Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Kanye West: Social Activist

Whether you personally view Kanye as a creative genius or ranting lunatic, he is doing something different. He has sold more than 32 million albums and 100 million digital downloads. He has won 21 Grammy Awards, making him one of the most awarded artists of all time. Kanye is more than an egotistical maniac and more than a rapper from Chicago, he is a social activist.

Kanye began exhibiting signs of talent at the age of 5 in the form of poetry. His passion for music and art became apparent in third grade and continued to grow. At the age of 20, he dropped out of college as the environment was not conducive to his musical dreams. His mother would later look back on this moment and comment, “It was drummed into my head that college is the ticket to a good life… but some career goals don’t require college. For Kanye to make an album called College Dropout it was more about having the guts to embrace who you are, rather than following the path society has carved out for you.” Skipping forward a few years in October 2002, Kanye was involved in a nearly fatal car crash after falling asleep at the wheel. This near death experience is what Kanye himself credits as the momentum that sparked the beginnings of his first album College Dropout and the Kanye we know today.

College Dropout went against the gangster rap stereotype of hip hop of the time and exposed themes of family, religion, college, race relations, criticizing rappers for being poor role models, and self indulgent materialism. One of my favorite components to this album are the skits throughout. These have the purpose of setting the stage for the lyrical discussion of the above mentioned socially fueled topics. Two of the most socially charged songs on the album are “We Don’t Care” and “Jesus Walks”. “We Don’t Care” is an ironic approach to shedding light on the influence the thug or gangster life has on youth and how detrimental this is to underprivileged areas. Lyrics such as,

Sittin' in the hood like community colleges
This dope money here is Lil' Trey's scholarship
'Cause ain't no to tuition for havin' no ambition
And ain't no loans for sittin' your ass at home
We forced to sell crack rap and get a job
You gotta do somethin' man your ass is grown” 

which further touch on race relations as they relate to higher education and therefore opportunities for poor African Americans. “Jesus Walks” was revolutionary by mentioning a religious undertone in a rap/hip hop song while incorporating gospel singing. Kanye discusses the inherent value of all, following up with the repeated lyrics “Jesus walks for them”. The music video furthers the focus on race relations with slavery related imagery in the chain gang. 

This fall, Kanye had a very public mental breakdown. This reminded me of "Secrets of the Creative Brain" authored by Nancy Andreasen and the link between mental illness or  borderline madness and creativity. Many creatives have ended their own lives (Virginia Wolf, Earnest Hemingway, etc.) and Kanye has publicly spoken on his suicidal thoughts before. Andreasen concluded that creatives did have a higher rate of hereditary mental illness including bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and alcoholism. Unfortunately, Kanye too has shown signs of mental illness and I personally have a hope that he addresses this in his next album and brings to light the struggles of this. He has empowered many in the past through his music and I hope he can continue to do so in this new outlet. 

However controversial, Kanye uses himself and his platform to begin the conversation surrounding pressing issues in a creative way, through music. This is common in some aspects, but was not brought to his genre in such a way that reached mass audiences until College Dropout. Many outside of the groups he is referring to would not have been exposed to many issues without his music. Having a more meaningful and socially impactful message than drugs, women, and violence is what has set Kanye apart from others in his genre and what will continue to propel his success. 

Andreasen, Nancy. "Secrets of the Creative Brain." The Atlantic Monthly Group (2014): n. pag. July 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2017. 


  1. I think this is a great article that highlights one of raps more creative lyricists. I like how you made the comparison between mental illness and creativity. It reminds me a lot of another creative lyricist and rapper, Kid Cudi, who has been going through his own battles with depression with mental illness recently. I definitely think that a strong case can be made for the link between mental illness and creativity. Also, liked how you highlight the way in which Kanye went against the gangster, stereotypical rap of his time in his early works. I see a lot of similarities between his early rap style / subject matter and the work / subject matter of the work of Chance the Rapper. I have heard critics begin to dub Chance the "New Kanye". It will be interesting to see that title plays out over Chance's own creative rap career, hopefully, he will be able to avoid the mental problems Kanye has ran into this past year.

  2. Thanks for your insight, Anne! I see a lot of connections between Kanye and other great creatives of the past and present--including Pablo Picasso and fellow Chicagoan Theaster Gates. Picasso was noted to be a very unlikable individual, which is true of Kanye. Yet, both show that creators of beautiful art are not necessarily agreeable individuals. Moreover, Theaster Gates (an urban artist on whom I wrote my first blog post) and Kanye West were both interestingly influenced by gospel music. I am wondering if this was because they were both exposed to the same Chicago church culture? It is interesting to see the correlation between what one is exposed to as a youth and one's later creative process.

  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgJyhKEZ8QU

    This video talks about many of these aspects of how Kanye has "deconstructed" the human voice and used it in more than one way possible. His songs have challenged the way we visual what we are hearing. I really like the connection to creativity and the toll it takes on individuals. I see this in Martha Graham (my creative), she had a hard time with relationships and her creative process made her very critical and dark. Kanye is the same way, in which much of his creative process has required so much precision and can make him chaotic. But his music sends a message for "social activism" that is fueled from his life and his mother. Her death definitely made an impact on his music. I wonder if this makes him extremely difficult to work with since many perfectionist creatives are hard to please and come to an agreement with.

  4. For me personally, even though he is as you mentioned an "egotistical maniac", he is one of the most influential artists of our times and one of the greats hands down. I've followed him probably since middle school, but really didn't understand his music or what he was trying to say until my junior year of high school and have been highly attached since. As someone who values music on a higher level than a lot of other aspects in my life, it's easy for me to see why Kanye does what he does and understand how he creates his music. I can probably repeat every lyric from College Dropout and Graduation, and have definitely enjoyed his new music. Beyond that however, he is the focus on my group's project (Eliot) and it was interesting to do more research on him and to understand how that car crash truly affected him and how he has been influenced by so many things. After his mental breakdown, I definitely feel like he has a lot more to say and I'm looking forward to him getting healthy and sharing that experience - he's someone who has the capability to reach so many people and I hope that his experience will help others.


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