What is the cost of continuing to legitimize Ye’s claim on the culture?
OPINION: The phrase 'White Lives Matter' was the centerpiece of Ye's Yeezy Season 9 presentation at Paris Fashion Week. It's also the only part worth paying attention to.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
There’s a reason Candace Owens was beaming as she stood arm-in-arm with Ye at his Yeezy Season 9 presentation. With a global lens focused on Paris Fashion Week, right-wing America’s favorite Black friend/chaos agent (sorry, Clarence) was no doubt thrilled to be part of what she knew would be another headline-making stunt, as the duo strategically posed to show off the message emblazoned in boldface across the backs of their matching T-shirts.
“White Lives Matter.”
Even in profile, Owens’ glee was palpable as she smiled at Ye. By contrast, his face remained turned from the camera, his back taunting the viewer with a phrase appropriated from white supremacists—who in turn, appropriated it from Black activists—goading us to ask what he meant by it and why.
Frankly, Ye’s messaging—also worn on the runway by model Selah Marley, daughter of Lauryn Hill and granddaughter of Bob Marley, among others—seemed pretty clear. “It says it all,” he told the New York Times during a backstage interview. Who are we to argue?
As with most things Ye, Yeezy Season 9 was a spectacle, likely for exactly the reasons he’d hoped. After all, none of us are debating the concept, construction, or highly questionable appeal of Ye’s latest collection. Instead, the conversation has remained fixed on his latest attempt to garner publicity by throwing Black people under the bus, yet again.
Perhaps the emperor has no clothes.
“This is something that you will not be able to un-Google,” Ye warned in an unscripted speech ahead of Monday’s presentation, adding: “I am Ye, and everyone knows that I am the leader…You can’t manage me; this is an unmanageable situation.”
But in the words of fellow fashion maven Jaden Smith, who walked out of the venue in silent protest, “true leaders lead”—and Ye has long ceased to be a leader who can be trusted with the souls of Black folks.
“[T]he t-shirts this man conceived, produced and shared with the world are pure violence,” wrote Vogue Global Fashion Editor-at-Large Gabriella Karefa-Johnson in one of several Instagram Stories following her attendance at the show, adding, “There is no excuse, there is no art here.”
We’ve made plenty of excuses for Ye in recent years, extending special grace since he publicly disclosed his bipolar disorder in 2018, a struggle he alluded to during Monday’s speech. “It’s the ultimate stigma,” he said. “People feel like they have the right to come to my face and call me crazy like it doesn’t hurt my feelings…or like you don’t have to be crazy in order to change the world.”
What about our feelings—or those of Karefa-Johnson, a Black woman who made fashion history as the first to style a Vogue cover, only to land in Ye’s crosshairs for expressing her disappointment and hurt? Declaring “war” on the acclaimed stylist and editor on Tuesday, he repeatedly posted her picture while excoriating her appearance, clothing and credentials for his 17.9 million followers. For even the casual observer, it was the type of all-too-familiar Ye tantrum that typically garners support from the more sycophantic of his followers and no more than a scolding and slap on the wrist from his critics. What he likely wasn’t expecting was to find himself on the bad side of many of fashion’s best-known Black creatives, several of his past collaborators among them, who swiftly came to Karefa-Johnson’s defense.
“Just say you hate yourself and keep it moving,” wrote author and curator Kimberly Drew (popular online as “Museum Mammy”). “So many of us have been impacted by what you *did* not only for culture but for Black culture. Now, you’ve turned [your] back on us, yourself and it’s embarrassing. Stand down. This isn’t ‘war’ this is an all-out assault on a pioneer of this industry. You should be ashamed,” she added.
“We (as in Black people in fashion) bend over backwards to try and support you because you were a great and this is how you repay us,” said “beyond offended” photographer Quil Lemons, who also demanded a formal apology.
Ye’s former friend and Yeezy brand director Tremaine Emory, now creative director of Supreme, issued his own rebuke in a scathing post that not only warned Ye to “keep [Karefa-Johnson’s] name out [his] mouth” but accused him of exploiting the death of their mutual friend and collaborator Virgil Abloh as part of his own “victim campaign.”
“You’re not a victim your [sic] just an insecure narcissist that’s dying for validation from the fashion world,” Emory added. Undeterred, Ye reposted the accusations, dismissing Emory as a shill for LVMH President Bernard Arnault with the claim, “IN WAR THEY WILL SEND YOUR OWN PEOPLE AT YOU.”
Given Ye’s blatant disregard for Black lives, who, exactly, are his people these days? Aside from his aforementioned ally Owens, his primary and most enduring obsession seems to be satisfying the white gaze and securing its eternal validation while simultaneously cherry-picking the language and tactics of the Black liberation movement, even as he scorns it.
Case in point: In a pre-Yeezy Season 9 interview with Vogue, Ye complained about feeling disrespected by now-former partner Gap‘s lack of adherence to his designs, saying “I felt that was civil rights.” He used the term again when recalling how he and fellow aspirants like the late Abloh once “fought to get the credit from the fashion guard and elites.”
“That relates to the civil rights movement. It shouldn’t be that you can’t have this fabric or have this cut until you’ve made it to a certain place or class in life,” he said. “It’s about dignity. And democracy.”
Having made it further in life than most of his fans even dare to dream, Ye is no one’s underdog. Nor is he qualified to speak on dignity or democracy when he affords neither. There is no dignity in deriding the movement for Black lives—or even in conflating the movement with the much-needed message. Likewise, there is no democracy in attacking anyone who dares oppose your myopia.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday morning, Ye doubled down, writing in a post-show Instagram Story: “Everyone knows that Black Lives Matter was a scam now it’s over you’re welcome.”
At this point, we could say the same for Ye. For what is it if not a scam to conveniently position oneself as an embattled Black father when attempting to garner sympathy, only to then show callous disregard for Black mothers grieving the loss of their children to white supremacy? Mothers like Wanda Cooper-Jones, who on Tuesday issued a statement to Rolling Stone addressing Ye’s use of “White Lives Matter” as appearing to “[directly] support and legitimize extremist behavior, [much] like the behavior that took the life of her son,” Ahmaud Arbery.
As Cooper-Jones told Rolling Stone, Ye’s flippant application of the phrase “flies directly in the face” of the support he extended to her family and those of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd following their murders in 2020—including a $2 million donation. Now, one might wonder, was it genuine concern, a convenient tax write-off, or simply good PR?
Likely all of the above—but we shouldn’t have to ask. From a democratic standpoint, Ye is, of course, free to convey whatever message he wishes through his creative process, donations, or any other medium. However, the largely Black populace that has held him aloft throughout his career shouldn’t be expected to extend unlimited grace, unconditional support and validation to a man who is, at best, toying with us by not only exploiting our pain but our inherent tendency to protect our own—especially our “greats.”
“We are the streets. We are the culture,” Ye proclaimed in his pre-show speech—and therein lies the rub. Having long informed us he is a heretic, Ye has also repeatedly proven himself a hypocrite; in spite of all he has indisputably brought to the culture, he continues to callously disregard the culture itself—because we’ve allowed him to believe he is the culture.
Ironically, it will likely be the very establishment Ye respects most that will set its boundaries before we will. Following his attack on Karefa-Johnson, the two reportedly met for dinner on Tuesday to resolve their issues, with Ye calling the editor his “sister” while making the all-caps claim that the reconciliation was filmed by Baz Luhrmann at Anna Wintour’s behest.
One can only imagine the further trauma exacted on Karefa-Johnson as she was compelled to dine with Ye within hours of his onslaught of online abuse. She has made no further comment, but Vogue’s take on the situation had a slightly different tenor than Ye’s as the magazine acknowledged its editor had been “personally targeted and bullied” and expressed its steadfast support, labeling the incident “unacceptable.” It remains to be seen if the damage done to Karefa-Johnson will cause Vogue to distance itself from its favorite enfant terrible.
Ye used Paris Fashion Week to once again show us who he is—and maybe it’s finally time to believe him. But how much more are we willing to accept? We, who have coddled Ye through his dysfunction and dismissals of us, often supporting his struggles with mental health at the arguable risk of our own? At what point do we demand to matter to the one man we have given so much power?
It is never easy to confront the betrayals of our idols, but as the “jeen-yuhs” said himself on Monday: “We have nothing to lose, and only everything to gain…and I don’t want any of y’all to talk to me about pain.”
Maiysha Kai is theGrio’s lifestyle editor, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in fashion and entertainment, great books and aesthetics, and the brilliance of Black culture. She is also the editor-author of Body (Words of Change series).
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