The Kanye West konundrum

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It seems not a week goes by that rapper, entrepreneur and fledgling fashion designer Kanye West isn't in the news.

Kanye WestOver the past few weeks alone, West disparaged Taylor Swift not once but twice, announced that 'white publications' had no right to write about black music, tweeted in support of alleged serial rapist Bill Cosby and casually requested Mark Zuckerberg throw a lazy US$1billion his way to cover a spiralling debt.  

Even as I write this I'm conscious that a rare example of self-effacement — 'My number one enemy has been my ego ... there is only one thrown [sic] and that's God's ... ' — will be cancelled out before too long. (And there it is: news of an expletive-peppered rant attributed to West arrives as if on cue.)

Of course, West isn't alone in being loud and opinionated. If looking for outrageous statements, you could transpose West's name with any number of controversial figures, such as Donald Trump, Mark Latham, Alan Jones — or acerbic UK communist Katie Hopkins, who, you may remember, wrote that she'd happily 'use gunships to stop migrants'.

Yet West somehow hovers above even this weirdly exalted company; cocooned in his celebrity bubble kicking back with wife (and leading brand in her own right) Kim Kardashian. Depending on your perspective, West is either the gift that just keeps giving or the twit who just keeps tweeting.

But here's what's got me baffled. How has someone like West managed to flourish in a time in which online shaming has become the norm? 

After all, as UK journalist and author Jon Ronson discovered while researching his 2013 book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, when it comes to social media, the crime rarely matches the vitriol it provokes. Ronson's star case in point was Justine Sacco, the then 30-year-old New Yorker who, in 2013, paid dearly for a misaimed, if clearly stupid, tweet about Africa and Aids.

By contrast, the one tag West can't shake off no matter the amount of self-aggrandisement and posturing is 'genius'.

We can debate whether or not West is a 'person of high intellect or talent that's rare', but as journalist Tom Barnes argues at mic.com, West certainly fits the definition proffered by Arthur Koestler in his 1964 book The Act of Creation: 'The principal mark of a genius is not perfection, but originality'.

As Barnes writes, on West's 'almost purposefully flawed and unfinished' 2013 album Yeezus he 'opened entirely new artistic boundaries for the kinds of emotion and sound allowed in hip-hop'.

And on his latest offering The Life of Pablo he does it again. Despite its official release on a music streaming service last week, the album, a vexed, sometimes brilliant offering, remains a 'work in progress'; a canvas upon which the artist continues to add further brush strokes.

Issues of colour aren't incidental to West. It's not just that race and racial politics are part of his oeuvre; it's how he uses each to both reassert his identity and challenge social prejudice.

As Dawn Boeck writes in The Cultural Impact of Kanye West, 'West creates routes/roots through his artistic work that map his own connections to modernity as he makes connections to the past and present to construct his individual and collective identity as a black male.'

Barnes, though, stops short of unequivocal praise. As he reminds us, West's genius is hamstrung by his ego. Quoting William Hazlitt, he writes: 'He who comes up to his own idea of greatness, must always have had a very low standard of it in his mind.'

And so it is that the conundrum (or perhaps konundrum) deepens, but I'm starting to think that it comes down to the fact that the 'Kult of Kanye' says more about us, than about him.

While we're culturally wired to pay more attention to the famous than the ordinary, our ability to turn a collective blind eye to West's character flaws (let's not forget that the talk of genius is loudest from West himself) speaks volumes about what we currently value in our society.

Having spent so much time inside the social media cloud we find ourselves lost and discombobulated. Why else would we give 'controversial and bombastic' far more credence than they deserve? But in so doing we've also allowed one of the most laudable human traits around, humility — real, palpable, lay-your-soul-bare humility — to become something of an afterthought.

As social anthropologist Jamie Tehrani writes: 'Fame is a powerful cultural magnet'; but unless we're careful, fame can also betray the fissures in our social fabric, and people like Kanye West can only distract us from that for so long.

 


Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor.

Topic tags: Jen Vuk, Kanye West

 

 

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Existing comments

It is articles like yours that give the Wests and Trumps the soapboxes to stand on and voice the nonsense they are given the podium to speak from so as to make nonsense mainstream media. If you would ignore them, they will go away without any noticeable disturbance anywhere. I do pray media would stop giving voice to such obviously Satan inspired ideas. Pray for them. Pray for us all.
Papa Smurf | 26 February 2016


Thank you for shedding some light on an unlikely, unlikeable pop cultural sensation. I haven't given any real thought to Mr West as an artist, having endured his performance as a warmup act before a U2 concert in Melbourne. The meglomaniacal nature of his self-promoting body of work has by and large distracted me from any genuine originaiity and/or creativity he has made. I see I have under-estimated him. If he could stop being a tosser long enough to let his work speak for him I'd be more inclined to take him more seriously.
Barry G | 26 February 2016


who is Kanye West?
Vin Victory | 26 February 2016


Paris Hilton was said to be famous because she was famous and had a famous name and a lot of money. The Kardashian women are famous because they have a grandpa who was famous and apparently got OJ off the hook, and also made stacks of money. Is Mr West famous for his opinions without actually doing anything to deserve it? Seems he has the makings of a blogger.
Brett | 29 February 2016


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