Kanye West‘s recent public embrace of antisemitic stereotypes and hate speech are the canary in the coal mine of a larger wave of intolerance, according to experts. With a social media reach many times larger than the world’s entire Jewish population, a storied music career that has garnered two dozen Grammy Awards and a once-unbeatable reputation as a musical savant, the disgraced rapper (who now goes by Ye) and fashion mogul’s career crumbled in late 2022 in the wake of a monthslong string of interviews in which he denigrated the Jewish people.
And whether you believe his claims of affinity and admiration for the Nazi regime (including proudly telling conspiracy theorist broadcaster Alex Jones, “I like Hitler“) are a product of his history of mental health struggles or an attempt at headline-making gone horribly dark, Ye’s comments have raised alarms among academics, music industry leaders and Jewish organizations.
The damage to Ye’s public image and bank account has been swift and comprehensive. But with the rapper purportedly plotting a second long-shot White House bid in 2024 amid the disturbing rise in antisemitic attacks (assault, harassment and vandalism) in the U.S. in 2021, Billboard reached out to a panel of experts to ask whether the public should take Kanye West’s embrace of antisemitism seriously, and if his hate speech is a harbinger of a dangerous wave of hate on the horizon.
The Oldest Hatred
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that antisemitism is often referred to as the “oldest hatred,” one that reaches back 2,000 years and is often the first step toward additional racist and xenophobic activity.
“He has more followers on social media than there are Jews on earth, and his comments come at a time when antisemitic incidents are at the highest point in memory,” says Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, the oldest anti-hate organization in America. The ADL reported this year that hate crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions rose 34% in 2021, to the highest number in recent history.
“At a time when the community is dealing with this level of hatred to have one of the most well-known entertainers in our culture making statements like ‘I like Hitler’ and showing up on [Jones’] InfoWars is not just vile and offensive, but it’s also endangering Jews by giving people permission to express that kind of prejudice,” Greenblatt continues. “People in the mainstream did not make such overtly awful, inflammatory comments before like this.”
Greenblatt says the ADL has seen a disturbing “normalizing” of antisemitism over past few years, with the incidents piling up in just the past few months: from antisemitic vandalism at schools and walking trails in the Washington, D.C. area; to swastikas carved into a menorah in Beverly Hills, Calif., on the first night of Hanukkah; to an apparent attempt to explode a propane tank outside a Birmingham, Ala., synagogue in November. Also, during an attack on a Jewish man in New York’s Central Park in December, the assailant allegedly yelled “Kanye 2024” while violently striking the 63-year-old victim.
“We have no choice but to take it seriously,” says Greenblatt, whose organization does not have any up-to-date polling on whether West’s hate speech has directly inspired or encouraged attacks on Jews. And while it’s disturbing to have an artist with a megaphone spouting hate, Greenblatt notes that the rapid response from companies and celebrities cutting personal and business ties with Ye is a “silver lining” during this troubling time for the Jewish community.
Ye’s social media bully pulpit
Alan Light — founding music editor (and later editor-in-chief) of the Quincy Jones co-founded R&B/hip-hop magazine Vibe and SiriusXM Volume host — compares the rush of Ye-related hate speech to the metaphor of a frog slowly boiling in a pot of water. “This stuff has lived in the shadows, but it is now more visible than ever before,” says Light, a former Rolling Stone and Spin editor and author of books on Tupac, Beastie Boys and 2014’s Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain.
Reaching back to an earlier furor over antisemitic lyrics on Ice Cube’s 1991 single “No Vaseline” — not to mention Cube’s posting of racist Jewish tropes on social media in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 — Light, who is Jewish, noted that it’s become more difficult in the past seven to eight years to make sense of what is targeted hate speech and what might be attention-seeking s–tposting on Twitter.
“I do think for a long time there’s been this sense of latitude around him [Ye] that, ‘Oh, he’s crazy, but he’s a genius… he says wild stuff all the time,'” Light says of the reaction to West’s penchant for serial provocation — including his confounding “White Lives Matter” shirts — as balanced against Ye’s reported struggle with bipolar disorder. “So he’s clearly been given a wide lane with that understanding around it … but the far-right media is so desperate for any celebrity or modicum of cool that they have been boxed in, and they are bending so far over backward to embrace him in their tent and now they’re stuck with this.”
As an example, Light pointed to Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson editing out West’s antisemitic remarks from an October 2022 interview that aired before the rapper went on his monthslong tour of mostly right-leaning media, in which he doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on anti-Jewish hate speech.
While fellow hip-hop figures Cube and Public Enemy — the latter via controversial on-and-off Minister of Information Professor Griff — have trafficked in antisemitic tropes in the past, Light says the ubiquity of social media has vastly multiplied the spread of Ye’s dark, twisted fantasy of a world allegedly controlled by a shadowy Jewish elite. Before he was booted from Twitter a second time after posting an image of a swastika, West’s following was in excess of 32 million, a figure that’s more than four times the amount of Jews currently living in America (7.6 million, according to a Brandeis University study) and twice the number of Jews in the entire world. “That amount of followers allows for an amplification that is very different than when these things surfaced in the past or within the media,” says Light.
While West has previously garnered headlines for norm-flouting provocations, the extremity of what he is saying this time is not being taken lightly. From multiple soundbites expressing his admiration for Hitler and the murderous Nazi regime (“I see good things about Hitler also,” West told Jones), to his demand during an interview with white nationalist Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes in December that “Jewish people — forgive Hitler today,” West has crossed a societal red line he may never come back from. And his message appears to be reaching an eager audience of antisemites and white nationalists, including a group of demonstrators who hung a banner that read “Kanye is right about the Jews” on an L.A. overpass in October while raising Nazi salutes; a week later, a similar message scrolled on a video board outside the home of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars during a college football game at TIAA Bank Field.
“Others have made [antisemitic] comments, but the volume of how Kanye gets heard and the unprecedented sentiments he’s expressing both feel like new territory,” Light says.
A decades-long obsession with Nazis
The outburst of Nazi fetishism caught some longtime observers off-guard, even with the rapper’s long history of poke-in-the-eye trolling. But according to a recent Rolling Stone story, the obsession may go back to the very beginning of Ye’s rap career and his 2004 studio debut, The College Dropout, with a number of unnamed insiders saying his positive view of Hitler and the Nazi regime was a well-kept secret for decades.
“It’s not a stretch to now compare Kanye’s ‘by any means necessary’ methods and tactics with Adolf Hitler’s,” an unnamed former longtime collaborator told RS of the MC who allegedly took inspiration from Nazi propaganda strategies during his rise to fame. Another said that Ye frequently quizzed those around him about their feelings on the Nazis until he received an answer he was satisfied with, i.e., one that included an acknowledgment of the “good” things Hitler achieved.
In addition to reportedly trying to convince others of the positives of the Nazi dictator, RS noted that Ye unsuccessfully pushed to name his eighth studio album Hitler.
While Ye’s statements have drawn endless headlines and screen time on cable news, what’s dangerous about the content of his hate speech is that it breaks a taboo about meditating on Nazism and Hitler in the same way that West’s 2018’s claim that “slavery was a choice” essentially “said the quiet thing out loud,” according to Elliot Ratzman, chair in Jewish Studies at Earlham College.
“Kanye West does not command an army of African Americans,” says Ratzman, who has studied and taught courses on antisemitism, race and Judaism. “Jews think that when they hear a prominent Black person saying something antisemitic it means, ‘We are in danger.’ That in itself is racist, because Black people don’t take their marching orders from Black celebrities,” he says.
If anything, West’s embrace of white nationalist and neo-Nazi talking points is the most recent proof of what Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told senators in May 2021: that the greatest domestic threat facing the U.S. is from within, thanks to “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists… specifically those who advocate for the superiority of the white race.”
Ratzman adds that the quixotic nature of having a prominent Black entertainer become a shill for virulent antisemitism — given the long history of cooperation among Black civil rights leaders and Jewish allies in the 1950s and ’60s — creates the mistaken impression that the danger in the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment is coming from the Black community.
“To frame it as ‘Black antisemitism’ is, as a rabbi recently said to me, a ‘racist framing,'” says Ratzman, who notes that Ye coming out as “Nazi-curious” after decades is in keeping with the rise of such rhetoric during the Obama years, which accelerated steeply during one-term president Donald Trump’s time in office. It was on Trump’s watch that the nation saw torch-bearing white nationalists chant “Jews will not replace us” during the deadly 2017 march in Charlottesville, Va., which Trump famously described as an example of “fine people” on “both sides.”
“It’s not Black antisemitism, it’s just antisemitism being used by some parts of the far-right white nationalist world to promote themselves, and that’s where the danger lies,” Ratzman says. And with West claiming he’s running for president again (though at press time the Federal Election Commission told Billboard there was no evidence of any paperwork filed for the bid) in an election that also finds former President Trump running, the 2024 race could feature two men who are embraced by the dangerous factions Mayorkas warned members of Congress about.
Hate speech and free speech are not the same
Rain Pryor grew up in a house where outrageous speech was the norm. The actress-comedian-singer and daughter of late comedy legend Richard Pryor has spent her adult life dissecting what it means to be a Black Jewish woman — including in her acclaimed one-woman show Fried Chicken and Latkes. For her, Ye’s claim in a recent Chris Cuomo interview that Black people cannot be antisemitic because “Black people are also Jews… I classify as Jew,” doesn’t hold any water.
“When you say you’re going to go ‘death con 3’ on the Jewish people, that’s wishing death upon them… it doesn’t matter to me if you say the first man on the planet was Black. If you say ‘Kill all the Jews,’ you are spreading hate speech and violence upon your people,” she says. Pryor, host of a 2022 A&E docuseries titled Right to Offend: The Black Comedy Revolution, says the lessons she learned from her envelope-pushing father and other edgy comedians is that intent is a huge part of speech.
“When you’re in a position of great influence and you use your power for speech that is derogatory, hateful and abusive as a way to justify your belief system, I have an issue with that,” Pryor says. “We are all allowed to offend and say what we want to say, but if it incites violence against someone else, you have to be held accountable for that.”
The difference between a comedian such as Dave Chappelle — who drew fire from some Jewish leaders for an Saturday Night Live monologue in December that some saw as amplifying “Jews run the media” messaging rather than decrying it — and Ye’s statements in 2022 center on intent, according to Pryor. “Comedians usually have no vitriol in what they’re trying to do… they want to look at something and laugh by using tropes that we all understand are stereotypes,” she says. “Not because they’re hateful and wish death on someone.”
West has been called out by a number of other artists and media executives, but the relative quiet from the wider hip-hop community, from rappers to executives, is not surprising to Light. “The first emotion is not to pile on, and that’s true of whichever minority community [is being attacked]… that’s always the first reflex,” Light says.
And while some pointed to Ye’s mental health diagnosis or the frequently cited speculation that he is either in the midst of a bipolar episode or not taking his medication — which West has said was prescribed by Jewish doctors for a mental health condition he now says he does not have — Light and others interviewed don’t see that as a reason to excuse or justify such bigotry. “So many wild things Kanye has said get those, ‘Oh, you know, it’s Kanye being Kanye’ [justifications],” explains Light of the countervailing voices that say we should not take Ye’s goading seriously because of his diagnosis and history of pushing buttons. “But at some point, that is no longer a strong defense when he confirms that what he says is what he meant.”
A “one-of-one” situation
As far as Afro-Jewish studies scholar Dr. Andre E. Key sees it, West’s descent into anti-Jewish bigotry doesn’t appear to be part of an organized movement, but more of a “one-of-one” situation. Key, an associate professor of African American studies at South Carolina’s Claflin University, says he’s studied a wide variety of religions and encountered “all kinds of Black folks” over the course of his life and career, but has yet to meet even one who asked him if he thought Hitler had some good ideas.
While Key also doesn’t necessarily see Ye’s rhetoric sparking a dangerous mass cultural movement, he does see a potential risk in the way people are going about checking the embattled rapper’s behavior. “In many ways, he’s become like the real-life Clayton Bigsby,” Key says, referencing the clueless Black white supremacist famously portrayed by Chappelle on the comedian’s eponymous sketch series.
Similarly, Ratzman sees West’s look-at-me statements as a “clownish sideshow” to the very real rise of the far right, as emboldened by Trump’s post-Charlottesville “both sides” statement and the election to Congress of such conspiracy theorists as Marjorie Taylor Greene.
“That’s who he is now, hanging out with [white supremacist] Nick Fuentes… with the blowback pushing him further into the camp of real-life neo-Nazism,” Ratzman says of Ye. “In some ways, going too far is making him more likely to become a representative for actual neo-Nazis, even if they’re not totally invested in and playing with his new identity.”
No choice but to take it seriously
The ADL’s Greenblatt says even if West is shouting into a void or simply begging for a 16th minute of fame, we have “no choice” but to take it seriously. “Irrespective of what is in his mind or heart, this kind of raw rhetoric leads to real-world violence,” he says, pointing to the Central Park attack and the arrest in November of a man who had stockpiled semiautomatic weapons — and who was found in NYC’s Penn Station with a Nazi armband, black ski mask and large hunting knife — after he allegedly made online threats against a New York synagogue.
“What makes this moment so dangerous for the Jewish community — and I believe for our democracy — is that people who have radically different ideologies, and who have nothing else to agree on, suddenly find themselves agreeing on one thing: that Jews are the problem,” says Jackie Congedo, the chief of community engagement for the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center in Cincinnati, whose mission is to tell the stories of victims and survivors of the Nazi atrocities while shining a light on injustice today.
“The Holocaust didn’t start with bullets, it started with words,” she says (quoting Cincinnati Holocaust survivor Al Miller), adding that in the wake of West’s hate spree, she’s had people approach her and state that they are not antisemitic while asking, “Do Jews really control Hollywood?” With prominent Republicans who ran for office in 2022, such as just-seated Ohio Senator J.D. Vance and failed Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, accused of making antisemitic comments during their campaigns while West spread falsehoods about the Jewish people, Congedo says the mainstreaming of such tropes can lead to lethal action and “create an environment where that kind of action is normalized, and that’s very scary.”
We are all connected
Congedo says the best way to combat the rhetoric of bad actors such as West is through education and speaking out. “It’s not enough to say your Jewish friend or people you don’t know might be affected,” she says. “We are all connected, and hate for Jews is a problem for all of us. All minority communities are all intertwined, and we all have a lot to lose.”
In the end, White says, it’s hard to know what the goal is for West or how history will treat him, but as it stands now, it seems like it will be “very difficult” for him to proceed with his music and fashion careers in the near future at least. “We were one wrong turn away from having our democracy collapse [on Jan. 6, 2021], and I feel like what he’s doing is adding to that. But I don’t think he can be a catalyst in any way to what’s already going on,” says Key, who agrees that as his mainstream appeal rapidly fades, at the least the increasingly isolated rapper is mostly a danger to himself.
In a nation that embraces free speech, Pryor says, sure, the Ku Klux Klan can march in your town, but if they’re doing it to intimidate or to scare someone into moving out a neighborhood, then there has to be some accountability. “If I’m the head of a business, and someone comes in and uses the n-word, I fire them — because they are offending people I work with and offending what I stand for,” she says.
Ye’s 2020 presidential run was mostly seen as a no-shot lark, though it gained ample media attention and 60,000 votes out of 160 million cast after the rapper made it onto the ballot in just 12 states. After his 2022 hate tour, it’s possible Ye will be taken even less seriously this time around, even by the right-wing outlets that briefly embraced him. The fuse, however, has been lit, and Congedo worries that West has given a level of legitimacy that might cause some to “come out of the woodwork” and consider the rapper’s poisonous rhetoric as fact.
As 2022 came to a close, West appeared to tap the brakes on the pace of his confounding rhetoric, though no apology or explanation for his hate spree appeared imminent. So, if there is a small upside, it’s that Kanye is losing his privileges because he is being held accountable for bringing harm to people or causing some to fear that they may be harmed, Pryor says. And, this time, he isn’t getting a pass, regardless of what you might suspect is motivating him.
“If you go back to The College Dropout, on the last track [‘Last Call’], he’s narrating a story about getting his record deal, and he’s always had this idea that ‘you all don’t believe in me and let me prove you wrong,'” says Key. “Now it’s, ‘Let me show you how smart I am by embracing these ideas that no one will touch.’ Except this time it didn’t work out the way he expected.”