I’ve been thinking a lot about Kanye West for the last two weeks.
Hearing about the Twitter beef between him and late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel made me watch the original BBC interviews that Kimmel’s parody was based on. And hearing Kanye talk at length about himself, his life, his work and the challenges and frustrations he’s facing was, quite frankly, deeply moving.
It was the longest, most in-depth interview I’d ever seen with Kanye, and it made me see him in a different light.
Honestly, I’ve been publicly critical of him, and I’m sure I sent an apoplectic tweet when he ran up on Taylor Swift at the Grammys. There was the continuing issue of the misogyny in his music, so my early listens to Yeezus weren’t favorable: I even told friends it was Death Grips-lite.
One of the things he talks about in the BBC interview is his frustrations with people not taking him seriously despite his accomplishments. He’s looking for joint ventures and partnerships to express his creativity. But, according to him, he’s been rebuffed repeatedly. Given his successes in music, and his impact and influence on fashion, it’s difficult to fathom why he doesn’t have his own fashion line. Remember the Air Yeezy sneakers, whose resale value topped out at $90,000? Why have the top fashion houses giving him no love? Clearly, he moves markets and culture. In fact, I often return to critic Marcus Dowling’s assertion that Kanye West Is Culture. Let’s be honest: A white guy who’d accomplished as much as Kanye would’ve been given the keys to the kingdom.
“I have reached the glass ceiling as a creative person, as a celebrity. When I say that, it means I want to do product. I am a product person. Not just clothing. Water bottle design. Architecture. Everything that you can think about. And I’ve been at it for 10 years, and I look around and I see there’s not one around here who looks like me. And if they are, they’re quiet. As. Fuck.”
Further: “I make music. I can do it. But I shouldn’t be limited to one place of creativity.”
And, as RapGenius points out, here comes arguably the most meme line of the interview: “I’ve reached the point where my Truman Show boat has hit the wall.” Wow.
While I think his overall level of misogyny is something that bears watching, I now understand Yeezus to be an album about that creative frustration. My wife frequently quotes her uncle who says: “If you see a successful black man, you can bet he’s been through hell.” It ain’t easy out here, navigating others’ implicit bias . And while I’ve achieved nowhere remotely near Kanye’s level of success, I can attest to the resistance and bias I’ve encountered in the advertising and marketing business. I can especially relate to him as someone who’s creative and entrepreneurial.
But I guarantee you, boundless, culture-changing ability, matched with high self-esteem: That’s terrifying because most of us are afraid to self-actualize.
One thing it drove home was our need for greater empathy, especially between black men. Seriously, we can’t be so quick to judge without spending time in the other person’s shoes. Because when you watch the interview—and this was news for me—Kanye is hardly the self-absorbed asshole I thought he was. Clearly thoughtful, engaging, and articulate about his vision for himself.
As he says to Jimmy Kimmel during their recent rapprochement about why he took offense at the parody:
All I care about is my family. I care about protecting my girl, protecting my baby, and protecting my ideas and my dreams. And that’s why I went so crazy.
The other thing that’s apparent is that what Kanye exhibits is not megalomania. He’s been given, by virtue of his parents and his family, incredibly high self-esteem. “It’s in my code,” he says to the BBC’s Zane Lowe after relating stories about his grandfather’s entrepreneurialism and his late mother being the first black chair of a university english department.
And to Kimmel he added: “For me to say I wasn’t a genius, I would just be lying to you and myself.”
Here’s the other thing worth considering: We—the world—may not be prepared to accept 21st century black genius, especially when its talent is supported by such high self-esteem. But the thing that’s always impressed me about Kanye was the way that he manifested himself. That is, maybe he’s our modern day Muhammad Ali, saying in his own way, “I am the greatest.” In Kanye’s case, it’s some variation on “I am a god.” I ain’t mad at him for this. We’re all taught to be humble. It’s a “Christian” virtue. But I guarantee you, boundless, culture-changing ability, matched with high self-esteem: That’s terrifying because most of us are afraid to self-actualize.
Side note: It occurs to me that he’s on that Jack Johnson, Unforgivable Blackness ish. And by that, I mean, being unapologetic about who he is. Culturally, that’s exciting.
I recently met the essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, who wrote that epic piece on Kendrick Lamar, a profile of Dave Chappelle, and a recent essay on Rachel Jeantel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Rammellzee. At a recent event I attended, she made a brief off-the-cuff remark in support of Kanye. At that moment I was reminded that it is incredibly important to speak up for, and affirm, black humanity.
Being open to that humanity, being open to hearing what Kanye was saying in his BBC interview, that’s all about the ability to show empathy. We’re not required to agree with everything someone says or does. However, if we can do the work to see their humanity, it helps to contextualize their actions in a way that each of us can relate to.
Yeah, Kanye is my new hero. Ultimately, what he represents—a genius for the 21st century—is an important role model for us to have among us.
The BBC interview is in four parts. If you only have time for one, just watch the first one below. You’ll see where I got the hashtag #ItsBeenLikeThatForAMinuteHediSlimane.