The bejeweled rapper made a quick appearance at the populist uprising yesterday, and left a cloud of stinking irony in his wake.
"My hat, my shoes, my coat Louis Vuitton stitch/ With Donatello Versace, that's Louis Vuitton, bitch." -Kanye West
When Kanye West turned up at Occupy Wall Street on Monday, he was wearing a $400 Givenchy shirt. Long gold necklaces dipped far beyond his neckline, and he'd replaced the diamonds that normally sit on his bottom teeth with a shining gold grill (no doubt to match the necklaces). In all, he was adorned in thousands of dollars worth of the luxurious finery he's heralded for years now in his music, lyrics that are peppered with so many references to luxury brand labels that West has come to be known as the "Louis Vuitton Don."
West was reportedly brought to OWS by rap mogul Russell Simmons. The two walked through the crowd for a few minutes, minor entourage in tow, before West was shuffled off to go shopping at an expensive boutique with Jay-Z and Beyonce. It was the latest in a slew of celebrity appearances at OWS—Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, Penn Badgley—but it was perhaps the strangest star sighting yet: A multimillionaire pop musician who's made a mint from rapping about private jets turns up at the largest populist uprising in recent American history. What does it mean when the very people atop America's rampant and toxic income gap begin turning up to protest America's income gap?
It wouldn't be fair to exclude Robbins, West, and Badgley for being rich. Save for some alleged racism, the Occupy protests have been underpinned by inclusiveness. Click through any collection of photos from Zuccotti Park, ground zero for OWS, and you're likely to see the kind of generational and racial diversity New Yorkers love to brag about. It only makes sense for that inclusion to extend to financial class as well. Just as a person can't choose her color, nobody gets to decide into what tax bracket they're born. What do matter, however, are the decisions rich people make.
Moore has fought tirelessly against corporate greed for decades now, beginning with his very first documentary, 1990's Roger & Me. Robbins, a millionaire from his film career, has also devoted himself to fighting for progressive causes, whether through charity hockey games or big donations to Democratic political candidates. West hasn't done any of that. Rather, he's made a business out of heralding multinational corporations—fashion labels, car manufacturers, beverage companies—in song and in his personal life. He's in the front row of fashion shows that cater to people who spend $10,000 on dresses, and he ostensibly revels in the opportunity to be photographed in $200,000 cars. And as if clothes and cars aren't enough, last January West reportedly commissioned a $180,000 watch covered with diamonds and a portrait of himself on its face.
In short, West isn't just part of the 1 percent, he's also the kind of ultra-rich wastrel that propels the greed and commercialism that has brought America to its knees. That's been his calling card, and it's why people like him don't belong at OWS. Because while poor people were throwing themselves into credit debt and predatory bankers were screwing over consumers in pursuit of the toys about which West boasted, West danced in the middle of the storm. He partied next to the bankers in Europe whilst funding his lifestyle with music sold to poor people.
Furthermore, the luxury brands West loves rely on the world's income gap to survive. Louis Vuitton remains Louis Vuitton partially because poor people can't afford to buy it. If Louis Vuitton steamer trunks start being sold in Target next to regular old canvas luggage, they immediately lose their luster, because then they're no better than what a working single mom can afford. West and people like him enjoy the fact that most people can't have what they have. It helps them better define their place in the world: at the top.
Nobody is saying the privileged 1 percent doesn't belong at the Occupy Wall Street protests. In fact, seeing plutocrats standing shoulder-to-shoulder with homeless people in the fight against inequality makes the movement even more accessible and powerful than it already is. What OWS doesn't need is everyone who'd like to be seen as a populist jumping onboard for a photo opportunity before leaving to go buy $500 jeans. Lip service and deceit is what got us into this mess in the first place.