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What’s it like to study Kanye West at university?

Dr Jeffrey McCune of Washington University breaks down queerness, black excellence and ego in ‘Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics’

The figure of Kanye West has proved controversial and complex over his decades-spanning career. Maintaining a vast discography with killer beats and protesting lyrical discourse held in equal measure, his place in the sphere of celebrity and political chess moves – some better received than others – inform the iconography of Kanye as much as his tunes.

Dr Jeffrey McCune, a professor at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, has begun the “Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics” course. Dr McCune teaches in the African and African-American Studies and the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies departments at the college. He hopes to use Kanye as a case study to illustrate the intersections between race, politics, gender, sexuality and culture, with West and hip-hop as his lens.

The artist’s contribution to ‘black excellence’, the queer and political highways he took hip-hop on and the Life of Pablo rapper’s capacity for greatness are just some of the course’s major points, exploring albums such as 808s & Heartbreak, as well as Ye’s run-in with Taylor Swift and PSA about Bush and black people in Hurricane Katrina. The 14-week module includes a syllabus with topics like “I Love Kanye, Or How Critique Slips Into Hate” and “Touch The Sky: When The Aspirant Turns Genius”.

Dr McCune spoke to Dazed about placing the artist in the academic sphere, and the creative genius of his flawed, most intriguing case study, Kanye West.

What is it about Kanye and the cultural space he inhabits that are interesting for academic study?

Dr Jeffrey McCune: Kanye West has been a cultural force since entering the world of hip-hop. First, as a sound maker, a manufacturer of beats and voices for other artists, then moving into the rap stage. What I am interested in is his ability to really chronicle and model the type of ‘genius within’ all black folks who miraculously survive the social and cultural constraints of the times. Kanye West’s appeal in the mainstream has largely been his insistence on greatness; but, that emphasis means something different for those who live at the margins of our society. Rather than just a sense of hope, Kanye West provides us much language to unpack the complexity of our circumstances. For me, it’s no coincidence that he, like I, grew up in Chicago in the Reagan era – amidst vast poverty and drug-ridden neighborhoods. These spaces, while often shaped as cesspools of crime and decay, were bastions of beauty, genius, and creativity. I particularly am drawn to how this insistence on the greatness even in times of despair works on a macrolevel.

Does engaging with the idea of celebrity and his more controversial moments painted by tabloids, or his own social media, prove at all reductive in considering his work? 

Dr Jeffrey McCune: For many, all their opinions of Kanye are rooted in personality, rather than product. I think this is fascinating. While we may say that Kanye’s performances in public outweigh his performances on stage, I suggest that the public chooses to hear the dissident performances more than the others. This choice-making, for me, cannot be disaggregated from the many black and brown men and women in our society – who do not receive the generosity of talent over the trivial. Indeed, this tendency to reduce Kanye West, and any human subject, to their error or airing of dirty laundry, is to deny them the rightful consideration of their larger contributions. 

“The same manic and narcissist impulses folks say they hate is actually what produced the music which got you through some hard moments, got you over heartbreak, and made the sonic aesthetics that mesmerise even when you don’t fully understand”

What draws you to exploring the ‘black genius’ within popular culture?

Dr Jeffrey McCune: Kanye West is a trendsetter.  He uses his platform to innovate and to introduce the public to not only new ways of seeing, but new fashion and new art. 

In these times of heightened anti-blackness, it feels as if the focus on the genius within black communities is lost. So much time and energy, and rightfully so, has been spent combatting narratives about black people as criminals and dangerous. However, there has to be space to see more than this. Hip-Hop is often ghettoized as a music of the poor and deviant; never calculated as genius music or an ‘American treasure’. Yet, its sales, its conglomeration of different music and its poetry have attracted more folks globally than any other music of this period. This is not just black music, it is black genius music. For me, it is time that we begin to situate hip-hop, music of folks like Kanye West and Nicki Minaj, as game changing, uniquely-voiced, and containing an unmatched dynamism.

How can we challenge the idea of Kanye as a narcissist that’s continually perpetuated?

Dr Jeffrey McCune: First, I have seen no diagnosis – I refuse such labels, in respect to those who have prescribed conditions. Yet, I must admit that it is most clear that Kanye West has quite the ego, and is committed to a certain way of communicating confidence, which has had grave impact on his public identity and image. I believe that there are many ways to challenge this notion. First, there is something to be said for an unrelenting confidence in a world that is constantly critiquing and injuring black people. Second, if he does suffer from mental health struggles, then this is serious and we deserve to not establish him as a ‘jackass’, but rather empathise with the condition. But third, and probably my theoretical approach to this whole ‘manic Kanye’ concern: the same manic and narcissist impulses folks say they hate is actually what produced the music which got you through some hard moments, got you over heartbreak, and made the sonic aesthetics that mesmerise even when you don’t fully understand. 

The syllabus topic “Love Lock Down, or Hip-Hop’s Queer Love Language” sounds so interesting. How is Kanye’s work relating to sexuality? 

Dr Jeffrey McCune: Kanye returned to a sound of romanticism in 808 & Heartbreaks, when hip-hop was becoming more ‘guttural’ and ‘ratchet’. This was a queer move. To abandon rap as we knew it and compile a set of song-like raps was a risk – demonstrating Kanye’s ability to not only push his limits, but also the limits of hip-hop itself. What this section is interested here is not as much in sexuality, but showing students how it is that Kanye West – in music and texts – challenges dominant modes of masculinity, hip-hop music and storytelling.

Do you have a favourite Kanye album?

Dr Jeffrey McCune: I typically say NO to the favourite question. But, I am edging toward saying that as a whole piece, The Life of Pablo might be his very best. For me, this is his opus; an album where he lays out his multiple voices and talents, full throttle. I also think it’s interesting how this album actually speaks directly to my course, as it makes us think of Pablo as in Picasso and Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug dealer. In “The Politics of Kanye West”, what I try to illustrate is that the complexity of humanity anticipates the potential for multiple Pablos to live in one body, to one body of work. Therefore, in this calculation there is no low and high art see, but each is its own genius-making and illustrates the real labour in any black cultural production. I am always engaged in countering our tendencies to call one thing art and another thing garbage. In fact, it is the aggregate here that tells the story of so many complex people, who grow up in communities that have complex realities. And for me, this album The Life of Pablo presents these complexities in the diversity of sounds, texts, and images it offers. 

“Through a careful engagement with his work and life, I hope that students will be able to see how black iconography differs from dominant iconography – as it always becomes entangled in how to respond (or not respond) to claims of deviance”

What do you hope your students take from this course?

Dr Jeffrey McCune: I hope that my students walk away asking more questions of popular culture. I hope they understand how Kanye West was a case study, to illuminate the importance of recognising ‘complex personhood’ even in iconographic figures. Through a careful engagement with his work and life, I hope that students will be able to see how black iconography differs from dominant iconography – as it always becomes entangled in how to respond (or not respond) to claims of deviance. It is my hope that they will walk away from this course feeling as proud as they do when they have mastered the work and art of Shakespeare, Woolf, and others. As I told them – I hope they leave saying “THIS is what my parents and family are paying for!!"

And how is it complementing your previous work?

Dr Jeffrey McCune: My research and work is always concerned with alternative viewing practices and challenging what we may think of as ‘givens’. I love to turn to popular culture as a space that tells us a lot about our society, as well as its possibilities. Thus, my interrogation of Kanye West—as a pop culture figure who not only theorizes through his performances, but offers us new narratives to approach race, gender, and sexuality through both visual and sound.