With less than a month to go before the 2018 midterms, music’s biggest names are weighing in, and it’s not just the usual suspects. Yes, National Voter Registration Day brought out civic regulars from John Legend to Katy Perry. But this week, Taylor Swift made her first political foray, meaningfully endorsing two Tennessee Democrats. And tomorrow, Kanye West is set to dine with Donald Trump at the White House.
West, an ardent opponent of previous Republican administrations, has turned into one of Trump’s most vocal supporters. The reversal comes in the midst of the most erratic period of the superstar’s career: Over the past two years, he’s canceled half of a tour, been hospitalized, earned $27.5 million, claimed slavery was “a choice” and taken to sporting a red Make America Great Again cap.
One person surprisingly well-equipped to make sense of it all: fellow rap star and veteran hip-hop cash king Clifford “T.I.” Harris.
The Atlanta emcee appeared alongside West on “Ye vs. The People,” a track that debuted in May and featured the two rappers debating their disparate political beliefs ahead of Kanye’s album Ye. Although the song didn’t make it onto the record, it did give West his first entry on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart as a lead artist since 2016 — and for T.I., its very existence served as something of a shock on multiple levels.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” T.I. told Forbes in an interview in which topics ranged from his new reality show to West’s latest antics. “It all came about … haphazardly.”
This past spring, T.I. encountered West in a hotel lobby. The two rappers had known each other for some 15 years, and T.I. remembered West as an ambitious youngster who had laid out his career plans and subsequently managed to accomplish “92% of that,” according to T.I.
And so, after their latest meeting, they exchanged phone numbers. T.I. suggested they work together, and West scheduled a time. In the intervening 48 hours, though, West unleashed an epic tweetstorm in which he declared his love for Trump, called him his brother and praised his “dragon energy” (many of the tweets have since been deleted but can be found here).
“I was like: ‘Man, I can’t just go in here and talk about music. I can’t just go in here and do a song and shut up. … I have a civic duty,’” T.I. explains. “So we sat down, and after we had the tour [of the studio], he sat us down, and he said, ‘OK, so I have some things I could play you.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I would love to hear them, but first let me speak to you.’”
They stepped outside the recording booth, and T.I. asked West to explain the motivation behind his support of Trump. West insisted he was just acting as a free thinker. When T.I. pushed him for an answer on what he really meant by that, they ended up talking for several hours. T.I. asked the question he says he asks all Trump supporters: Make America Great Again — like when?
“His thing is the boom of the industrial era,” recalls T.I. “I’m like: ‘Bro, you know you’re black, right? You know what we were doing during the boom of the industrial era?’”
Then West launched into a monologue on his respect for entrepreneurs like Henry Ford and Walt Disney. When T.I. suggested that neither would be interested in working with someone who looked like him, and pushed West on issues like Trump’s travel ban (to which West reportedly replied, “What’s the travel ban?”), the conversation continued for two more hours before veering back into music.
West suggested rehashing their conversation over a beat and recording it. Before they started, T.I. asked West if he really wanted to do that, given how his message might upset many fans.
“‘Do you know how this hurts these people?’” T.I. remembers asking. “And he stopped in his tracks and [said], ‘I hurt people just by having my own opinion?’ … I said, ‘Well, yeah, if your opinion is in support of someone who is directly against them, and it’s kind of like you are supporting the enemy.’ And he was like, ‘I just wanna love.’ [And I said], ‘See, but you can’t love somebody who don’t love nobody.’ … The song was just really a recap, like the highlights of the conversation.”
West and T.I. laid down their track in about 30 minutes, going back and forth until they had created a song. In “Ye vs. The People,” West argues that he’s trying to bring about something like a “gang truce” between two sides of a divided America. T.I. calls West selfish and accuses him of supporting white supremacists, insinuating that he’s on Trump’s payroll and that he’ll ultimately have to answer to God.
T.I. left the session feeling satisfied that he’d at least made his point — and the points that many others would have liked West to hear. He figured that West wouldn’t release the track but that perhaps the underlying arguments might have an impact on him in the long term.
“I was just really getting a message across to him,” says T.I. “I’m telling him all the things that I know people would want him to know. That was my sheer intention. How many people heard it, how many records are sold, whether it made the album, whether we shot a video, I had not considered any of this. I just wanted to get a message across to him.”
Much to T.I.’s surprise, West released the song 24 hours later, and it debutedat No. 85 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the chart dated May 12. In its first week, the track racked up 12,000 downloads and 7.4 million streams in the U.S. while drawing millions more listeners via terrestrial radio.
All of this brings us to West’s imminent meeting with Trump (a representative for the rapper did not reply to a request for comment). Indeed, it’s a bit absurd that one of the only people willing and able to share some insight regarding the president of the United States’ next high-profile appointment is T.I. But, as the world has learned, it would also be a mistake to dismiss an entertainer’s ramblings — especially one with stated White House ambitions.
“He’s absolutely serious about running for president,” T.I. says, noting that West plans to wait until after a potential second Trump term. “Yes, 2024.”