Why DJs Are Struggling More With Kanye West Than Past Problematic Stars

Kanye West
 Julian Mackler/BFA/REX/Shutterstock 

Kanye West attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Benefit Celebrating the Opening of Charles James: Beyond Fashion and the Anna Wintour Costume Center in New York City on May 5, 2014. 

“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” -- the most quintessential Kanye West single, as the clearest example of his world-beating confidence -- is a go-to song for Eric Bowler, as it is for many other DJs. He found out that would no longer be the case during a Cinco De Mayo set at the Portland bar Fortune. When he threw on the song close to midnight, Bowler barely got past the intro’s anthemic la-la-la’s before he saw the small crowd’s gestures: a thumb dragging across a throat, indignant grimaces and aggressive boos.

“Some chick came up to me and was like, ‘Why the hell are you playing Kanye right now?’” recalls Bowler, who professionally goes by DJ Evil One. “I said, ‘Aw man, I gotta get out of this shit really quick.’”

Other DJs have been hit with similar reactions following a line of comments and tweets from West that included a Donald Trump endorsement, a picture of him posing with a Make America Great Again hat, and a TMZ video in which he claimed that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice.” Brooklyn DJ Olivia Dope says playing “New Slaves” during a late April gig spurred some attendees to “look at me, like, ‘Trick, what are you doing right now?’” Darling Chuck, a DJ from Queens, had a quick discussion with two others about whether to play West during another gig in Brooklyn. Chuck and another DJ decided not to; the performer who did saw that "the dance floor pretty much cleared," Chuck says.

Brooklyn’s DJ mOma was mixing for a predominantly black crowd in Los Angeles in late April when he noticed the mixed at-best response to “Old Kanye” tentpole “All Falls Down” and the aggressively memed 2016 hit “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1.” While he’s since pulled Kanye songs from his sets because of that reaction, DJ mOma thinks he’s not that offensive of a Serato mainstay.

“You have people that give you the side-eye when you play R. Kelly or Chris Brown,” DJ mOma says. “But it’s a sad testament that those guys were accused of abusing women, and somehow you’re still able to play their music in the club. Kanye hasn’t abused anyone. He hasn’t created any victims.”

On Thursday, Spotify removed R. Kelly from its playlists as part of the streaming service’s new policy regarding hateful content and hateful conduct -- a move that came after two more women accused him of sexual abuse. (R. Kelly has long denied the allegations against him.) Brown is also facing a lawsuit filed by a woman who claims she was raped at his home. (An attorney for Brown denied the allegations.) The accusations facing both stars come atop years of allegations of abuse toward women.

Still, neither artist has inspired the same immediate dance-floor repulsion that Kanye West’s recent statements have. Abuse allegations have trailed R. Kelly since the ‘90s, but some listeners are still slowly detaching from him. Others don’t see the reason in doing so.

“We’re completely saying Kanye’s crazy and ridiculous, but we’re weaning off of someone who’s been doing something for years,” Olivia Dope recalls. “Even at that same party at the end of the night, I was speaking to one of the bartenders and said, ‘I don’t play R. Kelly anymore.’ And she was like, ‘Why?’”

Of course, Brown and Kelly aren’t the only major black artists accused of abusing women, and West isn’t the first to support a president criticized for co-signing policies harmful to black communities. (James Brown once called Ronald Reagan, who expanded racially biased drug policies, the “most intelligent” president ever.) But artists like Brown have deep catalogs that tangle themselves within music canon. Even well into the 21st century, it’s difficult to take a broad consideration of pop and R&B without encountering him in some way. West is the same way. DJ mOma believes that a newer artist like XXXTentacion -- who’s faced graphic abuse allegations throughout his short career, which he’s denied -- doesn’t have that grace: “With him it was grand opening, grand closing.”

Kanye West’s previous album cycle has been rife with controversy as well. Just days before The Life of Pablo’s release, he tweeted “Bill Cosby Innocent” in all caps after dozens of women came forward with allegations against the disgraced comedian. But the blowback wasn’t as extreme as it is for his Trump support. For Brooklyn-based DJ Tara -- who says she doesn’t play R. Kelly, or really have the desire to play Kanye -- the different reactions illustrate a wider theme.

“It boils down to racism vs. sexism and sexual assault,” DJ Tara says. “Unfortunately, I do feel like women are at the lower end of the totem pole when it comes to these things -- especially the black women. I feel that the expectation is that we pick our race over our own gender.” (The day after the “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” incident, DJ Evil One tweeted about how the tangles caused by musical moral quandaries extend well past West: “Scrolling through my Serato crates between sex offenders, a Trump supporter, domestic abusers and I’m realizing it’s time to play all women artists.”)

“This whole thing is really difficult for me to parse out, because there’s so many people who are problematic,” she adds. “But for the most part, for me, bigotry and racism is not something that I tolerate.”

Nonetheless, DJ mOma notes that he’s never seen the change in club reception toward Kanye songs happen to any other artist. “Clubs that are predominantly black millennials, his music has just completely disappeared off the map,” he says.