“Watch Kanye West Repeatedly Get His Ass Handed to Him”… “Kanye West’s ‘Bound 2’ Video Is Cold Garbage”… “Taylor Swift Keeps Framed Photo of Kanye West incident.” With a steady ECwireless connection and a few clicks of your track pad, headlines denouncing the controversy-prone rapper are not difficult to find.
As presented, this is the narrative in which Kanye West exists. In the Yeezus track “Bound 2,” he even acknowledges it himself: “I know I got a bad reputation / Walkin’-round-always-mad reputation.” He’s the dunce who stole a microsecond of fame from Taylor Swift, that knucklehead who claimed George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”
How wrong this perception is. Ignore the controversial “rants,” pause the hit songs, overlook the clever triple-entendres, and there remains a wealth of nuance behind his public persona. Kanye West is the loudest representation of society’s inability to expand definitions of genius to recognize personalities and artists as having more than one talent, which affects nonwhite or otherwise disenfranchised artists the most.
Multi-talented artists — da Vinci, Warhol, and Oprah, for example — are a rare but present breed throughout history. It’s not a coincidence that we no longer hear of new polymaths, younger additions to this aging list. Contemporary culture and its darling 24-hour news cycle have neither the time nor the tools to handle the type of Renaissance talent with more simultaneous job titles than can fit into a single descriptor. Instead, click-hungry headlines spoofing James Franco or parodying Kanye West have discouraged the recognition of a person as an expert in more than one skill.
In the constant disconnect between culture and West’s persona, the fault is the narrow definitions of success, genius, and artistry that govern public perception and media coverage. Arbiters of culture reject his multifacet-ness, instead offering up (usually racialized) stagnant definitions that fail to acknowledge the possibility of his potential and the depths of his desire. Indeed, it is “hard out here for a pimp,” but West’s struggle is living proof that it’s even harder when “big pimpin’” precludes you the opportunity to be seen as a prodigy.
In United States history, nonwhite citizens have been assigned very specific roles within the American narrative. For black men, the characterizations are sharp and static, always one size fits all: The black man as sexual predator, as oafish servant, as violent criminal, as absent father, as thuggish rapper. Though black male creatives have and continue to exist, rarely has one vociferously demanded the recognition of a new narrative of nonwhite personhood controlling the means of production, especially with West’s style and mainstream influence. And never, to be sure, have these demands been rapped over the lush sounds of a Hit-Boy beat.
Expressing interest in fashion and product design, architecture and business, Kanye West manages to slip and slide inside and outside our definitions of him. These labels assigned by others — West as rapper, radical, illiterate, and clown — lack the recognition Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben hypothesized was critical to an internal assertion of personhood, making them more than petty insults but examples of unacknowledged humanity.
And recognized personhood, it seems, is what Kanye West’s beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy really is.
Society’s inability to recognize and affirm someone as more than one thing, is magnified a million times over in the case of nonwhite creatives and intellectuals. In the face of the executives, managers, and cultural tropes that work to dictate, depoliticize, or disallow the execution of his art, Kanye West demands recognition, and the opportunities to achieve more, that come with it.
Claims of West’s egomania then exist in a new, different, and truer light. Yeezus’ third song “I am a God” isn’t about dismissing the divine but being empowered by it. Each disenfranchised or marginalized minority crafts its own respite from the ignorant majority that refuses to recognize it, and re-appropriating common ideas of divinity is West’s form of protest through black self-love.
In “Identity Without the Person,” Agamben proposed that “it is only through recognition by others that man can constitute himself as a person.” This theory is vindicated countless times in fiction and reality: It wasn’t money that could satisfy Gatsby, but recognition from Daisy; it wasn’t gambling profits that the Corleone family sought, but “legitimacy” achieved through governmental power; Columbine shooter Eric Harris wasn’t another victim of high school bullying, but a textbook psychopath who sought recognition from an array of forces he could neither identify nor escape; the billions of dollars grossed by Facebook were small victories compared to Mark Zuckerberg’s satisfaction when the site’s success forced his Harvard classmates to recognize his worth.
For racial and ethnic minorities, for members of the LGBTQ community, for women, the uneducated, under-served, and disenfranchised, it is a fight to have the establishment recognize one’s personhood in all of its complexity. The self-drawn comparisons to Steve Jobs and Howard Hughes don’t reveal Kanye West’s vanity, as much as they speak to a much larger ailment: the struggle to be recognized as a person in the most basic and essential of ways.