A$AP Rocky, Donald Trump, and the Social Currency of Celebrity
Fame is a currency that buys insulation from accountability. Few know that better than President Trump, who continues to opportunistically align with other celebrities.
A$AP Rocky is currently a free man while awaiting a verdict on assault charges in Sweden. The Harlem rapper was arrested and incarcerated in July after an incident in which he fought a Swedish citizen who he filmed chasing and antagonizing him. Many fans felt that A$AP was merely defending himself and demanded #JusticeForRocky. But others refuse to empathize with him because of callous 2015 statements he made in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and their fight to end state-sanctioned violence against Black people.
While his comments were shortsighted and inconsiderate, there aren’t many Black people, or people period, who can relate to Rocky’s access. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian called President Donald Trump on his behalf, asking for him to intervene in Rocky’s case. Since calling Sweden, Trump has tweeted about the case multiple times, claiming that Sweden has “let the African-American community down.” He also celebrated Rocky’s freedom by joking that the rapper had “a Rocky week” while imploring him to “get home ASAP A$AP!”
While his Blackness may have made him a target for Swedish prosecutors, his fame has granted him a best-case scenario out of jail. Rocky’s detractors believed that the artist’s arrest and incarceration would be his “wake up call” moment, but it may not be that simple. Celebrity is a privilege that buys insulation from accountability, grants freedom to the famous, and enables their plays for power— it’s a corrupt currency that not many have access to.
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In recent years, adoring fans have defended their favorite stars despite their transgressions— assaulting women, abusing children, ridiculing Black liberation movements, encouraging their fans to threaten journalists and enemies, and a host of other disheartening deeds. Despite numerous sexual assault accusations of his own, Trump became a viable presidential candidate because the media sought to cash in on the spectacle of a reality TV star running for office. He then used his knack for cultivating sensationalism to hone in on galvanizing a base of white nationalists who are now committing domestic terrorism all over the country. If Trump hadn’t marketed his name into a brand synonymous with wealth and power, he likely wouldn’t have had the profile or media interest, to stand a chance against legitimate politicians during the 2016 Republican race.
But now he’s the president. And instead of addressing climate change, or unemployment, or domestic terrorism, which claimed 31 more lives over the past weekend, he’s on Twitter pandering to “the African-Americans” and making puns about A$AP Rocky that he knows will cause an uproar and temporarily shift attention from his Administration’s corruptive failings.
For the second straight summer, Trump is attempting to win favor with Black male voters by aligning with a Black male entertainer. Last July, before the crucial midterm elections, Donald Trump invited Kanye West to a meeting at the oval office to give Yeezy the attention and validation he desperately sought. Trump also granted clemency to 63-year-old Alice Marie Johnson on Kim Kardashian-West’s request. He gave Kanye a platform and helped Kim legitimize her pivot into criminal justice reform advocacy. In exchange, their cosign earned him access to their devoted fanbase.
Few of Trump’s decisions have anything to do with empathy for the lives his decisions affect. The Hollywood veteran knows that splashy moves like meeting Kanye, acquiescing to Kim Kardashian’s clemency requests, and intervening in Rocky’s case are mere opportunities for good PR. The wealthy Queens, New York native has little in common with his base of poor, rural citizens. He merely surmised, like a calculating TV producer, that they would be easiest to engage by sensationally playing to their bigoted fears of no longer being the majority in America. Instead of his wealth painting him as just another capitalist, his supporters believed that he was a rogue billionaire who would “drain the swamp” as he promised.
While it’s easy to bemoan the depths that Trump has since sunk to, perhaps 2019 deserves a President who navigates his office like a rapper seeking features with other artists to court their fanbase. Western society has a confounding relationship with stardom. While most can acknowledge that teachers, doctors, and firefighters are needed more than any entertainer, few people in those public service positions will ever affect massive swathes at once like celebrities. Hip-hop fans are currently fighting tooth and nail to advocate for their favorite rappers on top 50 lists, while simultaneously noting it’s a pointless exploit. Celebrity has become so ubiquitous that discussing them and their lives is a shared pastime among people too enthralled to ever stop.
The bond between celebrities and fans can best be described as a parasocial relationship, where one is exposed to a person they don’t know so often that they feel they actually have a relationship with them. In parasocial relationships, studies show that viewers experience a connection with the media user and tend to express feelings of affection, gratitude, longing, encouragement, and loyalty towards them. That sense of attachment can make it difficult for fans to divorce themselves from problematic artists. It’s why so many of Trump’s supporters continue to support him even after he has yet to make good on many of his campaign promises.
Along with a deluded sense of intimacy, capitalism has conditioned the American public to idealize an affluent lifestyle and feel inferior if they can’t attain it. Consumerism conditions us to covet the biggest, rarest, and newest trinkets of excess, which rolls into deifying the celebrities who can easily attain them. That chase for external validation has warped our collective moral compass and influenced the masses to grant celebrities not just the power to ply their trade or be symbols of cool, but be armchair political analysts, spiritual leaders, life coaches, and dieticians even if there’s no indication that their opinions have any merit.
The popular adage is “if it ain’t about the money, it ain’t about nothing.” So, in fans’ eyes, if stars have money, they must know something. Their alignment with other brands or figures become validation to devotees who hang on their every word and follow their cues. That mimicry has extended beyond apparel and liquor and into worldviews, social causes, and political affiliations. That social currency is ripe to be exploited by politicians like Trump, who himself became famous by attaching his name to products and hasn’t stopped.
While part of the hip-hop world is still gleefully fixated on Trump tweeting about a “Rocky week,” there were two more mass shootings over the weekend. CBS reports that Connor Betts, who killed nine and wounded 27 at a bar in Dayton Ohio, “had a history of obsession with mass shootings.” His shooting came just hours after 21-year-old Patrick Cruisius killed 22 people at an El Paso Walmart. El Paso police believe that Cruisius was specifically targeting Latinx people, in the latest instance of hate crimes that have seemingly ramped up since the president’s election.
Trump won part of his base by calling Mexican people “rapists” and promising to build a wall to keep them out of the country. That xenophobia stirred white nationalists and neo-Nazis who have been responsible for many of the 20 mass shootings since Trump took office in January 2017. The bare reality is that the President of the United States of America has invigorated terrorists to assault the country he presides over. And even still, there are Latinx people who refuse to condemn his complicity in the circumstances. Is he their “problematic fave?”
In order to shift the national discussion from the disastrous implications of acknowledging his complicity in domestic terrorism, Trump resorts to stunts like the one he pulled with A$AP Rocky, who likely had no problem cashing in his cachet if it meant freedom. Trump supporter Bruce Levell, who led Trump’s National Diversity Coalition in 2016, said that he thinks “black male voters, especially, will be a game-changer for President Trump’s reelection.” There’s no way for Trump to quantify how much aligning with rappers and other entertainers will sway a significant number of Black male voters in his favor. But he will continue to make headlines while trying to figure it out, pooling from the wealth of celebrity for more mutually beneficial transactions. There’s no telling which celebrity Trump will attach his name to next, but what remains clear is that, in this nation, fame trumps all.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.