I’m willing to bet that you already have an opinion on Kanye West. He’s maybe the most divisive celebrity around—he’s called an egomaniac about as often as he is a genius, and everyone I know has different reasons for either loving or hating him. My own feelings about Kanye are EXTREMELY POSITIVE—his music is one of my failsafe tools for self-care, and I have a different track to suit every feeling (“Monster” when I need to rage out, “Clique” when I’m super excited, “Lost in the World” when I need to believe in love). Kanye is so much more than a performer—he’s also a consumer of, and groundbreaking commentator on, lots of areas of modern culture. I consider his interviews academic texts that should be studied as key reference points about art, fashion, race, fame, architecture, film, technology, and music, all of which he speaks about frequently and brilliantly. There are so many things Kanye cares about, and he wants the world to care with him.
That list includes himself, which, depending on your attitude, is totally awesome or really off-putting. I was recently talking about Kanye with Jenny, Julianne, and Amy Rose, and we discovered that we’re all on the “awesome” side of that divide. We agreed that what people take as Kanye’s arrogance is really just confidence, and wished we could talk about this to the WORLD. Then we were like, duh, we can! So we had this Very Official Roundtable about our love of ’Ye. No matter what your feelings are about Kanye West, I hope you’ll come away feeling less “Bound 2” the criticisms you might have of him!! OK, sorry, that was terrible. But we learned a lot from one another, and hopefully you’ll appreciate this discussion, too.
Jenny started the conversation by talking about how Kanye’s rap career blew up in late 2002 after he was almost killed in a car accident. His jaw was fractured in three places, and he was forced to take time off to recover. Before that, he was known as a producer (he worked with Jay Z and Beanie Sigel, among others), but not as a rapper or a performer. He used his recuperation period to make something of his own, and the result was “Through the Wire,” which he performed literally through the wire that was holding his injured jaw shut.
The video starts with a title card that reads:
Last October, Grammy-nominated producer KANYE WEST was in a nearly fatal car accident. His jaw was fractured in three places. Two weeks later, he recorded this song with his mouth still wired shut…so the world could feel his pain!
That paragraph was what made Jenny a Kanye fan: “It was so ridiculous and childlike in a way, and yet so urgent and moving,” she said during our discussion. “What an exquisite thing to have escaped death and then, while you’re still recovering from having nearly died, wanting to make a song, and then actually recording that song, and then wanting everyone to experience that feeling of getting to live and make things.” The song, she pointed out, “exemplifies everything we love about Kanye: his total unwillingness to peddle in false humility, his big ambitions, how he’s both his own harshest critic and his biggest supporter, his SUPREME EXQUISITE TASTE, his rather large capacity to laugh at and make fun of himself (as long you’re laughing with him, NOT at him), his self-awareness, and his vulnerability.”
Critics love to call Kanye an egomaniac, but there’s something very positive and powerful about believing in the art you’ve created. When Spike Jonze interviewed him in 2007 (see video above), Kanye said, “The bottom line is…I’m a fan of really great stuff. So, you know, by the fact that I’m really great, by default I’m a fan of myself.” Later in the same interview, he elaborated on that notion:
I’m not supposed to say how great [my work] is. Somebody’s supposed to come in and be like, “Aw, man, that is just the craziest shit I saw in my life!” and I’m [supposed to] be like, “Oh, do you think so? For real?” That’s ignorant! Actually, that’s disrespectful to the person who just said it. That’s me acting stupid, like, I didn’t know it was good…. What my grandfather told me to say is, “You got good taste!”
“It took a while for all that to sink in, but it’s really inspiring,” Jenny said. “I always find a way to lessen my achievement; I fail to show other people that I’m proud of my work, even though that’s why I share it in the first place. There’s something so radical and simple about taking pride in what you do.”
Last year, when I read this piece by Anna F. about unapologetically loving and believing in your art, all I could think about was Yeezy. As girls, we know how heavy the pressure is to be humble and modest about our achievements and to not take up too much space. People of color experience that same kind of pressure (and for women of color it’s at least twofold). Kanye knows that people want him to act eternally grateful for being allowed entrance to the club of Black People That White People Care About (Sometimes), but he chooses instead to have confidence in his craft, to appreciate its worth, and to make sure everyone else sees it too. As Julianne puts it, a lot of the criticism lobbed at Kanye after every public interview he does “comes from people not wanting to see a black man who won’t shut up, and who prominently displays his ego (which, frankly, is pretty commensurate with his talent). These are things that white men do all day long without ever having to field the vitriol that Yeezy does.”
He’s also unafraid to call out racism. Maybe you’ve seen the video above, from a 2005 fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Kanye was scheduled as a speaker and given some prepared lines to read alongside the actor Mike Myers. Kanye went totally and unexpectedly off-script, making a desperate and emotional plea on behalf of the hurricane’s neglected survivors, most of them people of color. He also called out the media for their unfair portrayal of the black families who lost their homes, and added, as Myers stared straight ahead like a deer in headlights, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”