Kanye West’s first presidential campaign rally was a disaster.
Taking place in Charleston, South Carolina, two weeks after Kanye declared he was running for president in the 2020 election, the rally was supposed to build support for the campaign and help get his name on the state’s ballot. But the event backfired for the Birthday Party candidate. Before walking offstage on Sunday, Kanye delivered long anti-abortion rants, received vocal pushback from the crowd, and made headlines by saying, “Harriet Tubman never actually freed the slaves.”
Backstage at the Exquis Event Center, the scene was disorganized and chaotic.
Harry Dinwiddie, a 42-year-old doctor from Charleston, showed up three hours early. Explaining that he was “bored on a Sunday” when he read about the event at a coffee shop that morning, he says he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to witness a spectacle in his own neighborhood. Soon, he would see firsthand just how little planning went into the event.
“Hey, I’m Harry,” he told the first person he met at the door. “How can I help?"
Upon entering, Dinwiddie noticed that no one seemed to be in charge. Sensing an opportunity to sneak backstage, he walked through the event space (which he describes as being in “a shitty strip mall”) and made his way to the greenroom. There, he started setting things up so it looked like he was a crew member and he wouldn’t get kicked out. Before long, volunteers and members of the security team were asking him what they should be doing.
“I gained everybody’s trust because I actually looked like I knew what I was doing,” he explains. “I looked like I was old enough and in charge. People started coming up to me and asking me, ‘Hey, what should we do? How would you do this?’ So I just started answering.”
Dinwiddie was given a VIP badge, and he spent the next two hours putting everything in place.
“They had no plan, so I was the one who was actually wrangling everything together,” he remembers. “I took police gates off the truck and moved them over to the speakers. I moved couches into the VIP room. I handled the volunteers and got them wristbands. I helped put together Kanye’s greenroom food table and everything. It even got to the point that the head of security came up to me and was like, ‘What is your plan for putting these gates in here?’ I really just kind of faked it until I made it.”
As the start time of the rally neared, Dinwiddie found himself in a room with Kanye’s attorney, a consultant, an assistant, and two owners of the event space.
“I actually asked the attorney, ‘Hey, is this campaign for real?’ And he was like, ‘Yes, this is legit,’” Dinwiddie says. “The biggest thing that they really cared about was collecting signatures for a petition to get Kanye on the ballot. They didn’t want anybody to enter if they didn't sign the petition.”
Despite Kanye’s large profile, the event didn’t draw a large crowd. Dinwiddie estimates the building held 1,200 people, but only around 200 showed up. “Even the attorney was kind of like, ‘Oh, shit, that’s not a huge turnout,’” he says.
Toni Fulton, a small-business owner from Charleston, was among those who gathered outside. “Because of COVID, I’ve been home a lot, pretty bored, and my sister saw that Kanye was coming down here,” she says. “I think her exact text was, ‘Let’s go see the circus.’”
Fulton describes the crowd as “very young” and “mostly sneakerheads,” and points out that the event was organized more like a club event than a typical political rally.
“People wanted a concert,” she remembers. “Everyone was like, ‘He better sing. He better rap. I want some music.’”
The majority of attendees wore masks as they waited in line, and everyone’s temperature was taken before they were allowed to go inside.
Back in the greenroom, Dinwiddie began hearing about plans for Kanye’s speech. “I overheard the attorney on the phone saying they had a script for Kanye, prepared and ready to go,” he says.
Then, right before Kanye arrived, whispers began circulating about a secret meeting that would take place any minute. “They actually wanted to kick me out of the VIP room and only allow certain people for a ‘policy meeting’ before Kanye went on stage,” Dinwiddie says. “They were, like, ‘We need to clear everybody except for the people who are going to be in Kanye’s policy meeting.’” He adds, “But that policy meeting never happened.”
Kanye entered the building shortly before 5 p.m., accompanied by a small team. “There were two really old white guys with white hair, an Asian woman in her late fifties, and a man in his early thirties wearing a suit,” Dinwiddie notes. “They all looked really, really out of place.”
Walking straight through the greenroom to the stage, Kanye decided to forgo reading from a script. As Dinwiddie remembers, “He also had a podium, but as soon as he walked on the stage, he told his security team to take the podium off.”
At first, the reception from the crowd was positive. Dinwiddie and Fulton each compare the energy to what you might expect at the beginning of a concert. Everyone cheered for Kanye when he appeared onstage.
“Almost immediately, without introduction, he wanted to have someone from the crowd join him onstage,” Fulton says. “It was like an open forum. Instead of telling us what he would do as president, he was basically asking, ‘Hey, what do you want out of the president?’”
Roughly 10 minutes into the rally, the crowd turned on Kanye when he said the line about how Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves.”
“He said it, and then there was just this gasp,” Dinwiddie recalls. “There were maybe seven seconds of silence. Then he started to talk again, but the crowd was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no.’ It took them a while to fully understand the idiocy of what he had just said. All of a sudden, everything went downhill very quickly. He lost the audience so quickly.
Fulton was standing near the front of the crowd, recording the moment on her phone. At the end of her video, which immediately went viral, she can be heard saying to her sister, “Yo, we’re leaving right now.”
“I don’t have the energy to be in a space that feels like it’s not connecting with me,” she tells Complex. “I went there to see what he had to say, but what he had to say was really offensive. John Lewis just died, and that really hurt a lot of people in our community. It feels like every time Kanye gets a chance to be in a room where he could say something impactful, he decides to do the opposite and tears down leaders in our community who are monumental. I mean, Harriet Tubman. You can’t do that. And if you want to do that, we have the right to say, ‘We’re not standing here. We don’t want to be here.’”
Fulton and her sister were the first to leave the event, but they weren’t the only ones in the crowd who were offended by Kanye’s words. For the rest of the rally, people in the audience weren’t afraid to challenge his political viewpoints. “These kids are not silly,” she says. “They’re not taking that crap anymore.”
For the rest of Kanye’s time onstage, the room became increasingly hostile. At one point, Kanye even asked for an audience member to be escorted from the building. Then, an hour after he first took the stage, Kanye left.
“He ran offstage, right to the greenroom,” Dinwiddie says. “He never even stopped. He went right outside, and I didn’t see anything else after that.”
Having witnessed the spectacle that he came to see, Dinwiddie left, too. “I wasn’t going to close things down. I wasn't going to break down all that shit. I was out of there.”
As he made his way out of the building, everyone on Kanye’s team still assumed Dinwiddie was there to help run the event in an official capacity. “His attorney thought I worked for the event still,” he says. “And because I recorded the whole thing on video, he came up to me and asked for an email so I could send them the link. His team was really bizarre.”
There was a general feeling of bemusement in the event space as everyone else filed out. “Lots of people were laughing,” he says. “Everybody was just kind of like, ‘All right. We saw it.’ It was entertaining, but nobody was moved. Nobody was inspired.”
Dinwiddie says he found the spectacle he came for, but otherwise failed to pull any meaning out of the experience.
“It was all a big waste of time.”