Separating art from the artist is impossible

Illustration by Maddie Martin

Kofi Mframa, Contributing Writer

The first Kanye West song I heard was “All Falls Down” from his debut album “College Dropout,” and since then he’s become a controversial figure for me. I enjoyed listening to his music when it came on the radio and I recognized his face when it emerged in headlines, but I wasn’t interested in discovering him any deeper.

It wasn’t until West publicly voiced support for Donald Trump and his 2020 presidential campaign — one of the few celebrities in Hollywood to do so — that I took interest in his background and artistry. However, digging deep into his discography and watching his old interviews, I only became more confused about what he stood for.

How could one of the greatest rap artists of all time create an album like “Graduation” or “The Life of Pablo” yet make distasteful comments like calling slavery a choice or tout antisemetic tropes and conspiracy theories? How could the auteur of the anti-white supremacy and anti-capitalist lyrics of “All Falls Down” support a man who goes against the very meaning of that song?

As West falls into controversy after controversy, he has become increasingly hard to support. Similarly, with other problematic artists, disappointed fans have searched for ways to mediate their displeasure without giving up the artists’ music entirely.

The phrase “separate the art from the artist” has been coined as a way to differentiate one’s appreciation of an artist’s music from their disdain for the artist’s actions. However, this phrase is just a lazy cop-out that gives fans an excuse to not think critically as to why they continue to support problematic artists.

The issue with this phrase is that it treats the artist and their art as two separate entities. However, being an artist is a deeply intimate experience, and artists often draw from their own stories to create their art. To remove an artist from their creations decontextualizes their work and leaves it devoid of meaning.

R&B singer R. Kelly is another example of a problematic artist whose fans tried to separate from his art. After the release of “Surviving R. Kelly,” the documentary that profiled the singer’s long history of sexual abuse and pedophilic behavior, many long-term fans demanded that we separate R. Kelly, the pedophile from R. Kelly, the singer.

This is an impossible task. Kelly’s songs “The Greatest Sex,” which is about him having sexual intercourse with his wife, the late singer Aaliyah — who was 15 at the time — and “Down Low,” which is about keeping an abusive love affair secret, operate as vehicles for him to express his disgusting sexual desires. To say it is possible to separate the art from the artist is to say it is possible to separate R. Kelly from songs he wrote that are direct accounts of his perversion.

Even when problematic artists create songs that aren’t inherently problematic, the issue still stands. Singer Rex Orange County fell into controversy after being charged with six counts of sexual assault. Though his songs aren’t explicitly about his alleged vile behavior, how can anyone continue to engage with his music with a clear conscience knowing what he has been accused of?

The reason why separating the art from the artist is a cop-out is because artists are their art. Everything they create is an extension of themselves and a glimpse into their identity.

I understand that it’s a tall order to ask someone to stop listening to a song they resonate with because the creator of that song is controversial. Songs have the capacity to articulate our emotions, and we attach ourselves to them for comfort and enjoyment. Since it has been argued that artists make so little off of streams, it’s a common belief that continuing to stream a problematic artist isn’t actually supporting them that much.

However, there are many ways to support an artist. Is it still okay to support a questionable artist through streaming as long as we don’t buy merchandise or go to concerts? Is it still supporting the artist if we continue to listen to the physical copies of their music?

The truth is that we need to be honest with ourselves about whether our connection to a controversial artist’s work is greater than the gravity of the things they’ve done. Instead of avoiding these uncomfortable truths, we should face them head on. For example, if West’s music speaks to you, and you don’t want to give it up, acknowledge that while still holding him accountable for his actions.

The line that tells us whether to boycott an artist over an issue is often ambiguous, given an individual’s personal values; what may be unacceptable to me might not be to you.

What remains true, though, is the need for accountability. We should expect more from those in the public eye, and they should be reprimanded for harmful behavior.

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