After one of the ugliest months of his career, Kanye West’s long list of business partners again face a choice — stick with him, knowing at any moment he could launch into a hateful tirade against anyone from his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s new boyfriend to Jewish people at large — or finally cut ties with the music superstar.
The rapper, 45, who now goes by Ye, has teamed up with some of the biggest global firms in music, fashion and technology over his career — Apple, Adidas, Def Jam, CAA and the Gap among them. Even after years of flirting with extreme right-wing politics, including endorsing and meeting with former President Trump, he remained an in-demand collaborator.
In the past, Ye’s outbursts were often excused, in part, because of his struggle with bipolar disorder. But his recent actions have become more impossible to defend or overlook, and some brands like Adidas have begun to pull away.
“This isn’t the Will Smith slap,” said Travis Knox, an associate professor at Chapman University. “His comments are so racist, so antisemitic, he’s not going to get over it quickly. There’s no way.”
In just this last year, West’s wife Kim Kardashian filed for divorce, prompting West to publicly lash out against her and her family. West threatened her then-boyfriend Pete Davidson (including a mock murder in the music video for “Eazy”), and the Grammys, citing “concerning online behavior,” canceled his planned performance during the April ceremony. Kid Cudi, his longtime friend and collaborator, also cut ties with West this year, saying “It’s gonna take a … miracle for me and that man to be friends again.”
This last week, West’s behavior fully unraveled. At his YZY runway show during Paris Fashion Week, he posed next to far-right political commentator Candace Owens wearing a “White Lives Matter” shirt (a slogan popularized by fascist and neo-Nazi groups). After facing wide criticism, he posted that he’s going to “Go death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE,” which prompted Instagram and later Twitter to pull the plug on his accounts. He then went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, made further antisemitic remarks and claimed conspiracies around the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, among other falsehoods. And in un-aired footage, he said that someone had planted “fake children” in his home “to sexualize my kids.”
Adidas, which produces his popular Yeezy shoe line, said in a statement last week that in light of his recent outbursts, “After repeated efforts to privately resolve the situation, we have taken the decision to place the partnership under review.”
West responded on Instagram, writing “F— ADIDAS I AM ADIDAS ADIDAS RAPED AND STOLE MY DESIGNS.”
To be sure, West remains a considerable force in pop music. Every album except his debut, 2004’s “The College Dropout,” has topped the Billboard 200, including 2021’s “Donda,” which received a Grammy album of the year nomination. In the run-up to “Donda,” he held public “listening parties” at football stadiums in Atlanta and Chicago that were livestreamed on Apple Music (he was roundly criticized for bringing out special guests DaBaby and Marilyn Manson, who are each under scrutiny for bigoted language or alleged abuses). His sold-out December show with Drake at the L.A. Coliseum affirmed he’s still a formidable concert draw, one of few hip-hop acts who can credibly headline major global festivals.
But his A-list status as a live act may be teetering. He canceled headline gigs at two festivals this year — the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival and Rolling Loud Miami — at the last minute, leaving promoters just days to secure a new top act.
Tariq Cherif, Rolling Loud’s co-founder, told The Times in August that “we’d never had a headliner pull out until Kanye did, and we don’t take that lightly. The platform we built deserves respect, and we didn’t like it. We understood he wasn’t prepared to perform in a headline capacity, so we had to respect it and find a replacement. It’s unfortunate, and we did the best we could.”
CAA, which currently represents West with regard to touring, declined to comment on its current relationship with the artist. Nicholas Gravante, West’s lawyer, did not return requests for comment about their current working relationship. Representatives for AEG Presents, Coachella’s parent company, and Live Nation declined to comment about West.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear who will release West’s next album. A source familiar with his deal with longtime label Def Jam said that he has fulfilled the terms of his recording contract, leaving him a free agent. Despite his string of 10 consecutive No. 1 albums, it’s uncertain whether a major recording company, some of which are publicly traded, would take on the baggage that West brings. (West could, of course, choose to release future albums without the backing of a traditional record company, as he did with February’s “Donda 2,” which was only available tethered to his own $200 Stem streaming device.)
Meanwhile, leading streaming service Spotify, which temporarily stopped promoting country star Morgan Wallen after he was caught on video in February 2021 using the N-word, is still featuring West’s music on a number of its in-house playlists. Spotify representatives did not return requests for comment.
Other top entertainers have rebounded from public transgressions recently. Wallen has returned to sold-out arenas and televised honors from the Academy of Country Music after using a racist slur. Mel Gibson is directing and acting in major films after years of racist, homophobic and antisemitic rants. Brad Pitt’s career has not yet suffered after ex-wife Angelina Jolie accused him of choking their child on a flight. After winning an ugly defamation suit against ex-wife Amber Heard, Johnny Depp emerged arguably more popular, in some circles, than before.
West still has some outlaw cachet in the high fashion world. At Paris Fashion Week, industry luminaries including Anna Wintour, John Galliano, Balenciaga designer (and West collaborator) Demna Gvasalia and Tiffany & Co.‘s Alexandre Arnault (son of the LVMH chief Bernard Arnault) all attended his Oct. 3 runway event, where he wore the “White Lives Matter” shirts. As Galliano himself proved with his own antisemitic outburst and comeback in 2011, the fashion industry will let you return to work if it believes in your talent and commercial viability.
It’s unclear who is currently backing his fashion line, but West said, “We’re starting our own house tonight” at the Paris show. Later, he told Women’s Wear Daily: “Why would I do a deal? I run the culture. … That’s what happens when you go independent, you can’t lean on those big companies to give your vision.”
In September, West ended his collaboration with clothing retailer the Gap, citing distribution and retail issues. “Yeezy notified Gap of its concerns in August and gave the company a contractually designated 30 days to cure its breaches,” Gravante said to CNBC at the time. Gap Chief Executive Mark Breitbard wrote in a company memo, “While we share a vision of bringing high-quality, trend-forward, utilitarian design to all people through unique omni experiences with Yeezy Gap, how we work together to deliver this vision is not aligned.”
Big brands recognize that creative minds like Ye’s can sometimes be unpredictable or problematic. But companies will struggle to justify partnering with him again after his recent outbursts, according to Americus Reed, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“This kind of thing is the death knell for celebrity sponsorship,” Reed said. “Celebrities aren’t paid to speak their mind, they’re paid to uphold the brand and they’re paid not to compromise the brand.”
That’s true even for media brands that might have wanted to hear him out, or at least document his recent volatility. Andscape reported that Ye’s recent appearance on “The Shop: Uninterrupted” which moved to YouTube this year after running on HBO, was pulled, citing the CEO of the company producing the series, SpringHill’s Maverick Carter.
Carter told Andscape: “I believed he was capable of a respectful discussion and he was ready to address all his recent comments. Unfortunately, he used ‘The Shop’ to reiterate more hate speech and extremely dangerous stereotypes. We have made the decision not to air this episode or any of Kanye’s remarks.”
Even right-wing flamethrower Carlson had to edit out irrational ramblings from West’s two-part appearance on his show. Vice published leaked footage in which West claimed that Planned Parenthood was founded “to control the Jew population. … When I say Jew, I mean the 12 lost tribes of Judah, the blood of Christ, who the people known as the race Black really are. This is who our people are. The blood of Christ. This, as a Christian, is my belief.”
Some of the relationship breakdowns appear to have been provoked by the artist himself, well before his recent racist outbursts.
Last week, Owens tweeted that JPMorgan Chase had closed its banking relationship with Ye. The claim gained traction on right-wing media as evidence of West’s alleged “cancellation” by financial institutions.
“Earlier today I learned that @kanyewest was officially kicked out of JP Morgan Chase bank. I was told there was no official reason given, but they sent this letter as well to confirm that he has until late November to find another place for the Yeezy empire to bank,” Owens tweeted Thursday. She shared a screenshot of the letter.
A person with knowledge of the situation, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that the letter was dated Sept. 20, preceding this latest round of outbursts.
West is one of few artists who has the resources to open his own retail stores, self-release albums and book sold-out gigs. Last year, Forbes estimated his net worth at $1.8 billion, derived mostly from his sneaker deal with Adidas (despite West’s claim, Forbes said he’s not the richest Black man in America).
But whatever goodwill West may have maintained for his artistic vision and commercial prowess is now in real peril, Reed said.
“Once you start going off the rails, attacking the CEO and doing all kinds of extreme behavior,” Reed said, “you’re making yourself radioactive.”