In my more well-known years in the music industry, I worked as Justin Bieber’s tour photographer from 2011-2014.
During this three year stint, I met Kanye West twice. The first was a very special, intimate conversation between Kanye, Justin, a recording engineer, and me in a studio on the west side of Manhattan. We spoke, or should I say Kanye spoke, and I listened, for about an hour. The second was after his performance, backstage at the 2013 Governors Ball music festival.
I’ve been a fan of hip hop since, I dunno, 12 years old. I can remember my first cassette purchases were singles of Bone Thugs N Harmony’s “Crossroads” and MC Lyte’s “Party Ain’t a Party Remix.”
I was that scrawny white kid–I’m actually mixed but that’s not all that important–who hung out at record shops and became known as “White Mike.” I have spent time working as a photographer being in the room with some of the most influential hip hop producers of all time, including Pharell Williams and Timbaland. Meeting and watching them work, however, was nothing like my experience with Kanye West.
That day in 2012, in the mid 20s and 10th avenue, I was doing some photos of Justin working on his 2012 LP “Believe.” It was a couple of hours into the session when someone came in and announced that Kanye was in a another studio and wanted to stop by.
In he came. There was no entourage. Just Ye with a laptop and a smile on his face; the two pop stars happy to see each other. Justin played him some songs that would eventually make it onto the album and Kanye played some songs that still to this day haven’t been released. I’m sure I’d get into some trouble if I named some of the collaborations I heard.
Kanye was talking about albums he was recently listening to, current inspirations that would certainly influence his 2013 platinum release, “YEEZUS.” He started to talk about how he had this newfound admiration for The Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper” album, and for whatever reason I decided to chime in:
“Have you listened to The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ recently?” I asked.
Kanye looked at me a bit confused. “Na, not recently,” he said.
“Oh…well it’s just that the Beatles were profoundly inspired by ‘Pet Sounds,’ and is probably one of the main reasons Sgt Pepper even exists in the first place. You can look up some interviews about the Beatles talking about it. Brian Wilson is a genius. Kinda reminds me of you.”
Kayne looked at Justin Bieber, “Who is this guy?” he asked.
“That’s Mike, my photographer,” Justin said.
“You need to listen to him when he talks,” Kanye told Justin.
That actually happened.
He and Justin continued their conversation for another 45 minutes or so. Kanye moved around the room. He sat down next to me for ten minutes, talked about Tumblr, I showed him that I was “Tumblr famous,” he gave me his email, I cried on the inside, and then he was gone.
I knew about Kanye’s telethon “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” incident. I didn’t really care about that because, as I look back on it, Bush was an establishment GOP’er and I was always more of a hard conservative, kiiiinda libertarian who had just started admiring people like Andrew Breitbart, so I was never really that much of a firm Bush devotee or even supporter.
I also knew Kanye was one of the more open-minded, extremely opinionated people to ever exist, so when it came to politics, at the time, it didn’t really effect my views on him or his music. I didn’t take any pictures during that experience.
Fast forward to last Saturday, April 21. Kanye tweeted that he “likes the way Candace Owens thinks.” This blew my mind for a couple reasons. I had photographed Candace for a book I’m currently working on about new conservative thinkers and people of influence. I visited Candace, who is now serving as communications director for Turning Point USA, at her home and shot some roles of film and talked over lunch about why she became a conservative.
The story was similar to that of any former leftist like Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman or David Horowitz; they were being lied to. Like Candice, Kanye had decided that he wasn’t falling for the left’s thought policing or victimization hierarchy. I was also excited because I knew what was coming next. I knew he was going to express his admiration of Trump. And…it happened.
People like Ben Shapiro will try to warn you “…let’s not pretend like Kanye West is some sort of genius…” but I don’t think Shapiro understands the cultural significance of this. I also think Shapiro doesn’t understand pop culture as much as he thinks he does. I mean he still pushes musical theater from the 50s so I’m not about to take him at his word on issues regarding Kanye West, regardless of his past potholes when it came to political blunders.
But this isn’t about never-Trumpers.
On the right, we don’t have pop culture icons who are publicly endorsing Trump. Sure, James Woods is great but he’s in his 70s and the last movie he was in that was relevant, was 2013’s “White House Down” and he played the villain. Sure, we love Dean Cain, but I mean, 18-year-olds don’t know who Dean is. The left has every actor and musician you can name.
Kanye sells out concerts. Kanye’s albums go platinum. His sneakers sell out and resell for mortgage payments. His fashion lines get the most coverage. Kanye is current culture and he has come out supporting the most polarizing president in American history. It could be said that it was inevitable. They have incredibly similar personalities and it was just a matter of time until the blindfold was pulled from Kanye’s eyes.
Kanye’s former manager, Scooter Braun, is a lefty, a Hillary supporter and fundraiser. Scooter also currently manages Justin Bieber and has for the past nine years. I worked with Scooter. I was the right-winged conservative on the tour who had controversial opinions about the Treyvon Martin case, the Benghazi blunder, and Obamacare. Scooter once even told me to delete a photo I had posted on instagram of me at a gun range on a day off because Sandy Hook recently happened and it was bad PR.
Kanye wasn’t falling for that type of shit, and I’m sure that even though the split was amicable, Kanye didn’t want to be managed, because in his words on Twitter, “I can’t be managed!”
I’m also sure that he didn’t want a leftist helping him to make decisions about his music or personality.
Now you have the media calling Kanye “crazy, disturbed, erratic” and trying to invalidate his thoughts. Kanye called this, too. He tweeted about the thought police. And it’s not just the media going after him. Full-time SJW and sometimes-singer John Legend, a Kanye collaborator in the past, went on a virtue signaling diatribe on Twitter saying:
Far too many people don’t have the luxury of closing their eyes and ears. They feel it in their lives and can’t act like what they see and know doesn’t exist…They know their family was destroyed by deportation or incarceration. They know their loved one was denied safe harbor because of their religion. They know their son or daughter was shot because their skin color evoked fear…They see the statistics about black applications for real estate or loans or employment being turned away because their name was Jamal and not James…
He only seems to be proving Kanye right. Whether it’s Snoop Dogg commenting on Kanye walking around in public wearing a MAGA hat “That’s mighty white of u Kanye. !Nigga if u don’t snap out of it Get out part 2,” or Jordan Peele tweeting that he is “inspired to write Get Out 2,” Kanye continues to prove himself right. Chicago native Chance the Rapper, on the other hand, didn’t fall for the media blitz and tweeted support of Kanye. He then dropped another nuke on the Internet when he tweeted “Black people don’t have to be democrats.”
I have a feeling Kanye will summit with some powerful rappers and lead them off the democratic plantation.
Kanye knew. Look at these lyrics from “Saint Pablo” off of his LIFE OF PABLO album from 2016:
People tryna say I’m goin’ crazy on Twitter
My friends’ best advice was to stay low
I guess it’s hard to decipher all of the bills
Especially when you got family members on payroll
The media said it was outlandish spendin’
The media said he’s way out of control
I just feel like I’m the only one not pretendin’
I’m not out of control, I’m just not in they control
I know I’m the most influential
That TIME cover was just confirmation
This generation’s closest thing to Einstein
So don’t worry about me, I’m fine
Like I said, I had a feeling this was going to happen and I certainly don’t don’t miss the old Kanye.
feature image via NME
Mike Lerner is a photographer based in New York.