I ain’t here… to convert atheists into believers. ––"Jesus Walks"
I am considering the fact that I am contributing to the plethora of (think?) pieces about Kanye West, but the man is a genius. Let me explain: The proof is in the fact that we can’t stop talking about him, he is part of the curriculum at a university in Georgia, and just received an honorary doctorate degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. But this piece isn’t about Kanye, it’s about us, and it’s ultimately about language. Not the language we read in the newspaper or our favorite books, but the living, breathing, always transforming (and transformative) vernacular that gives us the world from which our news and books come from.
If it weren’t for an oral tradition of storytelling that more closely resembles Kanye’s raps than it does modern literature, we wouldn’t be wired to love or hate him as much as we do. In Egypt, where I was born, our oral history is embedded into our very names. Our middle names are not given but inherited: our father’s name, followed by our grandfather’s name, followed by our great grandfather’s name, and so on—becomes a newborn’s middle name. In this way, we are always aware that we are building on the work of those who came before us. In the same way that Kanye has mastered the art of sampling in his work as both a producer and emcee.
After years of working behind the scenes as a producer, Kanye West was finally laying his own raps down to his beats in 2003, just as I was beginning my career in journalism. I started work at the Washington, D.C. bureau of CBS News immediately after graduating. The timing couldn’t have better for me. The College Dropout became the balm to what would fast become my disenchantment with Corporate America and its news machine. It was inside that newsroom that I learned just how mechanical reporting had become. Our editorial meetings consisted of news briefs prepared by the White House press team, and the producers at CBS worked to regurgitate whatever was on them. Creativity in the bureau was rare, perhaps that’s why it manifested itself in the various projections producers made upon me: first there was the senior producer who once, when I was sending a fax near the bureau chief’s office (on the other side of the newsroom), asked me if I was sending secret messages to terrorist groups; a few weeks later, another producer accused me of stealing his notebook when he couldn’t find it on his desk. It was clear that though they had hired me, I would never belong to their team.
To put things in perspective, 2003 was also a time when the U.S. was invading both Iraq and Afghanistan. As a native Arabic speaker, I used this to my advantage when it came time to transition from intern to fully-employed entry-level producer. I was put to work translating Al Jazeera and various interviews from the field. But the other side of that Arabic-speaking coin was that I became acutely aware that I was the imaginary enemy in the newsroom. Yes, these supposedly intelligent, discerning, “objective” folks were my superiors and microaggression after microaggression they showed me what those journalistic ideals meant to them. So, I paid my dues as they say, and learned to take refuge in the writing I did outside of work, in the music I listened to, and the history, art, and culture D.C. had to offer. I took refuge in Kanye, in Common, Mos Def, Jean Grae, and Talib Kweli. Kanye’s lyrics, “We at war/We at war with terrorism, racism/But most of all we at war with ourselves…,” were where the real journalism was at. His message was clearer and more directly absorbed than the two-minute packages we were putting together for Evening News with Dan Rather. The news was mostly made of a mashup of B-roll and a fresh script read by a talking head standing in front of the White House or Capitol Hill.
Kanye’s lyrics seem to speak of the very people I found myself working with: “It seems we living the American Dream/But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem/The prettiest people do the ugliest things/For the road to riches and diamond rings/We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us/We tryna buy back our 40 acres/…We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom…”. So, of course, Kanye’s ability to deconstruct and explain the flaws in society appealed to me. I went into journalism looking for exactly this kind of intelligent analysis, but instead found nothing but smoke screens in the control room.
I loved College Dropout so much, I wanted to share it with everyone. I used my credit card (read: money I didn’t have) to buy a copy for my then mentor, a correspondent for the network who would often confide in me that he dreamt of quitting to become a preacher. The album had soul, the kind of soul working for a corporate news network didn’t allow. “Jesus Walks” became my anthem and therapy on walks to and from work.
I’m no longer confused but don’t tell anybody/I’m about to break the rules but don’t tell anybody/I got something better than school but don’t tell anybody––"Graduation Day"
I first fell in love with hip-hop when I heard Arrested Development in my middle school art class. It was the simplicity, lightness, and joy expressed in their raps that appealed to me. But there was something else there, too: truth and a timelessness that is similar to that found in the best literature.
The same Egyptian, or Afro-Arab, oral tradition that builds on what came before, is the same oral tradition that relays its message through jarring metaphors, rich parables that have been refined by generation after generation, the vitality of the call-and-response method, and the summarizing of the state of a community or the world in a small capsule. Kanye’s songs are like novels, employing narrative devices that the best storytellers and poets use in their work. In “Through the Wire” there is tragedy (the car accident), there is a hero (Kanye himself), the struggle (rapping through a jaw that is wired shut), the damsel in distress (his girlfriend). It’s an epic delivered through rap. Or take “Runaway”, where we hear the complete disintegration of a man in the outro of the track and then listen as he puts himself back together, note by note, distortion by distortion. This is Kanye at his best and rawest.
He is skillful in his use of vernacular, mixing various genres and sounds on his tracks as well as bringing in the voices of artists as diverse as Gil Scott Heron (“Who Will Survive in America”), Nina Simone (“Blood on the Leaves”), Bon Iver (“Lost in the World”), J. Ivy (“Never Let Me Down”), and Beenie Man (“Send It Up”). But it isn’t just about the voices, it’s about the oral tradition of call and response—Kanye’s work always feels ALIVE. His selections of what to sample and what he does with them, the deliberate choices of where to speed a sample up or slow it down, the emphasis, the architecture around it, this is how he carries on the tradition. And all of the great themes of ancient story are there: spirituality, afterlife, work, love, and family. This is the work of afrofuturism, and in West’s case, the future is now.
Kanye’s albums have the progression of a great novel unfolding in time. Each song serves as a chapter, but like the greatest essayists and poets, the entire story can be glimpsed from a single song.
I don’t know what it is with females/but I’m not too good at that shit…––"Runaway"
Because I am a woman, I feel I can’t leave this essay without commenting on the ever present misogyny in his work. This is where I draw the line on being a Yeezy Apologist. But again, in true Kanye style, he acknowledges his own flaw: “Baby, I got a plan/Run away as fast as you can”. One of the best things about following an artist for over a decade is that you get to see them grow. I believe that as we continue to build a culture of accountability, and as Kanye raises a young daughter, his growth as both an artist and father will be reflected in his new work, specifically how he views and addresses women in that work.
I wholeheartedly agree with and recommend Kiese Laymon’s essay, “Kanye West Is Better at His Job Than I Am at Mine (But I’m Way Better at Being a Fake-Ass Feminist).” Laymon writes of his admiration of Kanye’s music and his ability to use his privilege to speak up for marginalized groups as he recounts a conversation with his grandmother’s new husband: “I want to tell him that if he really listened to Kanye West, he would hear that Kanye wants maligned folks to get what they deserve.
Despite this glaring flaw, what Yeezy already knows that the rest of us can (probably) learn from, is that no matter what you do as a human, as an artist, is that people will always have something to say about it, so you should just be as genuine as possible. His genuineness is his genius and his ingenuity. As one of my friends puts it, “He is what grief looks like in public.” And what is the human condition but a constant dance between grief and elation. I take that one step further and say, he is a mirror held up to our collective reflection. He is both the high and the low. Any criticism we have of Yeezy comes back to us. Kanye has cracked a secret code: He encompasses everything we are. But most importantly, he might be one of the most honest (to a fault) and prolific storytellers of our time.
I guess I’m getting high off my own supply…––"Made in America”