Ye (a.k.a. Kanye) West is at it again—stirring up a frenzy of controversy using provocative racial antics. West’s latest act of deviance comes as a fashion statement: he donned a shirt with the phrase “White Lives Matter” emblazoned on the back, along with the always contentious Candace Owens, during fashion week in Paris. The act sent Black Twitter into a craze.
As with any cultural controversy, there’s something Christians can add to and learn from the Ye dissension about intentions and communication. The communicator and the context must be taken into consideration if we desire to speak the truth to our culture.
As previously noted, this is not Mr. West’s first racial dispute. His first controversy happened in 2005 when he called out President George W. Bush for his lack of organizational efforts to help citizens in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people“).
In recent years, West stoked divisions around his approval of the most divisive President of modern history. But it wasn’t just Ye’s approval of Donald Trump that ruffled feathers—it was his insistence that 400 years of chattel slavery was a choice by African Americans. He tried to clarify what he said, claiming a reference to mental bondage. But after the dismissiveness of the original statement, his attempts to clarify fell on deaf ears in the culture.
Since then, the rapper/artist/producer has released and produced albums that brought many casual fans and listeners back. After “canceling” Kanye, many were ready to give him a second chance. Albums like Jesus is Lord, Donda, and Donda 2 conveyed lyrics that essentially made it seem like the old West was back. He sounded like he was developing a clear frame of reference to once again uplift people of his culture.
That all changed with the “White Lives Matter” shirt hysteria. West’s decision to wear the shirt next to Candace Owens only added insult to injury. Many know Owens for her provocatively bigoted opinions that lack compassion or serious thought (like when she denigrated George Floyd because of his marred past). So West’s choice to pose with a person of Owens’ disposition, with that statement on full display, is troubling.
And what of the statement itself? The phrase “White Lives Matter” is meant as a vitriolic repudiation to the Black Lives Matter movement. More than that, it is a hate slogan used by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, Vogue Magazine’s global fashion editor-at-large, called the show “deeply offensive, violent, and dangerous.” She believed that Ye “was trying to illustrate a dystopian world in the future when whiteness might become extinct or at least would be in enough danger to demand defense”—but, she added, “It didn’t land.” Kanye responded by criticizing Karefa-Johnson, insisting she knew nothing about fashion. (The two later met and discussed the matter for about two hours, according to West.)
Suppose, like Karefa-Johnson, we give Ye the benefit of the doubt for a minute and assume his message was supposed to be benign. Why didn’t that message “land”? Let’s go back to the factors I was talking about earlier: the communicator and the context. At a moment when white supremacist ideals are carrying the centuries-old threats of backlash and violence, the message West might have intended to send was not the one received nor immediately understood by most people. And it has nothing to do with being a part of a “hive mind” as the iconic Lauryn Hill’s daughter, Selah Marley, suggested (Marley was also in attire supporting Ye’s show and message).
To be clear and helpful, messages need to deal in facts and the consequences of history—two things Ye is willfully and utterly unconcerned about. Ye doesn’t believe in reading books or gathering outside information to inform his views. He maintains that his mind and perspective are adequate tools to advise him about anything. Also, when anyone tries to correct him where correction is merited, he disregards them as assailants attempting to quell his free thought and speech. This kind of behavior is not only irresponsible, but it is also dangerous. And it is for this reason he is the exact wrong person to try expressing the message he thought he was communicating.
And here is where Christians can learn a lesson about effective communication. Most Christians intend to see our neighbors surrender their lives to Christ, and to see them flourish and be well. I’ve spoken many times in my early days as a believer with these intentions in mind. However, what I communicated was different from my intentions. What I voiced and how I did so often left a trail of pain, anger, and hurt.
But it doesn’t have to be this way if we lean into a spirit of humility and kindness.
First, understand who you are. Just because we might get inspired by some spiritual insight or epiphany doesn’t mean we are to be the messenger of these truths initially. You may be the one with the log in your own eye trying to take the speck out of everyone else’s (Matthew 7:5). At times, it may be wiser to consult someone else with more wisdom than you on a matter before trying to tell the world about it (Ecclesiastes 3:7).
Second, consider the cultural and emotional context for what you want to convey. The timing might be wrong (Ecclesiastes 3:1). There’s a reason James encouraged believers to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19).
This is exactly why Paul rebuked men who wanted “to be teachers of the law,” but didn’t know what they were talking about (1 Timothy 1:7). It’s also why Job’s friends were unsuccessful in encouraging him at his lowest moment of life (Job 16:3).
Just because you have something to say doesn’t always mean you should say it. The timing may be wrong, you may lack all the necessary information to correctly comment, or you may just need to check your intentions. Are you just talking to hear yourself talk or for everyone to recognize how smart you are? When you open your mouth in these situations you may be confirming what others already knew about you (Proverbs 17:28; 18:7).
We are living in difficult times—what many Christians believe are “the last times,” to borrow a New Testament phrase. But this is nothing new. People are “self-absorbed, money-hungry, self-promoting, stuck-up, profane,” and so forth (read the rest of 2 Timothy 3:1–5 MSG), and they always have been. Everyone has an opinion about something that they feel compelled to share and make everyone respect (yes, including myself). The Kanye “White Lives Matter” scandal is another sign of the times.
But instead of trying to communicate a shocking or provocative message for clout—whatever our intentions are—we can speak the truth in love and wisdom. When we search God’s word, it is clear how we can go about communicating the changes we hope to see in our culture. “Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously” (Micah 6:8).
Kanye is wrong. Not because white lives don’t matter. Ye is wrong because he lacks wisdom, humility, and compassion. Christians would be wise to remember that these are fundamental characteristics of those who pursue the spirit of Christ when attempting to convey truth to our culture.