“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.