Is ethical consumption of music possible?

By Jason Herring, March 1 2016 —

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“I miss the old Kanye. I hate the new Kanye.” — Kanye West

The rollout of Kanye West’s new album, The Life of Pablo, was a complete mess. West finally released the album, known at various points in its history as WAVES, SWISH and So Help Me God, on Feb. 13 after missing his projected release date by two days. Even then, it was clear West hadn’t even finished the album — the rapper tweeted out tentative track lists in the weeks leading up to the album’s release, with the shape of the album shifting with each subsequent post. Even now, he’s still talking about remastering songs he’s unhappy with.

This part of The Life of Pablo’s tumultuous launch is fun to talk about. Many of West’s stunts can be reasonably dismissed as the zany actions of an eccentric public figure, but a lot of his persona isn’t as innocuous. On Feb. 9, the rapper tweeted “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!,” sparking a flurry of outrage for defending Cosby, who has been accused of sexual assault by over 50 women.

The controversy doesn’t end there. West references his infamous interruption of Taylor Swift’s speech at the 2009 Video Music Awards on The Life of Pablo track “Famous,” rapping “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex — I made that bitch famous,” a line the rapper has since defended.

I’ve had to make a case for my love for Kanye West’s music for a long time, but I would justify it with the adage that you can love the art and hate the artist. After all this, I’m not sure that argument is good enough.

It’s tempting to stop listening to West’s music on principle. It feels like choosing to listen to him say misogynistic things implies that I think those things are okay. Even if I’m not financially supporting West by buying his album, it still feels wrong.

I’ve tried to make similar moral stands against artists before. I haven’t listened to Morrissey’s recent albums after he said there’s no difference between the slaughter of livestock for food and Auschwitz. And I don’t like listening to R. Kelly knowing about his alleged sex crimes and child pornography charges.

I know these things — but I still listen to The Smiths because Morrissey’s songwriting on those albums connects with me on a personal level. I still sing along to R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” every time I hear it. And despite my instincts, I still listen to West’s new album, even when I know he’s saying things that are unacceptable. The Sister Nancy sample that ends “Famous” fills me with pure joy, and I almost feel guilty that it makes me forget about the rest of the song.

I want to be virtuous with the music I listen to and the art I consume. But if I didn’t consume any art by people who have beliefs or histories I have problems with, there would hardly be anything left to enjoy. Part of consuming art involves thinking critically and parsing the ideas presented by the artist.

I don’t agree with West’s ideas, but I’m still going to listen to his music. Lately, though, there is a stronger voice in the back of my head wondering whether that’s morally okay — and what it would take for me to write off West entirely.

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