Learning to let go of Kanye
Late at night in a Brooklyn bar in March, I heard your music played four times in a row. I looked around and waited to see if anyone would brace themselves when the first song, Power, came on. When the next song, Monster, played, I thought, “This is it. This will be when everyone remembers who we’re listening to.” Instead, I watched the small crowd of people lean into your music.
People bopped. People rapped along. When it was clear that it was safe, my lips parted, and I joined in, too. Before the song ended, the bartender, another brother, leant over to me, knowingly, and said with a grilled smile and a wink, “Should I keep going?” I nodded because tonight I wanted to see what the limit was. Two songs later, I was sipping my drink, talking and laughing, singing along to your music like it was nothing. Like it was your Before Times, when the most controversial thing you had done was interrupt Taylor Swift and go off on George W. Bush. Like the only thing I was thinking about cancelling then was my cable.
I thought I’d fallen out of love with you, Kanye, but that night I realised maybe I haven’t completely let go of you. Your music used to bring us so close together and now I struggle to even speak your name. So I think I need to write to you.
I’d already fallen in love with you on the couch. It was 2004, and I was barely employed and here you were, on a couch, on my TV, auditioning to be a rapper. By then people knew you to be a producer, making beats that let everyone else sound better, but no one had reason to think of you being a rapper. I nodded on my rented couch in Laurel, Maryland, sitting in my boxers and a T-shirt, watching you try to rap with ease and earnestness. I understood that desire to appear confident, natural. At that time, I had been auditioning, too, frantically trying to get a job anywhere within the Beltway. I was only 24, so I was still new to job interviews, which meant I prepared like a rapper, standing in my bathroom mirror rehearsing variations of answers to interview questions until every possible response sounded natural, like a freestyle.
I’m writing you because it feels like things are continuing to fall apart. I mean, there were the things that made me angry: the MAGA hat, the TMZ showdown with Van Lathan, the meeting with Trump. I was mad, but I understood that Black identities and politics are like Black people — we have identity hues. But then it’s also been the things that made me sad: the battling with Kim, the bullying of Pete. The music — Kanye, the music! — was suffering more and more, and let’s be real: our celebrities, our heroes, are more vulnerable when they can’t do what we know they can do. And now you’re talking about stepping away for a bit. You’re out of Coachella and you were barred from performing at the Grammys. By direction or by design, you’re going away for a bit. I know some people are celebrating the news for all kinds of reasons. I’m hoping you’ll come back, and I’m also getting ready to let go.
So, yes, I fell in love with you then, watching you on that couch with your popped collar and your book bag. In the years after, your music helped me through my early doubts and bouts of depression. 808s and Heartbreak was both the album that preceded my marriage and helped me make sense of my eventual divorce. I loved you most, though, because you gave me Touch the Sky, your greatest song. It’s the song of yours that I come back to time and time again. It’s so hungry, that song, and so honest.
You say, “I gotta testify”, and when I hear you say it, I think about how Black folks’ honesty is showing up as our full, true selves in places. How our Flyness comes with the combination of our fashion and our confidence. You talked about having a plan — Lord, we love a fool’s dream! — it’s so important to have a plan, and a dream; the idea that the life you were then living still had so much potential. That there was another level to get to. “Me and my mama hopped in that U-Haul van,” you say, and I’m with you, because we’ve both been proud Mama’s Boys. In 1996 my mother and I drove down the I-95 to move me into University of Maryland, getting in a night before in a car packed with my things and staying at a Route 1 hotel blocks from the campus. I remember barely sleeping that night because the next day felt like I’d be touching the sky. Almost 25 years later, I’d give my mom a dream, too; I took us to Paris for a week, and we wandered shops, restaurants, arrondissements. On the day we finally walked to the Louvre, we passed through the archway that opens on the see-through pyramid and we stood together as my mom said, “I never thought that I'd see this before I died.” I know you’re probably like me; some of the greatest joys came from watching the times we could make our moms happy. I watched mom touch the sky that day. I am thinking now about how her name’s Wanda and yours is Donda, the rhyming sounds of those names making mirrors of us.
In the throes of the pandemic, I finally summoned the strength to start writing again. First about the bizarreness of my vivid, disturbing dreams, and then, eventually, about the bottled-up race war happening because of Floyd and Taylor and others dying during a time when we all felt like we were living in the bottled Kryptonian city of Kandor. All that writing turned into a book deal, my first after years of freelancing essays across the internet. It was a big book deal, and I wanted to celebrate hard. I know you know that feeling, Kanye. On my left shoulder I heard you again in Touch the Sky: “I just wanted to dance, I went to Jacob an hour/after I got my advance, I just wanted to shine.” But on my right shoulder, in my ear on the phone, Wanda said, “don't go crazy spending all that money.”
Once the fervour around BLM cooled off a bit for traditional media, all the big doors that used to be open for writers like me started closing. I started watching you more and more closely in those days. You were coming undone, which I felt like I understood. I’d understood your mic-moments, most of all when you capsized the Katrina celebrity charity fundraiser with a searing hot take that had Black people clapping all around the country. Years later, I had a mic-moment like that, too, going off-script before a gala of rich people and basically said the same thing: “Y'all don't care about Black people.” Like you, I’d been so high in my career, I thought I could be honest and touch the sky.
But, brother, your mic got too hot. I started missing the you in the Touch the Sky video, the Black Evel Knievel-meets-Icarus that just wanted to break the invisible ceiling above our Black heads. Instead, you traded that crash helmet for a bright red cap (you know the one), making the rounds on television and news conferences with the same glassy, disconnection that made it possible to talk that talk on the Katrina telethon. It was different now, though, and while all of us were crying Black tears over Black deaths — Trayvon, Sandra, Sterling, Philando — you were out here cracking your head against the sky again, this time with the Devil on your left shoulder. I couldn’t, I can’t, I won’t.
I’ve started realising that you have always been telling us your plan. You’ve always wanted to remove yourself, ark away from the rest of us. Spaceship, Gone, Lost in the World — all have moments of you talking about how your mind and your body need to be elsewhere. Over the last couple of years, I find myself going back to the verses you dropped in They Say with Common, where you talk about mental health, fame and getting away. Did we mistake your rhyme for hyperbole? Because it’s right there: “I guess it’s messing with my health then . . . I’m just going to check myself in, again.” I think if we wanted to, we’d see you’d always been leaving us not even hints, but facts, about who you are and what you’ve been holding. It’s just that we were different then (you were too) and we didn’t want to listen the same way. Now we’re listening, and you’re not.
I think you’ve wandered too far away though. Now you’re digitally omnipresent and dark; I saw The Batman and I realised you could be The Riddler — this dark, obsessive, malignant, wronged person who is justifying terror on other people. And you’ve got a legion supporting you still; I read the Instagram comments. I want you to get away and get right, but instead I’m stepping away from you. I don’t think I’ll be back. I don’t think I know how to understand what it means to perform a digital death and have people cheer you on and not tear yourself away. You’ve become a whole Black tortured ecosystem now, you know that? Everyone can write about your deterioration now, can make a buck off the culture pieces, gossip pieces, podcast discussions all talking about what you’ve become. You’re no longer an artist, love; you’re a media pitch. Was this what you wanted?
Kanye, you used to inspire us! “I’ma open up a store for aspiring MCs/won’t sell them no dream but the inspiration is free,” you said in Gone. I miss that version of you so bad. So bad. I’m writing my first book now. It’s about genius and I’d love nothing more than to have you in it. I want you to again be the soundtrack to this beautiful makeshift thing I’m trying to bring together as I try to find time and peace to do something bigger than myself. But it’s like you said later in Gone: “Shorties at the store cause they need more/inspiration for they life, they souls and they songs/they said, ‘Sorry, Mr West is gone.’”
I’m sorry too, but, you know, we’ll always have those couches.
• Tre Johnson's first book, Black Genius: Our Celebrations and Our Destructions is forthcoming in summer 2023