My experience learning about Kanye West within the confines of a classroom

IMG_0826When the rumor spread that my school, Washington University in St. Louis, was offering a class on Kanye West, it created a lot of excitement on campus and fodder for news outlets nationwide. Reactions were distinctively positive or negative. Kanye detractors lamented that the course was a waste of time and resources. However, Kanye fans, like myself, were eager to rearrange their previously set class schedules and anxious to get off a wait list that quickly grew to over 100 names within days after course registration opened. I was one of the lucky ones. After sending Professor McCune an email with my 12-page research paper attached from freshman year titled, “The Debate Regarding an Old and New Kanye: There is Only One”, along with a link to Jasmine Mans’ “Footnotes for Kanye”, which quickly went viral, and explaining that both the research paper and Mans’ performance represented my thoughts about Kanye – the artist, designer, and human being – I got a reply the next morning that read, “You’re in!”. And that’s how I got off the waitlist for “The Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics”, the first-ever Kanye class at a major university. I had spent a semester trying to understand Kanye in conversation with one of my best friends and through internal dialogue, and I would finally get to externalize all of these ideas in a class.

On the second day of class, Professor McCune pulled me aside to ask if I had free time later that day. When I said that I did, he told me that a local news station was coming to campus and wanted to interview two students to ask why we would take a course on Kanye West. Later that day, I looked directly into the news camera and said something like, “If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that the bar for entertainment, specifically in the United States, is incredibly low. A presidential candidate, through hate-speech and bullying, ascended to victory, in part, because his spectacle was considered to be good television. People wanted to watch him despite the lack of preparation and relevant knowledge that informed his performance. Conversely, Kanye West has yet to offer low-quality content where his work is concerned. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy his music, clothing, or sneakers, it is clear that he puts an incredible amount of forethought and collaboration into his productions. In that way, I think that many people could learn from Kanye strictly on the basis of answering the question, ‘what is good entertainment?’. Kanye appeals to a universal audience because he represents the common man in his very public struggles with love, health, money, and family. If there was anything that I especially wanted to do following the 2016 election, it was to better understand the people around me, people who, whether they accept the comparison or not, are a lot like Kanye West.” I shared with the interviewer my final reason for wanting to take the class: Kanye is timely. Kanye experienced a mental breakdown just before my winter break. I have struggled with anxiety and depression, and many of my friends, as do many college students, have struggled with mental illness too. As conversations around mental well-being and self-care continue to grow in the public sphere, I thought that I would enjoy exploring through an academic lens the effects of celebrity on mental health and how it impacts our view of the individual.

My contribution to the interview was not used on the nightly news, and neither was the other student’s, even though the cameraman (there was no interviewer) said my words would make great soundbites. In place of my and the other student’s opinions, they included about four seconds of footage of my classmate and me walking down the hallway with our professor. I hadn’t expected much more. If anything, their choice confirmed my already entrenched belief that the bar for entertainment is low.

After airing the segment, a news anchor asked viewers to go online and fill out a poll asking their thoughts about the course, specifically, if it was a good idea or a waste of time and money.

Comments all over the internet questioned the need for the course. Many were upset that Kanye West, pejorative nicknames included, was the focus of a college course. While “Kanye West” is primary in the course title, it is important to note that he is a case study in a much larger topic of interest, rather than the whole of the class focus. A large portion of the academic foundation on which the course was built stems from topics of black iconography which Dr. Nicole Fleetwood, Director of Rutgers University’s Institute for Research on Women, explores in great detail. The concept of black iconography attends to a history of black bodies in the United States, which become the focus of the white gaze and allows for a single individual or construction of an individual to represent all black people.

Within the class, it is safe to say that there was a mix of feelings towards Kanye. There were people who would arrive wearing Saint Pablo shirts; others came to insure that the tone was not entirely positive, and there was a final showing of at least one person who conceded to not being a Kanye West fan at all. Because I firmly believe that people should hold entertainment to a higher standard, and there is an overwhelming need for critical thinking in the present social and political climate, I truly appreciated the non-fans for having sound supporting evidence as to why they do not like Kanye West.

The showing of ideas worked to hold Kanye accountable, just as every individual should be held accountable for his or her thoughts and actions that might work to the detriment of others. There are certainly instances of misogyny in West’s music that cannot be overlooked. But on the other hand, there are instances in Kanye’s career that reflect conscious feminist thought. Consider the Teyana Taylor-focused “Fade” video that, as one classmate pointed out, placed a female body in a masculine setting and allowed that body an exciting amount of autonomy. Again, to be critical is decidedly different from simply being a detractor.

One might look to conservative media as an example of the detractor-only view that asserts Kanye West is a misogynist, as are all black rappers, and that rap music is anti-woman. Professor McCune pointed out that conservative media’s proclivity for black rappers is almost laughable in light of the current U.S. president’s self-professed sexual assaults on women. Even more glaring than the president’s personal history of sexual misconduct is the current push to destroy women’s health care and, in the process, eliminate their rights to decide the fate of their own bodies. When you juxtapose these very real legislative efforts to rap music and music videos, the claims against the genre, and Kanye, in particular, are more than hypocritical.

In the course’s beginning, Professor McCune, who is also a Chicago native and attended the same high school as Kanye, though years earlier, addressed its detractors by asking why can we study Shakespeare and Picasso but not Kanye? What is it that bars Kanye West from the academic sphere as an acceptable focus of study? When asked to think of a black genius, any black genius, we found one of our answers: the title of genius has been historically barred from ascription to Black Americans more so than any other demographic. The box that stringently defines and confines what Black is and can be is one explanation in a number of reasons for why our class received so much backlash.

One way in which the black box is often most pernicious, especially within rap music, is in the case of authenticity. Very often the politics of Kanye West and many, if not all, other prominent rappers return to authenticity. Are you being authentically black? Historically, the United States has proven that it would rather have “Black” be a monolith. Kanye has expressed these limitations as they pertain to his goals in fashion. Repeatedly, he was barred from high fashion, and although his race might not have been the only reason, a history within the fashion industry

that undoubtedly privileges white designers and white models did little to disprove his claims of racism.

The Politics of Kanye West was punctuated by a three-part lecture series that was open to the public. In the final lecture, Professor McCune addressed most directly the symbiotic relationship between celebrities and the common man by exploring mental health and celebrity. His presentation was aptly titled, “Name One Genius That Ain’t Crazy: Kanye West and The Politics of Self-Diagnose”. Celebrity behavior, intentional or not, provides tacit permission for others to behave as celebrities do. As is often the case in instances of fame and prominence, we found in this course that many celebrities, especially black celebrities, become projections of societal wants. Kanye West and many other rappers are projection screens for what the public has ascribed to blackness at any given point in time. As we consider Kanye West in recent years, it is not a far reach to associate his being branded as “crazy” with his “rants” and grandiose claims of his importance to music and popular culture. But the “crazy” of Kanye West also coincided with a lot of protest and outrage from the black community in light of police murdering black men and women without consequence. To be clear, Kanye West did not grant Black Lives Matter protestors the opportunity to fully express their anger. To the contrary, their actions were entirely and very heroically their own. Yet, as sure as Kanye West is a black icon and what is projected onto his person is then translated onto all black people, when Kanye West becomes “insane” in the public eye thus making his feelings and opinions invalid, it is far easier for society to then say the same of the larger black community and their expressions of emotion. For reasons that are firmly rooted in prejudice, to be diagnosed with mental illness very often discounts the thoughts and opinions of an individual; though, in fact, a great deal of truth comes out of “insanity”, the foundation of which is often a means to cope with severe trauma.

Perhaps my greatest takeaway from the course will be Professor McCune’s call to act out “critical kindness”. The term represents a heightened form of kindness and empathy meant to be performed on everyone. When we, as viewers, consider a subject like Kanye West, a celebrity, there is very often an urge to judge that subject as our own. Based on the information that we acquire through headlines and lyrics and appearance, we determine who we think the subject is, and we judge them, very often harshly. We do not account for the trauma of living a public life or simply living a life at all. As Professor McCune pointed out on numerous occasions, we have all had moments of explosion when if someone were to look at us, they might think we’d lost our minds. But those moments are not lived on television screens or onstage in front of thousands of people. They more often take place in the privacy of our homes and with family and friends who affirm that, despite these moments of uncertainty, life remains constant. So, now that the course is over, as I think about Kanye West and the common man, I am more prone to recognize and consider the hardships that bare down on everyone. And as I try to better understand the people around me, many with whom I do not agree, I recognize that it is in our general best interest for me to practice critical kindness.

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