by: Michael Shields
In defense of one of Earth’s most insufferable (allegedly) human beings, Kanye West…
It has become impossible to have a level-headed, sophisticated discussion about Kanye West. To label him as polarizing would be a gross misrepresentation of the severity of the situation. Kanye West has become a pop-culture punchline and the target of the wrath of the entire Internet. Even those who admire his art struggle with some of his antics that, on the surface, appear narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, and often downright unmannerly. But, it is hard not to see the demonization of Kanye as something abrasive and distasteful in itself. Rarely, if ever, do I come upon a thoughtful or educated criticism of Kanye. The noise that most often rattles about amounts to a knee-jerky, “Fuck that guy.” And I can’t help but to ponder: Is this hostility substantiated?
Before we move forward, I believe it is important to establish a basis of fact to work off of. Kanye West isn’t merely a celebrity. He is a musician and an artist, and a damn good one at that. Whether his artistry is your flavor, that remains a personal issue, but Kanye West is a platinum-selling, chart-topping entertainer who has released six highly-regarded solo albums in the last decade. Add to this a stockpile of prolific production of rap, r&b and pop albums, and his collaboration album with Jay-Z, the hard-hitting Watch the Throne. His debut album, The College Dropout, became an instant classic, a triumphant introduction to an enigmatic young talent from the South side of Chicago, while two of his later albums, Late Registration and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, are almost universally considered two of the past decade’s best records. Yeezus was, if you were able to put aside your prejudices and get past the titular gag, one of the best and most innovative albums of 2013. And with the premature release of “Only One” and “Wolves” from Kanye’s forthcoming album, both stunners, it is becoming crystal fucking clear that Kanye is about to drop another classic on us.
While Kanye West is far from the most dexterous of MCs, the catalog of music he has released is an eclectic mix of hip-hop, pop, and that which isn’t easily defined. Kanye has achieved a great deal musically, and with his current foray into fashion and marketing, he continues to create, to share, to take chances, and to give back. But the focus of many Kanye detractors lies elsewhere, in his seemingly unreasonable actions. So, what does Kanye have to be upset about? Why does he continually act out like this? Maybe, just maybe, there is more to it. Maybe there is a reason his actions come off as combative. And maybe that reason has nothing to do with self-promotion at all.
“I could let these dream killers kill my self esteem or use my arrogance as a steam to power my dreams.” – Kanye West
If 2014 taught us anything, it’s that the racial divide is deeper than many of us may have realized. We have come a long way in the United Sates, there is no doubt about that – but we also have a long way to go. And those in positions of power and privilege are not confronted daily with this idea, and because of this they need to be reminded from time to time of the injustices that still exist in the world. Kanye, from the moment he appeared upon the scene, has taken it upon himself to shoulder some of that load, and to be that reminder. And that all began with the release of his first album, specifically just two tracks into it.
Audaciously, on the song “We Don’t Care” on The College Dropout, Kanye employed a chorus of children to sing the hook, a hook that goes “Drug dealing just to get by / Stacking your money till it gets sky high / We wasn’t supposed to make it past twenty-five / Jokes on you, we still alive / Throw your hands up in the sky / And say we don’t care what people say.” While off-putting to some that children are singing about swinging drugs, getting caught up in that is missing the point entirely. Having children sing about the only alternative for many in crippling urban environments is poignant. But more than that, having them brazenly harmonize about laughing in the face of those that belittle them and hold them back is powerful. Kanye’s suggestion that black children should boldly profess themselves in White America, a world that hasn’t been crafted to their advantage, is the sort of message that Kanye has been declaring for years, in one way or another. The joke is on the non-believers, the racial bullies, the ruling class — we made it, the children are saying, we are here — and we have nothing to be sorry about.
The media focus will always be on Kanye’s missteps. His obnoxiousness. The lavishness. Instead of on the moments where he stands up for those without a voice, or when he is courageously asserting his vulnerabilities, his anxieties, his humanity – the times he places his exposed self on the line as an artist. Calculated bluster paired with forthright introspection has been a trademark of Kanye’s entire career — a fact that you will hardly see discussed on the internet, or anywhere for that matter.
I cannot help but wonder if those that whine and cry and bitch in one hundred and forty characters about Kanye’s antics and sound bites have ever spent much time with his music. Or, and more importantly, if they have sat down and watched or listened to a lengthy and thoughtful interview with him. Haters, have you? Be honest? Or are you satisfied with judging a man, a human being, wholly by the snippets and quotes that the media feeds you in their unrelenting quest for ratings? Interviews showing a man far from the one that the media portrays are out there. In spades. They are enlightening and pointed and they paint a more complete portrait of a man attempting to utilize all his god-given talents to hopefully make the world a better place.
Our focus should be on how do we help the middle to the lower class to have a better life.” – Kanye West
Admittedly, the Beck thing almost sent me over the edge, tumbling into the sea of skeptics that welcomes any and all who wish to join their bitter ranks. Not that this rash, and yes trivial, action trumps Kanye’s interruption of Taylor Swift in gallantry, but questioning the artistic integrity of one of this generation’s finest musicians in Beck just rubbed me wrong. But then I got to thinking, Kanye is undoubtedly aware of Beck’s prowess. Thinking otherwise is naive. So Kanye suggesting that a true artist should relinquish his Grammy for the sake of artistry just doesn’t make sense. Why would he take this stance? There must be more going on…
Taking too much stock in the Grammy Awards, or any awards show, will always be a fool’s errand. These events are highly political and strategic marketing tools for the benefit of the industry which is celebrating itself. The amount of money involved is gargantuan, and the endgame, calculated. But feigning that they don’t matter — to the artists, the labels, and thus the fans —just because they are devoid of a vast quantity of the year’s best art and are flagrantly profiteering isn’t a notion based in reality. What the industry is saying about itself, and about the culture it is attempting to represent, is a narrative expressed through who walks away with the golden phonograph. And this is why Kanye was upset, and it wasn’t really about Beck at all.
Because of the ridiculousness of his post-Grammy comments, and the act of jumping on stage — if only briefly this time — Kanye failed to deliver the message he was indeed attempting to relay (frustration and anger does that). Kanye was venting about the troubling history of Grammy Awards in respect to the representation of black musicians in categories outside of rap and r&b. Dissecting the history of the Grammys and its skewing, in award totals, toward white musicians is an article unto its own, but it is a valid concern statistically. Though a relatively young genre, hip-hop albums by black artists have only been nominated for the highly-coveted Album of the Year category eight times and only Lauryn Hill and Outkast have gone on to win. Compare these numbers to Eminem’s four nominations, more than any other rap artist and a third of the total number, and you have to start wondering if something is up.
Kanye, arguably, shouldn’t have gone about making this statement the way he did. But how else do you air grievances? What the fuck is he supposed to do if he feels this strongly about injustices that no one else is speaking about? White privilege allows non-blacks to look at Beck’s win over Beyonce as one that is simply just about musical prowess — and possibly Kanye should have just left it at that as well. But, people of color, after all these years of being unjustly represented, cannot ignore potential racial implications — and that is not a fault on them, but a truth in how they have been accustomed to see the world. This is Kanye’s reality, one where he feels obligated to stand up against privilege that others just won’t talk about or even admit exists. This is his burden.
It will never be easy defending Kanye. A man whose self-indulgent onstage rants are egotistical vehicles of boastfulness. A man who seemingly is so impressed with himself that he will go to any length to be the center of attention. But, maybe some of the Kanye detractors need to spend some time digging deeper, to learn more about who Kanye is and what he represents. Or maybe, they need to relax, and find something more meaningful to worry about. We all individually decide what we care to focus on. What we choose to watch and listen to. It is up to us to control what angers us. It is up to us what we allow to affect us. So, if he bothers you that much, it is on you to learn to live with a world and a media that will always accentuate and exploit the most impassioned entertainers. You may want Kanye to just go away, but you can bet your ass he isn’t. So it’s time to find a way to deal with it, or just stay out of the way.
Kanye West is one of the most interesting and complicated pop stars of this generation. He has risen the rap game to new heights in just a brief amount of time, and as a producer has set the bar to a height that will advance beat composition’s potential, as those who follow in his wake try to emulate and advance his work. He exudes a voracious passion, one that is unfortunately too much for some to handle, and again, that’s on them. Demanding that an artist, a musician, and a champion of black people everywhere conform to some unwritten standard on how to act is flat out fucked up. Desiring that a passionate creative force bottle it up because of your inability to keep some unconventional behavior from getting to you is detrimental to artistry as a whole, and is childish. Kanye is well aware of the fact that he has risen to a point where his voice matters, that people will listen when he talks. Who can blame him for using this platform that he has earned to try to highlight the injustices in the world, even if he flounders in these attempts from time to time? Who can blame him for trying?
Ultimately, I am grateful for Kanye. I am grateful for the path he is unapologetically blazing for dreamers, artists, and black children everywhere. And I am grateful for his bold and captivating work that will surely inspire musicians for generations to come. Hate him all you want — but the world is a more lively and intriguing place with him in it. That’s the truth, whether you can handle it or not.