From his old progressive politics, he has been reduced to “thumping his fist on the table”—in part because he has become a billionaire and a brand manager himself, and he has a vested interest in not blaming capitalism as a whole. 

Ye’s changing class position is a notable factor in his political evolution. Although he had a more comfortable upbringing than a rapper like DMX (who spent some of his teenage years homeless), the young Kanye West still wrote from a distinctly working-class point of view. One of the most memorable songs from his debut album, “Spaceship,” is about working in a store and getting yelled at by the boss: If my manager insults me again / I will be assaulting him. It was that scrappy, underdog attitude that made him relatable. But as his fame and wealth grew, his position in the social hierarchy changed. Ye kept the same bombast, the same unfiltered willingness to say exactly what was on his mind. But instead of rude bosses, racists, and George Bush, suddenly his targets were people he perceived as beneath him. Suddenly he was the one yelling at hapless workers on songs like 2013’s “I Am a God(Hurry up with my damn massage / In a French-ass restaurant / Hurry up with my damn croissants) and on 2019’s “Selah” (When I scream at the chauffeur / I ain’t mean, I’m just focused.) It wasn’t just his stage persona, either—at his Yeezy fashion brand, former workers say he turned into an abusive boss of exactly the kind he’d once mocked, one who berated his staff and fired people abruptly for all kinds of nonsensical reasons. (One worker lost their job because they admitted to liking Drake’s music, for instance.) 

At the same time, Ye’s politics started drifting further and further rightward. Notoriously, he became a supporter of Donald Trump in 2018, even donning the red MAGA hat for a meeting at the White House. In 2019 he became an evangelical Christian, released an album called “Jesus is King,” and started his own vaguely cultish gospel choir. In 2020 he ran a brief, bizarre presidential campaign where he railed against abortion and vaccines. In 2022 he decided it would be a good idea to wear a “White Lives Matter” shirt to his Yeezy fashion show in Paris (where he was joined by Candace Owens), and a little later he completed his rightward journey by yelling “I like Hitler!” to a bewildered Alex Jones. (The interview footage is darkly comedic, as Jones keeps trying to talk Ye down from his most extreme points—maybe the only time Jones has been a voice of reason in recent memory.) 

It doesn’t seem accidental that becoming a billionaire and becoming enamored with the far right have gone hand in hand. In fact, we can see a similar trajectory with Elon Musk, who was a fairly inoffensive nerd talking about rockets and electric cars in the 2010s. It’s only later, after he became one of the richest people in the world, that Musk also became a far-right culture warrior and endorsed antisemitic conspiracy theories online. And then there’s J.K. Rowling, who chose transgender people as the minority group whose acceptance she considers “dangerous” to society—and who recently dipped a toe into what one critic called “Holocaust denial” for implying that the Nazis did not single out “books on trans healthcare and research” to burn. (They did.) Likewise, this vehement transphobia is a view Rowling never seemed to hold until she became absurdly rich. It’s like wealth itself has a gravitational pull that draws people to the political right—because, after all, the world’s problems couldn’t possibly be the fault of rich people. Or, as Trotsky put it: “Not every exasperated petty bourgeois could have become Hitler, but a particle of Hitler is lodged in every exasperated petty bourgeois.” The greater the concentration of wealth, the greater the material incentive to scapegoat and fearmonger, and the more likely someone is to start emitting Hitler particles

These celebrities have latched onto a dangerous, fascistic far-right politics that is shared, to varying degrees, by a lot of noxious elements in society. This is why Ye’s embrace of fascism and antisemitism has implications beyond just him as an individual. In the aftermath of his 2022 comments, there was a spike in antisemitic incidents that responded to them in some way, from a group that dropped a “Kanye is Right about the Jews” banner from a highway overpass to another that attacked a Jewish man in a Maryland grocery store and reportedly yelled “Yeah, do it for Kanye!” In these moments, we can see both sides of the class dynamic: the rich rapper spreading the ideas, and the ordinary people latching onto them and attacking the designated scapegoat. 

In the United States more generally, far-right politics are on the rise. At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), neo-Nazi activists openly walked around and spread their hateful propaganda, mingling with mainstream Republicans. Both Ye and Nick Fuentes have had dinner with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, and more recently Fuentes has met with Defend Texas Liberty, an influential Super PAC that has donated millions to Republican candidates for office. (As a reminder, Fuentes denies the Holocaust and talks about wanting “total Aryan victory” on the internet.) After buying Twitter, one of Elon Musk’s first moves was to unban dozens of far-right figures, including self-described white nationalist Andrew Anglin, and the site has since become a haven for antisemitic content. 

Like in the past, shadowy rich donors appear to be behind much of the far right, which uses an extensive network of “dark money” to keep people like Fuentes well-funded and active. It’s not just the United States, either. In Italy, Benito Mussolini’s granddaughter holds a city council office for a far-right party, and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni refuses to distance herself from fascist groups. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro also embody a rising authoritarian right. It’s a global problem.    

It’s extremely important to have a class analysis of these far-right forces, because without it, you’re left guessing when it comes to possible solutions. Whenever liberals talk about the threat of fascism, what you get is vague moral platitudes. Joe Biden, for instance, responded to the lethally violent “Unite the Right” rally of 2017 by talking about a “battle for the soul of this nation,” a theme he carried into his presidency. To his credit, he says that fascism and the far-right are a threat—but that’s about all he seems to understand about them. He purports to be a liberal. Wealth and class inequality are not really his concern. 

To defeat the far right, what you need is a politics that roots it out at the source. As we’ve seen, the roots of fascism lie in class hierarchy and in the political malfeasance of the extremely rich. Far-right politics succeed when people’s legitimate grievances and angers are misdirected—whether it’s Ye blaming the “Jewish media” for exploitation in the record industry, or millions of ordinary people listening to Donald Trump tell them that immigrants “poisoning the blood of our country” are behind all their problems. To thwart them, we have to give people real material solutions to those problems. So far, liberal politics have comprehensively failed to do that—but socialism can. It can guarantee that everyone’s basic needs are met regardless of their wealth, eliminating much of the grievance and injustice that powers the far right. And it can eliminate vast inequalities of wealth and power, so there is no ruling class willing to scapegoat vulnerable groups to protect itself. When class hierarchy ends, so will its poisonous fruits. 

  1. I say “planned” because Ye has a long history of announcing albums he never actually releases, so it’s not clear if volumes 2 and 3 will ever come to pass. 

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