Music

Who Will Survive in America: A Kanye Roundtable

A discussion among four staffers about everything Yeezy’s taught us.

“I felt so much solidarity with that moment,” said Jenny. “It is so rare to see a person of color insist on speaking what is in his heart—and being heard.”

Julianne agreed: “It was beautiful, and I think allowed a real psychic release for our collective feeling of helplessness and despair during that time.”

Amy Rose added:

Kanye refused to soften a plain-long truth about racism which was perpetuated on an enormous scale and ruined people’s lives, and he was vilified and portrayed as “out of control” by certain parts of white America simply for pointing out that injustice. Like, “Look at this crazy black man pulling THA RACE CARD!” (which, by the way, is not a real thing). But he was totally right. It’s so telling that people dig their heels in against Kanye most mulishly when he refuses to pretend that racism isn’t REPUGNANT AND FUCKING EVERYWHERE—it was a similar deal with people’s reactions to his stage invasion at the VMAs.

The “invasion” she referred to was, of course, the 2009 Video Music Awards on MTV, where a very drunk Kanye charged the stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for best “female video” (for “You Belong With Me”), snatched the mic from her, and announced that Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” should have won instead.

This was undoubtedly a jerk move, but Julianne pointed out that it “was motivated by the idea that MTV was boxing out a black woman because of her race,” a notion that Kanye later confirmed. His intent, however misguided, was to draw attention to perceived inequality: This was not a personal attack on Taylor or about a man asserting dominance over a woman, it was an impassioned plea that people question why Beyoncé didn’t win and Taylor did.

After the scandal, he apologized repeatedly to Taylor for ruining her moment and implicating her in a much larger societal problem that she had no personal hand in perpetuating, but the damage to his reputation was done. He was dressed down by tabloids, Swifties, and even President Obama, who called Kanye a “jackass.” So intense was the national disapproval of Kanye that he left the country for nearly a year.

Those two moments put him squarely at the top of the world’s collective shit list, but the aftermath turned out to affect his life in a hugely positive way. As he said in an interview a year after the debacle, losing so many of the things he’d worked so hard to get—record deals, the respect of his peers, mainstream cultural acceptance—freed him up to do his most honest work:

Because of everything that I been through, it’s got me to the point to be able to be a way more expressive artist, to deal with way more reality. You can’t take anything away from me at this point. I completely lost everything, but I gained everything, ’cause I lost the fear.

There wasn’t much he could do placate a public who already saw him as “crazy,” so he stopped trying to temper his views in his music, about racism or anything else. The next album he made, 2013’s Yeezus, is arguably his most powerful work yet. Inspired as much by architecture, furniture design, and industrial production techniques as it was by 1980s house music, the record feels like a protest by way of fine art. On songs like “New Slaves,” “Blood on the Leaves,” “Black Skinhead,” and “Bound 2,” Kanye directly and unapologetically tells listeners what his experiences have been as a black man in America and rips into the prejudice he and so many others continue to face, no matter how much they achieve.

“I’m SO INTO the fact that Kanye used the super-commercial medium of ‘a Kanye West record’ to deliver this very smart, vicious racial theory to THE MASSES. To me, that was such an incredibly noble and populist act,” Amy Rose said about this album. “When I saw him live a few months ago, he was so clearly in love with his fans and wanted us to have the TRUTH: that the world really is a very frequently fucked up place for people of color, and that the people who try to make you believe otherwise are the ones who are in the wrong. [That message] absolutely shines in his newest songs.”

The show Amy Rose was talking about was part of Kanye’s “Yeezus” tour, which was as artistically wide-ranging as the album it supported. The performances were more like abstract theater pieces than rap concerts: The set featured a 60-foot-wide curved screen mimicking a view of the heavens, a giant mountain that turns into a volcano, an actor playing Jesus (not even kidding), dozens of classically trained dancers, and plenty of elaborate costumes. Amy Rose reported: “When I saw him, he cited the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s influence on the set, alluded to Biblical scripture and Greek drama, and performed lengthy monologues on the nature of fame, individuality, and personal freedom. I spent the whole show feeling like I had been punched in the gut, in the best possible way.”

Not that any of this shielded Kanye from public scrutiny—in fact, everything he does seems designed to simultaneously silence his past critics and invite new ones. At one stop on the “Yeezus” tour, an audience member was kicked out for interrupting a ballad to yell, “Take that shit off!”—“that shit” being one of the jewel-encrusted Maison Martin Margiela masks the rapper wore over his face for the first two hours of the show. Kanye stopped the show and spit back, “You can see my face on the internet every motherfucking day. I came here, I opened up a mountain…and you tryin’ to tell me how to give you my art?”

Kanye has been an artist for most of his life. As he told the director Steve McQueen in Interview in January:

I’m a trained fine artist. I went to art school from the time I was five years old. I was, like, a prodigy out of Chicago. I’d been in national competitions from the age of 14. [...] So the joke that I’ve actually played on everyone is that the entire time, I’ve actually just been a fine artist.

Kanye’s melding of aesthetic and musical innovation is what’s made his work so consistently game-changing. Consider the epic and hypnotizing moving vista of “Power,” the music video directed by the artist Marco Brambilla (someone Kanye posted about on his now-defunct art blog years ago) and “Runaway,” the 35-minute short film he invested half of his savings into, and it’s clear Kanye is committed to perpetually seeking out new ways to communicate his creativity.

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21 Comments

  • maryjanesandconverse March 11th, 2014 7:53 PM

    this article is perfect ♥
    sums up all my feelings about yeezy

  • woahmeredith March 11th, 2014 8:39 PM

    So like for actual years now I’ve been considering getting “Yeezy taught me” tattooed on me somewhere, because Yeezy did teach me so much. Racism, Hip-hop, dreams, fashion, and I’m eternally grateful for his work. But then it also sounds like Yeezy taught me some other things, sexual things, in the context of the skit…. so maybe not?

  • tturnthenoiseon March 11th, 2014 9:26 PM

    TO BORROW WORDS FROM AMY ROSE I FEEL LIKE I’VE BEEN PUNCHED IN THE GUT IN THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE <3 <3 <3 thanks Rookie wowza I'm speechless. Excellent job, Brodie

  • sadie lidji March 11th, 2014 9:32 PM

    kanye 4eva and eva

  • socialspecial March 11th, 2014 10:22 PM

    Wow, hadn’t thought about him that way, really made me see him, his art and everything he stands for in a new light, thank for the different view in things rookie.

  • irismonster March 11th, 2014 11:31 PM

    yayyy (or should i say kanyay? hehe) i love this all so much. i was brought to kanye very recently by lorde and south park and will not ever go back. he really is a genius, i hate the fact that when i tell people i like kanye, they just assume i mean it in an ironic way. i don’t.

  • jamiesond March 12th, 2014 3:38 AM

    really a genuinely good read I started around 11 now it’s 230 am CT that’s crazy but It is true growing up you want to be great/famous/rich or whatever else but Kanye West and countless others wanted to make a name for themself and make a product/craft that they are happy with and make it something with character and essence and truth that all comes together into “dopeness”. (yeah i like this)

  • Aili March 12th, 2014 9:10 AM

    It’s difficult to form an opinion of him. Definitely a controversial artist. I think it’s great that he’s creative, speaks about racism and defends his dreams. But what disappoints me, which wasn’t mentioned in the article, is his use of fur. It’s really cool when people wear whatever makes them happy, but I don’t think it’s justified in the case of wearing fur for fashion. Art shouldn’t make animals suffer.

  • onlykhenzo March 12th, 2014 12:24 PM

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU
    This has summed all of my feeling about Ye and even my internal struggle of ‘can I be a die hard fan girl but not like that he said this or did that’. I’d also never considered other perspectives of the ‘Imma let you finish’ incident of ’09.

    This roundtable could not have come at a better time. I’ve been feeling really uninspired or just disenchanted about the stuff I’ve been doing lately but this just granted me a sense of purpose.

    “… it was such a long road, a constant struggle, and a true labor of love to not only convince my peers and the public that I could be an artist, but to actually get that art out for the world to hear… I wake up every day trying to give something back to you that you can rock to and be proud of. Ten years later I am still the same kid from Chicago, still dreaming out loud, still banging on the door. The doors may be heavier, but I promise you WE WILL BREAK THEM.” @kanyewest, 10 Feb 2014 (ten year anniversary of The College Dropout) ~~~~~ so many feeeeeelllsss

    http://www.glitterdaiquiri.com

  • the_smartorialist March 12th, 2014 2:43 PM

    “They classify, you know, my motivational speaking as, like, rants.”
    Kanye West

    YOU GUYS. I have been waiting for this article for forever. Kanye-loving feminists always.

  • xosabrinarose March 12th, 2014 4:14 PM

    This article is actually perfect. I LOVE Kanye so so much and this summed up why in the best way possible.

  • painting_the_roses_pink March 12th, 2014 4:46 PM

    110% I’m showing my bae this article! Kanye is his idol. He’s also wants to go into the music industry, he works so hard producing and mixing hes almost always in the studio. I liked Kanye’s music, but I’ve never really delved deep into researching him as an artist. Thank you so much for this article rookie <3

    http://aroseofadifferentcolor.tumblr.com/

  • rhymeswithorange March 12th, 2014 7:14 PM

    AMEN!
    Whenever I tell people I love Kayne they are always surprised.
    I will just have to tell them his music is “academic texts that deserve to 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”- totally agree!
    Also agree that his use of women is not great, glad that was brought up.

  • amescs March 14th, 2014 4:12 AM

    THIS IS SO GOOD I LOVE U ROOKIE

  • flocha March 14th, 2014 6:00 AM

    yesss I have only just got into Kanye recently (kinds late to this party haa) but I totally love his message and his music, and tbh whatever you think about him you can’t deny that the music world would be boring as hell without him

    http://whimsicalprocrastination.blogspot.co.uk/

  • farawayfaerie March 14th, 2014 12:05 PM

    I FOUND THE ANSWER IN A QUOTE FROM GRIMES:

    “There’s a psychology to success. I was reading all these biographies and watching documentaries about people who are successful. It seemed like the only thread amongst everybody is that unflinching, “Yes, I can do this and I am the best.” It’s a personal rhetoric that you can develop. Like, if you go and tell journalists, “I’m the future of music,” then people start printing that. So I’m just going to tell everyone I’m making the future of music. I’m going to force the situation to happen.”

    That’s exactly what Kanye’s doing, and people have been doing this for ages. Here Boucher even says that it’s the attitude every successful person needs, and yet Kanye is put into a ranting box of who does he think he is, it’s not his place to be successful