Yes, Entertainers Can Become President. Just Not Kanye West

Words by Terrell J. Starr

The idea that Kanye West wants to run for President is pretty ridiculous.

Most people would have a hard time seeing him run for president of his neighborhood block association, let alone President of the United States. Indeed, West’s recent declarations that his tennis shoes aren’t selling well because people are racist or he is being discriminated against in the fashion industry because he is not gay are eye-rollers, to say the very least. His very puzzling journey from “The College Dropout” to “Yeezus” has made us wonder what ever happened to that young man who stared into the camera and said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

So when he stood on the stage of the MTV Music Awards and said he wants to run for president in 2020, I thought the same two words that likely ran through many people’s mind: Negro, please.

When I asked one of my friends who works as a political consultant how she would help advise West if he approached her, she texted me back with this: “I’d advise him to sit his ass down somewhere.”

Even President Barack Obama chimed in on the hilarity of Kanye’s faux presidential ambitions recently.

I get it. It’s hard to see Kanye beyond a punchline. But let’s entertain, for just a moment, the possibility that Kanye is, in fact, serious about running for President. When I was asked to write about this subject, the pitch was framed something like this: If someone like Donald Trump would run and be taken seriously, why can’t Kanye? Is the idea of what is Presidential changing? Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan and Jesse The Body Ventura also ran for public office. And won.

I can understand why many people would draw the parallel. They’re all entertainers, right? But, after reviewing the histories of Schwarzenegger, Reagan, Trump and West, the comparison ends up being as similar as apples and collard greens.  

Trump, like West, is a caricature. His very racist and sexist remarks make a mockery out of the political process, but he is also a billionaire who has spent more than a decade selling himself as a smart businessman. Whether you agree with the latter is a matter of opinion, but Trump is leading in the polls. Keep in mind that his bigoted rhetoric is also popular in the GOP.

Yes, Trump is a fool. But his foolery is a political asset in the Republican Party. Kanye’s antics? Not so much. Unless he runs for public office as a Republican, saying he is being discriminated against because he is not gay won’t fly in most political circles.

While it is true that public figures like Reagan and Schwarzenegger did transition from the entertainment arena to politics, there are some sharp distinctions between them and West. For one, Reagan and Schwarzenegger’s entertainment careers were intertwined with their political activism.

In 1985, Schwarzenegger appeared in an anti-drug music video called Stop the Madness” that was sponsored by the Reagan administration. He also served on the President George H.W. Bush’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports from 1990 to 1993. After that, he served under then-California Governor Governor Pete Wilson as Chairman for the California Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

His political involvement during his acting career is even more expansive than that.

As for Reagan, his public service began in 1937 when he was enlisted in the military and separated from active duty in 1945. He never left America and never saw any battlefield action, but he did technically serve his country. As his Wikipedia page shows, Reagan’s political involvement before becoming governor of California in 1968 spanned from 1948 to 1967. First, as a Democrat, he joined political committees and fought against right to work legislation. When he was hired by General Electric in 1954 to host General Electric Theater, a weekly TV drama series, he traveled the country delivering speeches to GE employees that carried a strong conservative bend.

Those are just several examples of Reagan’s political training that he meshed with his entertainment career.  So, yes. Schwarzenegger and Reagan transitioned from entertainment to politics but, in a way, they were always moonlighting as politicians–even when they were performing on the big screen.

West, however, has done little to nothing during his career to demonstrate he could make a similar transition.

Now, let us say, for example, if someone like Jesse Williams, John Legend, MC Lyte or Queen Latifah declared his or her political aspirations for national office, say, as U.S. Senator, they’d be taken far more seriously.

“Their activism is a part of their artistry,” L. Joy Williams, a political consultant here in New York City told me during a phone interview. “The same thing with Questlove. Their activism and political involvement is intertwined with their celebrity, whereas Kanye’s is not. It’s very vain. There is no natural trajectory that he could play off of. And, if it is, it’s not one that is publicly known. So, you’d then have to basically rebrand who he is.”

That would be tough for Mr. West, though. How can you rebrand a person who is viewed largely as a punchline?  

Someone who made a successful transition from music to politics was Michel Martelly, who was elected president of Haiti in 20111. Known as “Sweet Mickey” during his hip-hop career, Martelly was a very flamboyant and provocative performer. However, Martelly was very popular with the Haitian people; he also founded an aid agency that helped the poor. Martelly also had in his favor the reality that Haitian politics is so corrupt that the people were willing to give any alternative to the country’s traditional political class a chance. He ended up winning with 68 percent of the vote.

Sonny Bono transitioned from musician to mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., and then to U.S. Representative. Sure, he was known as a funny man on TV but was a serious businessman when the cameras were off. Clint Eastwood was elected mayor of the small California town of Carmel-By-The-Sea. Eastwood, however, was involved in politics for decades and his politics were clear in his acting work.

My point is that in Bono, Trump, Eastwood and, in the case of Martelly in Haiti, people could find some nugget of seriousness or higher-office pedigree in them. That isn’t the case for Kanye.

What is unfortunate about West is that people may have very well taken him seriously around 2005 or 2006, during his “College Dropout” days. Though that album wasn’t very political, it was widely considered one of deep social consciousness. Had he become a community activist and began speaking at political events around Chicago, he could have very well primed himself for a political career. Perhaps not president, but certainly high political office. The early 2000s was a time when the idea of him running for national office after years of grooming himself for such a step would not have been followed with a snicker.

But that was a long time ago.

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