Is it OK to wear Ye’s sneakers now?

OPINION: Are we supporting Kanye if we wear his shoes? Can we separate the art from the artist? What do we do now that he's been canceled?

Kanye West, right, with Steven Smith, lead designer at Yeezy during a discussion on fashion and design at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/David Martin)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Now that Kanye has been canceled, what should we do with his stuff? I mean, can you still wear his shoes and clothes and listen to his music? 

This is a question we’ve grappled with as a culture many times over the past several years when prominent creators were unmasked as horrible people. Can we still listen to R. Kelly’s old music? Can we still laugh at Bill Cosby’s old jokes? Can we still watch Woody Allen’s old movies? I think the Kanye dilemma is even more complicated than those questions for several reasons. His mistakes are not crimes. Also, Kelly, Cosby and Allen were defrocked in the twilight of their careers when it was relatively easy to stop consuming their older work, but Kanye’s in the heart of his career — his shoes and his songs are still ubiquitous. 

I see Kanye’s ugly shoes and slides all the time — I live near a high school, and after school lets out, all the kids stand around talking in packs on the sidewalks, and when I pass by them, it seems like every fourth boy I see is wearing Yeezys. If you go to StockX, you’ll see that Yeezys are one of the biggest sneaker brands in the culture. Many people have publicly or quietly burned their sneakers, but I see many people still wearing them. In light of what we know now about Kanye, should people keep on wearing them?

The first part of answering that question is addressing this question — can we truly separate the artist and the art? Can we continue to enjoy someone’s art after we know that they’ve done or said horrible things? Yeezys are intimately tied to Kanye — their popularity flows out of the popularity of his personal brand. They would not have been nearly as successful if they were made by an anonymous designer rather than someone who’s thought of as a wealthy iconoclastic creative genius. Wearing Yeezys, like wearing Air Jordans, is partly a salute to the man behind the brand. The life success of Jordan, the ultimate winner, is part of what you’re buying into when you buy Jordans. It animates the shoes. You don’t buy Yeezys purely because you like the aesthetic. You buy them also because you think he’s cool. You can’t honestly dissociate the artist from the art when the art is as deeply intertwined with the artist as Kanye is with Yeezys. To wear them is to say you support him.

The shoes are a part of his brand. They say he’s brilliant, he’s an influencer who sets trends and follows no one, he’s someone who sees things differently than everyone else and brings new things to life. Before the MAGA chapter of his life, his brand was a witty rapper and fashion designer who zigged when others zagged. Where most rappers called Hit-Boy or Metro Boomin for beats, Kanye collaborated with James Blake. Where most rappers had album covers that were stylized photos of themselves, Kanye called in the brilliant visual artist Takashi Murakami. Where most want their clothes displayed beautifully, Kanye wanted his Gap stuff to be in trash bags that you had to sift through. 

But over the past few years, in his MAGA era, he’s become a conservative firebrand who’s comfortable saying antisemitic and anti-Black things. He’s supporting Trump and hanging with professional race-baiters like Candace Owens. He’s become the Black Archie Bunker or perhaps a rapping Alex Jones. He’s a victim, he’s a bully, he’s a race traitor. This is his brand now, and he’s worked hard to rebrand himself in this way. I can’t see Yeezys or hear Kanye’s music without thinking about the right-wing lunatic Kanye we have today.    

Let’s be clear: The problem is not that Kanye has a different political opinion than most Black people. The problem is that he won’t stop with the hate speech and hurtful comments that normalize hate speech. At this point, if Kanye were tapped to host a show on Fox News, he would come across even wilder than most of their hosts. 

Some people may say, well, I just like the shoes, I just like his albums, I’m not into the political stuff. I’m sorry that’s not OK. If you wear his shoes now, you’re saying that you don’t care about his antisemitism and his anti-Black racism. They’re not a dealbreaker for you. You can move on from that. You can’t say I exempt myself from politics because politics will still shape your life even if you don’t vote. Music can be listened to privately, which makes it a little different, but wearing his shoes is a public gesture. If you support him in spite of his ugliness, are you saying that his comments are OK? That’s what it looks like to me. You’re saying I’m able to move on, but we cannot just move on. 

The cancellation of Kanye is actually good for society. It’s not acceptable to be antisemitic and anti-Black in public. These are not reasonable positions. We cannot allow this to be part of the public discourse. Black people, if you’re still willing to support someone who’s committed to stepping on our community every chance he gets, you have to ask yourself why am I OK with repping for someone who hates me? Why am I able to ignore Kanye’s racism? No shoes in the world are so dope that they could make me forget that their designer is racist.


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.

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