The Cognitive Dissonance of Kanye West

Analyzing Kanye West's career with insight into the future.

American hip-hop mogul Kanye West has built a polarizing career that expands from music and media to fashion and everything in between. Since he made his debut back in 2005, West has become one of the world’s most influential figures for his undeniable creativity and outspoken beliefs. Although controversial, Kanye has repeatedly proved his popularity and influence among both fans and critics. However, this year West has been met with anger and confusion causing a huge divide among devotees over his recent relationship with US President Donald Trump and unfavorable political views. In true Kanye West fashion, everything he does has substance but this time around, he failed miserably at his delivery. His recent rhetoric and use of semiotics to support “free-thought” pushed a cognitive dissonance that the public met with both anger and confusion. Choosing an alternative medium to relay his message and better use of symbols and dissonance would have improved Kanye West’s general message of “free-thought” among the general public. 

A Look At Kanye’s Expertise

Kanye West has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not believe in modesty. “I’m Picasso. I’m Walt Disney. I’m Steve Jobs. I am God,” he explained in a recent BBC1 interview (West, 2013). He is aware of his impact on the music industry and demands full attention for his craft; one that has granted the artist 21 Grammy Awards and an honorary Ph.D. from the Art Institute of Chicago among other notable accolades. While his biggest hits are dance-floor fillers like “Good Life,” and “Gold Digger,” Kanye West has a long history of tackling social issues through his music with tracks like the religious “Jesus Walks,” the self-addressing, communalistic “All Falls Down,” and “Diamonds from Sierra Leonne,” which explores “blood diamonds” or goods that are mined during war in order finance an invading army. “The fact that he’s anti-war, highly values education, and opposes our country’s glorification of violence makes him more favorable in the eyes of many” (Faruqi, 2015). He doesn’t constrain his political perspectives solely through music.s.  In 2005, Kanye West famously stated that then US president George W Bush “doesn’t care about black people” during a live broadcast to raise funds for Hurricane Katrina relief -a moment that Bush credits as the “worst in his presidency”. West has never been one to shy from controversial issues; a quality that the media appreciate even further, he understands the phrase, “bad publicity is better than no publicity,” developing a transactional relationship with the mass media. “He forces the media to keep him relevant by the outlandish rhetoric he spouts in [media],” (Hall, 2016).  

What Makes Kanye West So Influential?

Kanye West uses artistic proofs to enrich his rhetoric. “There are three kinds of artistic proofs: logical, ethical and emotional. Logical proof comes from the line of argument in speech, an ethical proof is the way the speaker’s character is revealed through the message, and an emotional proof is the feeling the speech draws out of the hearers” (Griffin, Ledbetter & Sparks, 2015, pg. 290). Most of Kanye’s rhetoric uses a combination of all three allowing him to effectively communicate, connect and persuade his audience. Revisiting his famous George W Bush enthymeme, Kanye cited Bush’s delayed response to the victims of Hurrican Katrina revealing his connection and disapproval of the neglect that followed the Hurricane in New Orleans. Kanye’s history of perceived intelligence, his virtuous character and the goodwill of the people build his credibility. Of course, the tragic event strikes responsive chords of fear and indignation with viewers. With a history of effective rhetoric, where did Kanye West go wrong in his promotions of “free-thought”?  

Cognitive Dissonance

In 2016 Kanye West surprised concertgoers when he went on a 25-minute rant discussing political views and his support for then president-elect Trump. “[Voting for Trump] don’t mean that I don’t think that black lives matter; that don’t mean I don’t believe in women’s rights; that don’t mean that I don’t believe in gay marriage, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in these things because that was the guy I would’ve voted for,” he said to the crowd (Kanye, 2016). The controversial rant was met with backlash and caused a divide among fans and critics. Moments after his rant, West would then cancel the rest of his tour to receive medical attention for stress and exhaustion. A few days later he would meet with Donald Trump which angered fans even more. “I wanted to meet with Trump today to discuss multicultural issues,” West began his now-deleted Twitter rant (Saponara & Penrose, 2018). Over the year the hip-hop mogul would align himself with Trump through interviews in promotion of “love” and “free-thought” despite the controversy it started. “A lot of people are not happy that he’s playing around with things that are very dangerous for the sake of promoting his own agenda -which is his album, and himself, and potentially his own political aspiration” (Darden, 2018). Leon Festinger’s cogitative dissonance theory explains the discord between behavior and beliefs: “It is the distressing mental state that people feel when they find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know or having opinions that do not fit with the other opinions they hold,” (Griffin, et al., 2015, pg. 217). Most fans reacted to Kanye’s new opinions with shock and anger because they couldn’t believe that their hero was opposing the social issues that he once used his platform to influence change through his support for President Trump. 

Kanye West and President Donald Trump

Another aspect of Kanye’s “free-thought” promotion run that caused backlash was the use of the controversial “Make America Great Again” hats. “There’s nothing more maddening than debating someone who doesn’t know history, doesn’t read books, and frames their myopia as virtue,” (Evans, 2018). While the slogan was used numerous times by previous political candidates and presidents, Trump made it iconic by using it as a marketing tool during his political campaign. “He started using the phrase as far back as 2011. It took on new meaning for Trump, however, in the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012. In both style and substance, Trump felt Romney failed to project a positive vision of American strength. Just six days after that election, Trump signed paperwork to trademark the phrase “Make America Great Again.” (Spodak, 2018). As the campaign progressed and Trump’s political views and beliefs emerged, the slogan’s meaning would evolve representing something different to both his supporters and critics. “The hats are a physical connection between Trump and many of his rural and working-class supporters, but they also continue to be a target for anti-Trump sentiment, from the many parodies of the hat, to protesters burning one at the inauguration” (Spodak, 2018). Roland Barthes semiotics explores the social production of meaning from sign systems or the analysis of anything that can stand for something else. “Barthes claimed that every ideological sign is the result of two interconnected sign systems. The first system represented by the smaller coin is strictly descriptive – the signifier image and signified concept combining to produce a denotative sign (Griffin, et al., 2015, pg. 332). While the symbolic sign started as a mere slogan it evolved to “Make America Great Again – along with Trump and all of his political and social beliefs”. “The [the MAGA hats] brought some divisiveness. They made a great divide between Democrats and Republicans (Spodak, 2018). When Kanye West put on the MAGA hat, his previous beliefs regarding politics and society would be overshadowed by a symbol of support for President Trump and all his beliefs.  

Free Thought?

If Kanye’s actions were intended to promote love and “free-thought”, why was there so much backlash and division towards his latest rhetoric? According to Marshall McLuhan’s Theory of Technology Determinism, “the medium is the message” (Griffin, et al., 2015, pg. 321). With that said, Kanye’s positive message regarding “free-thought” and love became one with the cultural industry, so his intentions were overshadowed through discursive formation or the process when natural interpretations become ideologies. In addition to using a better medium, West could have used minimal justification for action to influence a shift in attitude. According to Leon Festinger’s minimal justification hypothesis, “the best way to stimulate an attitude change in others is to offer just enough incentive to elicit counter attitudinal behavior” (Griffin, et al., 2015, pg. 22). Finally, with President Trump’s rhetoric being so controversial, he could have used another context to promote “free-thought” and love. 

“My eyes are now wide open and now realize I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in,” West tweeted on Tuesday night. “I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative” (West, 2018). The news comes shortly after the rapper’s sales decline and business colleagues’ distance themselves from the rapper. In an attempt to distance himself from the rhetoric of Trump, he finally shared his political views and beliefs. 

“I support creating jobs and opportunities for people who need them the most. I support prison reform, I support common-sense gun laws that will make our world safer … I support those who risk their lives to serve and protect us and I support holding people who misuse their power accountable. I believe in love and compassion for people seeking asylum and parents who are fighting to protect their children from violence and war” (West, 2018).


Concurrently, we’ve seen the impact that ineffective communication can have. Using opposing rhetoric and a connotative sign system, Kanye’s message of “free-thought” and love was overshadowed by cognitive dissonance and cultural industries. Choosing an effective medium to relay his message and effective use of symbols and dissonance would have improved Kanye West’s general message of “free-thought” among the general public. Most recently, Ye teased a new song titled “We’ll Find A Way” via the second “Sunday Service” event. Kanye West’s forthcoming ninth studio album Yahndi is due for release later this year. Will you be listening? Sound off in the comments below!

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