He wears glittery masks when he performs on stage; he compares his reality TV-star fiancée to the First Lady; he goes on Twitter rants against comedians. Kanye West’s recent interactions with the public appear to be more performance art than PR, and his tour merchandise could represent his latest works. T-shirts, bags and hats for his Yeezus tour feature the Confederate flag, long a symbol of rebellion and white supremacy in the South. West has decided to erase the flag’s meaning and assign his own: “I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag. Now what are you going to do?”
It’s a confusing statement — but it’s been a while since West has played anything straight. From his latest album’s song subjects to his baffling, newly-acquired middle-America accent, West has been on a mission to redefine himself as hip-hop’s artistic visionary. According to West himself, he’s a revolutionary leader, a “number one rock star,” a genius—but neither “historian” nor “student of current events” seem to fit anywhere on that list.
Appropriating offensive or controversial subject matter for art and fashion is nothing new, and this isn’t the first time West has refashioned something to make it his own. But the tightly choreographed pivot he took after My Dark Twisted Fantasy has gotten sloppy, and his mission of art for art’s sake is becoming more dangerous than provocative. Of course, an artist is completely free to divorce his own work from politics — but the Confederate flag carries the history of American terror, violence and rebellion with it. Simply making it “his” doesn’t wash any of that away.
And just what does Kanye’s flag capture signify? How is he using this centuries-old icon to define himself as an artist? In a radio interview, he hints at a connection between his music and the symbol: “You know, the Confederate flag represented slavery, in a way — that’s my abstract take on what I know about it, right? So I made the song ‘New Slaves.’” West’s “react how you want” dismissal, if anything, leaves himself open for even more ridicule at a time when he seems to crave approval and validation as an artist. And his claim that it’s “super-white-boy-approved” is even more proof that his grasp on the flag’s meaning is loose, at best.
If Kanye West wants to solidify his legacy as a legendary rapper, he doesn’t have much more work to do. If he wants to be remembered as the next Steve Jobs, he has to find a real artistic purpose. Right now, his latest artistic endeavors read less like renaissance and more like self-parody.