Ye’s performative advocacy for prison reform raises eyebrows among fans following “Free Larry Hoover Benefit Concert”

Owen McCarthy ‘22, Editor-in-chief

Ye, or the artist known as Kanye West prior to his legal name change toward the end of 2021, is fresh off the release of his tenth studio album, Donda, and a performance alongside fellow hip-hop titan, Drake, whom he recently squashed beef with, at the Free Larry Hoover Benefit Concert. Live streamed on Amazon Prime, the concert’s name is in reference to Larry Hoover Sr., a former member and co-founder of the Chicago gang the Black Disciples. Hoover is currently serving out six life sentences on charges related to gang violence and drug conspiracy, and he has garnered massive support for his release from jail, especially among Chicagoans like Ye.

For transparency’s sake, I will admit that I have been a fan of Ye for a long time, so naturally, when I tuned in to the concert, I was pleased to see him run out on stage and play hits spanning his entire career. Furthermore, as a general hip-hop fan and someone who never liked seeing Ye and Drake at odds with one another, I saw their collaboration at the concert as a great moment for hip-hop. However, I could not help but notice that for an event promoted under the guise of raising awareness for an unjustly sentenced and incarcerated man, the event lacked any meaningful attention given to this cause.

While next to nothing was said of Hoover or prison reform during the concert, Ye did at least run onto the stage wearing a baby blue-colored sweatshirt which had the words “Free Hoover” in large white letters across the front. At a first glance, this seemed to me like a simple yet important message put forth in a tasteful, understated manner; but this perspective changed when I learned that the sweatshirt was part of a new merchandise line designed by Ye and luxury brand Balenciaga, and was on sale for $200 a pop. To make matters worse, there was absolutely nothing to show for any of the proceeds from this merchandise line or ticket sales from the concert being put toward a charitable cause relating to Hoover and his family specifically, or the cause of prison reform at large.

While I am not attempting to claim that billionaires, like Ye, have an obligation to donate their money, I do find it disappointing that Ye, a figure who, early in his career, seemed to give genuine advocacy for progressive causes through his lyrical content and public commentary—speaking out against homophobia in hip-hop in interviews and rapping about subjects like healthcare inequality in the midst of the bling rap era—seems more concerned with the optics of his political messaging than its actual substance these days. 

In 2018, Ye famously visited the White House to meet with then President Donald Trump to discuss prison reform. The conversation jumps all over the place, and plays out like a bizarre fever dream; however,Ye did at least attempt to coherently explain why he decided to put on the “Make America Great Again” hat and publicly declare his support for Trump. Ye said to Trump, “It was something about when I put this hat on, it made me feel like Superman. [Trump] made a Superman. That was my – that’s my favorite superhero. [Trump] made a Superman cape.” 

During the conversation, Ye also seems to suggest that part of his motivation for his support of Trump was to reject identity politics and the notion that he must vote Democrat because he is black, a notion which he feels is pushed by liberal elites: “you know, people expect that if you’re black you have to be Democrat.” While this is certainly a much more substantive point than the ‘Superman cape’ statement, it still felt more like a decision based on himself and how it made him look, rather than a decision based on the actual policies and rhetoric of Trump and what he believed its implications to be for the country at large. Maybe it is the utilitarian in me, but I am of the belief that political ideologies should stem from what we believe to be the most beneficial for society as a whole before we consider ourselves exclusively, and Ye seems to be primarily concerned with himself and his image as his political dealings come off as increasingly performative. 

In fairness, it cannot be denied that Ye and his ex-wife Kim Kardashian have succeeded in getting some individuals out of jail. Junior Brady Eppert said, “their intentions aren’t great, but you got to take what you can get.” This brings up the classic debate of intention vs. outcome. Even if we make the assumption that Ye and Kardashian are mainly seeking to feed their egos or savior-complexes in getting people out of jail, they are, nonetheless, contributing to the cause of prison reform, if not only on an individual-by-individual basis. For some, this could be cause for celebration. I tend to believe that people of their celebrity status can wield their massive influence to affect real policy change on a broader scale, but I guess that is where Ye and Kardashian draw the line. On the bright side, we can still buy that $200 Balenciaga sweatshirt.

Ye’s self-serving, performative political messaging has been going on for a few years now, but is perhaps best exemplified through the sheer irony that he did not once mention the unjustly sentenced Larry Hoover at the Free Larry Hoover Benefit Concert. Rather than using the performance as an opportunity to raise awareness for Hoover, Ye instead chose to plead for his multimillionaire, famous-for-being-famous, influencer ex-wife Kardashian to come back to him during a lengthy rendition of the 2010 song “Runaway.” He riffed,“I need you to run right back to me, baby- more specifically, Kimberly.” Here, Ye’s disappointing priorities are on full, unapologetic display. For those, such as myself, who once idolized Ye not only for his music, but for his advocacy of acceptance and tolerance in the public eye, this was a breaking point of sorts. While Ye is like all of us in that he is not all bad or all good, his intentions are, undoubtedly, less true than they once were. 

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