It’s been quite a month for the rapper formerly known as Kanye West. After severing business ties with Gap in September, Ye went on to generate an almost endless series of ugly headlines: being lambasted for wearing a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt alongside conservative pundit Candace Owens, defending said shirt on Tucker Carlson’s show, telling Carlson a bunch of other stuff too revolting even for Fox News, playing porn videos for Adidas executives while attacking their company, endangering his biz partnership with the footwear juggernaut, insulting various celebrities, publicly posting antisemitic remarks that got him locked out of social media and “canceled” by JPMorgan Chase, and claiming that George Floyd died of drug abuse rather than police violence. (Floyd’s family has threatened to sue over the remarks; the podcast on which West said them may pull his episode.) Because it is another week, there is yet more news from Ye: On Monday, the far-right, “free speech”–themed social network Parler announced in a press release that West had agreed to purchase the platform, “using his far-reaching talents to further lead the fight to create a truly non-cancelable environment.”
No details of the sale are known; currently, this is just an “agreement in principle” between West and Parler’s parent company, Parlement Technologies. According to the release, “the parties intend to enter into a definitive purchase agreement and expect to close during the fourth quarter of 2022.” At that point, West would own Parler, which would receive “technical support” from Parlement and rely on its “private cloud and data center infrastructure.” The parent company says it will then focus on its other “Web3 and secure cloud services,” part of a broader push by right-wing social networks to build their own internet infrastructure. (Amazon Web Services banned Parler following the Capitol riot, citing insufficient content-moderation policies, though the app later registered with service provider Epik, which hosts far-right networks like Gab and Infowars.)
Given the parties involved, there’s good reason to be skeptical of this deal ever happening. But it’s not totally implausible. West’s net worth is estimated at $1.8 billion (much of it tied up in his Yeezy apparel company), so he might be able to afford the 4-year-old Parler, which has reportedly notched about $56 million in total investment. It isn’t hard to see how this came together. The CEO of Parlement is George Farmer, who is married to Candace Owens, and the company’s flagship product has been backed by right-wing heavyweights like GOP megadonor Rebekah Mercer and Babylon Bee CEO Seth Dillon. With its community of Trump fans and insurrectionists, explicit courtship of the former president, willingness to tolerate hateful speech, and reputation as a safe haven for far-right users aggrieved with Twitter and Big Tech writ large, Parler seems, at the very least, an ideal place for West to post. Indeed, Ye made an official account on Monday and has already racked up thousands of followers. Farmer himself told Fox Business that Parler “needs” West and his following in order to “expand” and “grow” its network.
That might be charitable. Parler has been going through it since Jan. 6, 2021, losing web hosts, app-store placements, and executive leaders due to documented proof of its users’ role in fomenting the Capitol insurrection. Even though it’s back online and available for mobile download, Parler is facing heightened competition: Trump supporters have gravitated to newer social media communities, including apps like Gettr (a similar Twitter clone) and the Peter Thiel–backed Rumble (a YouTube competitor), as safe spaces against what they view as censorship from Big Tech brands. Then there’s Trump himself: While his wife seems to dig Parler, the big man prefers his own social platform, Truth Social (which is facing its own struggles). For such reasons, Parler has a much weakened presence now compared with its pre-2021 era, when it could claim a multimillion-strong consumer base. According to CNN Business, Parler now only commands about 40,000 active daily users, far behind its ideologically similar brethren—like Gab, an extremely racist social network that gained plenty of Parler users after the latter was booted off the web.
So Parler’s chief executive is right that his platform “needs” a benefactor like West. Ye retains millions of fans in spite of his Trump-era controversies, many of which have been partly attributed to his bipolar-disorder diagnosis. All he needs, after being banned by Twitter and Instagram for his antisemitic missives, is a platform.
This would illustrate a lot about the Kanye brand. The rapper’s career has been defined as much by his public presence and branding as by his music: his popular G.O.O.D. Music record label with Def Jam Records, collabs with high-fashion brands like Louis Vuitton and A.P.C., and multiple Fashion Week collection showcases (earning mixed reviews along the way). West’s most significant nonmusic impact has been in the sneakers industry—his unorthodox designs, heavy self-branding, staggering auction values, and limited-edition stunts expanded the sector’s consumer base beyond athletes and niche enthusiasts, forever changing how celebrity-customized shoes were marketed and sold. Adidas estimates that its partnership with West’s Yeezy brand nets about 10 percent of its annual revenue.
Yet for all the undeniable successes, there are heaps of unrealized proposals and failures. Ye’s first planned fashion line, Pastelle, was announced with much hype in 2008 but never came to pass. West announced a creative company called Donda, named for his mother, about 10 years ago. Despite consistent previews of various Donda-branded enterprises like home gadgets, flying cars, low-income housing, and even sports, nothing tangible has actually materialized. (Yes, Ye founded a school called Donda Academy, but it is not accredited, and no, his Donda-branded nonprofit isn’t doing so great.)
Meanwhile, West’s existing investments are flagging just a bit. Like many, many American small businesses, the pandemic was rough on the Yeezy brand, which took out a multimillion-dollar loan through the government’s Paycheck Protection Program. And his lucrative partnerships aren’t handling his reactionary turn so well. The Gap’s Yeezy collab, announced around the time of the PPP loan, is done for; Adidas is looking for the exits; Chase is no longer underwriting Yeezy LLC. (According to the Los Angeles Times, the bank’s decision preceded West’s antisemitic remarks.) Other partners are no longer humoring West. The 2022 Grammys canceled his scheduled performance due to his consistent harassment of his ex-wife, Kim Kardashian, and her then-boyfriend, Pete Davidson; he also pulled out of planned festival sets this year at Coachella and Rolling Loud. Kanye’s contractual obligations with Def Jam are finished, leaving it uncertain which label will release his next musical project. Longtime friend LeBron James invited West to come on his chat show, The Shop, but then didn’t air the episode after the artist used it as another platform for his hate speech.
All of which is to say: Kanye West is in a very different spot, in terms of his cultural and business presence, than when he first rocked the pink polo. He’s lost a lot of collaborators thanks to his public misbehavior, he has an established record of biz announcements that fizzled out, his most high-profile investments are either shrouded in controversy or flailing, and he’s further and further distancing himself from the mainstream that once so worshipped him. Perhaps he’s fully made a new home for himself in the right-wing mediasphere; after all, many of its key figures have embraced him, and Republican donors were more than happy to support his bizarre 2020 presidential run.
And now, right-wing social media executives are happy to take his money and share in what remains of his glow. The whole thing parallels the saga of Twitter and Elon Musk, just with far more outrageous stunts and lower stakes. In other words, it is a classic Kanye deal.