In the 20th century, when the US was a politically stable developed nation, professional politicians with years of experience, expertise and an understanding of both domestic and geopolitics often courted entertainers in order to bolster an otherwise grey bureaucratic image. This was most infamously expressed when Evil Presley was photographed in Richard Nixon’s Oval Office. Nixon was the epitome of an intelligent, ruthless, privately corrupt professional politician – the kind that often dominate developed nations for years on end. While most counter-culture rock stars of the 60s and 70s were busy penning anti-Nixon songs, as Elvis and Nixon both made professional come-backs starting in the late 1960s, it was perhaps all too appropriate that the king of the so-called ‘imperial presidency’ should embrace the king of rock n’ roll. While Nixon was at first uncomfortable with the experience, in his classic opportunist style, he used the encounter to bolster his image and gladly gave Elvis a badge for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, in spite of the fact that Elvis was highly addicted to prescription medications at the time.
When in 1992, Bill Clinton convinced Fleetwood Mac to reunite to perform his campaign theme song Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow), Clinton attempted to portray himself as more ‘cool’ and more ‘rock n’ roll’ than his older rival George H. W. Bush whose infamous criticism of the popular television show The Simpsons gave him an image of someone out of touch with anything remotely youthful. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had a less successful attempt at recruiting a young rock star into the political fold. After praising Bruce Springsteen’s hit song Born In The USA, Reagan was rebutted by Springsteen who explained that in spite of the deceptively patriotic refrain, the song was highly critical of both the treatment of American veterans of the war in Vietnam as well as the lack of opportunities in Reagan’s de-industrialising USA.
While in the US as in other developed countries, it is often politicians who court entertainers in order to bolster an otherwise dull or old fashioned personality, in developing countries and post-colonial states, it is often that important artists and entertainers are able to shape the political debate and make or break the fortunes of the political class.
In Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s, the composer and musician Fela Kuti was not only more popular than most politicians but he was in many ways far more influential than the political class. Things came to a head in 1984 when his political rival, President Muhammadu Buhari jailed Kuti. Kuti was eventually released by President Ibrahim Babangida in 1985 after widespread condemnation that Kuti was a prisoner of political conscience.
Internationally, Bob Marley remains among the world’s most renowned Jamaican artists. While considered a music legend across the world, politically, he was legendary in his native Jamaica in his own lifetime. Multiple political officials feared his influence and in 1976 he survived a politically motivated assassination attempt which forced him to leave the country.
Although he has blossomed into an intelligent, confident and in many ways domineering opposition figure in Pakistan, when Imran Khan entered politics in 1996 by forming his political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), his initial appeal was due to the fact that he was one of Pakistan’s and the world’s best cricketers. To this day, many of Khan’s detractors are professional politicians remain worried about the fact that as a celebrity prior to entering politics as his charismatic personality that once dominated Pakistan’s national sport threatens the dynastic politics of Pakistan’s older parties PML-N and PPP.
While Gorbachev’s Soviet Union was not technically a developing country, like the present day United States, the late 80s saw a once wealthy, stable and strong USSR transform itself into a chaotic state that resembled a developing nation. While new political divides were opening during the period of Gorbachev’s late USSR, the band Kino and its poet/writer/lead singer Viktor Tsoi became an inspiration figure who gave people far more optimism than any of the politicians of the late 80s and very early 90s in the USSR.
Today, in spite of its national wealth, the political and social environment of the United States is looking increasingly like that of a developing country. In contemporaneity America, the judiciary is becoming involved in partisan political disputes, politicians constantly accuse others of lawlessness and even collaboration with foreign states, each political faction has its own totally biased media on its side while politicians, media oligarchs and corporate oligarchs court each other for influence, all while an increasingly sectarian society remains bitterly divided against itself. On the whole, developing countries provide more opportunities for those outside of a professional political class to dominate politics. As I previously wrote, America’s descent from developed to developing nation is almost fully complete.
Because of this, it is fitting that a major entertainer like rapper Kanye West should be not only courting political clout from Donald Trump but that West is using this platform to not only promote a music career but his own political career. West has Tweeted photos of posters which say “Kanye 2024”, a clear indication that he intends to run for President in 2024, the year which Donald Trump will be termed out of office assuming he wins re-election in 2020.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018
Thus, while many are dismissing West’s political moves as a mere publicity stunt, his latest single Ye Versus the People serves as a political manifesto in which fellow rapper I.T. takes on the role of a typical West fan and Trump critic who is then challenged by West who outlines his own revisionist pro-Trump policies.
West is clearly taking on the role of a well known and admired entertainer in a developing country who both courts, taunts and challenges the political elite. What’s more though is that unlike those in the US who have attempted such things in the past, West now has the ear and the endorsement of a ruling President and looks set to pose a serious threat to the political order of the United States, even more than fellow celebrity turned politician Donald Trump did.
Because of Kanye West’s youth, his popularity among young Americans of all backgrounds and because of the historically oppressed position of African-Americans, West has the potential of doing to US politics what Marley did in Jamaica, Kuti did in Nigeria or what Imran Khan is doing in Pakistan. West has the potential to be a genuine political threat rather than just another sideshow of politics, that which Fran Zappa, a man who knew he could never win an election in a then developed nation like the US of the 1980s and 1990s, once called “the entertainment division of the military industrial complex”. Had Zappa been born when West was, he would have stood a far better chance of propelling his political career in a developing USA.
The old US establishment is now not courting, but is being threatened by an entertainer, something that is largely unthinkable in predictable, mature developed nations. In a mature developed nation like China or Singapore for example, it would be unthinkable for an entertainer to challenge the political mainstream. Likewise, in modern, mature and stable Russia, when a reality television celebrity attempted to challenge the incumbent President Vladimir Putin in the 2018 Presidential election, she was laughed at by the vast majority of Russians who re-elected Putin with a comfortable super-majority.
But unlike the case in developed countries including Singapore, Germany, China and Russia where the entertainment culture or counter-culture stands no serious chance of challenging the political mainstream, as in many developing countries, a prominent entertainer called Kanye West is now overtly challenging the US political mainstream, marking another phase in America’s shift from the developed world to the wealthy developing world.