There are quite a few plausible theories for why Kanye West tweeted “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” last night. One might be that during a late night in the studio working on an album scheduled to be released in less than 48 hours, he decided to procrastinate and grab some publicity by tweeting out the most trollish thing possible (closely preceded and followed by more banal missives about sneakers and Michael Jordan). Another might be that he’d seen the news that a judge had dismissed Janice Dickinson’s defamation suit against Cosby’s ex-lawyer and mistook that small victory for the Cosby camp for a larger one. Or maybe he wanted to remind people of America’s innocent-till-proven-guilty paradigm, as if the entirety of the Cosby conversation in the past two years hasn’t already engaged directly with it. Or maybe he really believes Cosby is innocent, despite, as Sarah Silverman put it, the testimony of around 50 women with nothing to gain due to the statute of limitations on rape.
In any case, what a nice moment to think about the difference between art, artist, and audience.
Kanye fans don’t need to defend Kanye West on this. Everyone has their right to an opinion, and it’s worth remembering that the suspicion that Cosby’s being framed may stem from the true and painful history of black men unfairly convicted in courts of law and public. But the evidence is so overwhelming in this particular situation that it seems straightforwardly irresponsible to proclaim Cosby’s innocence in ALL CAPS and with 10 exclamation points to 18.5 million followers with no further explanation. Doing so means calling a lot of women liars. It means attempting to further shift the benefit of the doubt in the wrong direction in a society where sexual assault and rape is a widespread and documented problem.
For anyone who doesn’t care for his music, a tweet like this is easy to process. Kanye says a lot of ridiculous stuff; file this with all of that. But for people who do love much of his work, it’s something else. Kanye fans have grown accustomed to sorting through the rapper’s many eccentric public statements, often coming to believe that those statements actually contain a lot of wisdom—or at least reflect the thought process of a fascinating person. I’ve done this, a lot. It can be worthwhile to do so. The same talent that feeds his music also shapes his public persona, and listening to what he has to say can contribute to a better understanding of the subject Kanye’s talking about—celebrity culture, rap, racial politics, fashion—whether you end up agreeing with him or not.
But the truth is that listening to Kanye the celebrity is only ever an extra-curricular activity for people who listen to Kanye the musician. The same principle applies to all sorts of followers of all sorts of artists. Art is art because it expresses things that mere words or actions can’t. Kanye’s songs, as outrageous as they often can be, achieve this: No Kanye speech is as well-crafted or memorable as “Through the Wire” or “Runaway” or “No More Parties in L.A.” Perhaps Cosby’s supposed innocence will turn out to be a major focus of his new album T.L.O.P., in which case that would become a factor in how listeners evaluate his art (at the very least, it doesn’t seem like a topic that would make for very enjoyable listening). But until that eventuality, a tweet like this stands as a reminder of why there’s a difference between appreciating someone for what they make versus for who they are.
The question of how to treat excellent entertainers who are controversial in their personal lives will always be open to debate. Each listener or viewer draws their line in different places, as it should be. Each celebrity invites criticism when they do something stupid or cruel, as it should be, and as it is now for Kanye. But in the macro sense, history has shown that the offenses of an artist have to be quite extreme for large legions of genuine fans to remove them from their playlists, watch lists, or bookshelves.
Cosby’s case, in which longstanding rape accusations only began to take a toll on his legacy once dozens of accusers revealed their names and faces (and other celebrities began speaking out), is perhaps the best example of just how extreme the situation must get for an artist’s entire body of work to be undermined. And even after all of that, even after public opinion has turned, someone like Cosby will still have diehard defenders. As we’ve just seen.