I first heard about Kanye West in 2004. I was managing a brand new Hollywood Video store in Blaine, MN (about 20 minutes north of Minneapolis) and was living with my high school buddy Joel Waltz, who also worked for HV and whom I had chosen to be my right hand man and Assistant Manager at the new location.
Joel and I LOVED music; him WAY more than even I did. Joel and I met when we lived together in Austin, MN. He was one of my first friends when I moved to town, and while most of the kids were listening to 311 and Rage Against the Machine, Joel knew the deep cuts. He introduced me to most of the nu-metal & punk I started listening to that would shape my foray into being a musician myself. I had played guitar since I was 7 – mostly jamming out to Metallica and Offspring tunes. Joel got me into obscure hard bands like 40 Below Summer, Kittie, Deftones, Reveille, (hed) PE, and punk bands like Sum 41, Millencolin, and MU330. We quickly became concert buds, and by senior year we were probably skipping school at least one day a week to head to the Quest Club in the Twin Cities to see shows.
We joked that our parents had automated outgoing messages to respond to the automated incoming messages from school about our missed classes.
No worries, we both graduated on time.
Boy is our school system in trouble!
As white kids growing up in southern Minnesota, not a lot of kids we went to school with listened to rap. Coming from Philly, I of course was bumping DMX and Tribe on the regular in my rotation, and being friends with Tony McDermott – the only (adopted) black kid in our grade, led to us cruising the one-ways bumping Busta Rhymes Genesis album and the Dre’s Chronic 2001. As you can imagine, Eminem became the big thing in our town senior year.
Even though we always skewed rock/metal, Joel stayed mega interested in the underground hip hop scene. He was the first dude I knew to bump NERD & the Neptunes joints. He’d listen to records we liked, go to Best Buy on payday and drop his ENTIRE check on CD’s, combing the liner notes to read about producers and what else they might be working on. I still swear to this day that Joel would make a helluva record producer.
While first working together in 2004, we shared a car. We worked alternate shifts, so he’d drop me in the morning to work, bring the car back in the afternoon, I’d drive back home and swoop him up in the evening.
One day when we swapped cars, he had on a record by a kid our age named Kanye West. The album was College Dropout.
The first track I heard was “All Falls Down,” and I was instantly hooked. Not only was it the best produced hip hop song I had heard at the time, but lyrically I was blown away. As I went track to track on the record, I heard songs like Spaceship; a song about the mundane and thankless life of working retail, being treated like a commodity, and dreaming of a better life. It was one of the first times as a white kid, that I felt like a rap song written by a black dude was about our shared experiences – not the vast differences between our lives.
I was immediately a fan.
I recently watched Kanye’s new documentary series Jeen-Yuhs on Netflix – a four part series chronicling Kanye’s life from age 19 making beats for Jay-Z (how underground hip hop heads discovered Kanye on the liner notes in the first place) to signing his first record deal and all of the publicity and controversy that subsequently followed.
I’ve always admired that Kanye, despite what his boisterous opinions might consist of, has always seemed thoughtful and introspective. He often pauses before responding to difficult questions. He cares about choosing the right words. So as you can imagine, when people started screaming things like “this dude don’t know what the hell he’s saying;” or “he don’t even think before he says crazy things,”
I knew something didn’t add up.
The biggest “crazy thing” in recent history for Kanye was his infamous moment on TMZ, when talking with the hosts about race in America, and letting slip the now infamous line of:
“400 years of slavery? That sounds like a choice.”
There was an audible silence in the room, right up until Van Lathan famously went off on Kanye for the insensitivity of his remarks. Though I disagreed with Van’s perspective, I admired his bravery to look a billionaire celebrity in the face on TV and say “I don’t care who you are or how much money you have, you’re wrong.” It’s one of the main reasons I chose to sit across from Van when facing my very own cancellation months later.
I admire passion in people, even when it opposes my beliefs.
I wasn’t shocked that Kanye said what he did. In a weird way, I felt like I instantly knew what he meant. Where Ye’ has always fallen short has been in elaboration, and I sort of understand that too. Kanye has always been an artist that speaks in totems, symbols, and great one-liners. Kanye loves to throw a grenade into a song or a conversation and make the listener decipher his words.
Across the entire internet, people were flabbergasted at this new, MAGA hat-wearing, Trump supporting, conservative Kanye. They couldn’t believe the black man that they grew up loving; whose music they championed and whose empire was built on their backs and from their wallets could betray them.
I wasn’t surprised at all, because I had been listening – as a white dude, and not a black person. Here’s why that is important.
It wasn’t until my “canceling” in 2018 that I became aware of this cultural trend in Black America – this celebration of victimhood. It’s not exclusive to Black America; every race has gotten into the “poor us” game – even suburban white kids demanding reparations for the “mental illnesses” bestowed upon them from their life of privilege; the byproduct of having so much money that their parents could easily neglect them.
Oh, the horror…
Watching Kanye’s doc had me go back and give his first album a listen, all over again. Is this really a new Kanye? I think it really depends.
On one hand, you could go back to and listen to songs like All Falls Down or Jesus Walks and hear them as indictments of the oppression of decades of systemic white-on-black racism.
I listen to them and hear what they actually were – an indictment of black culture and values.
When I first heard Kanye sharing political opinions, I thought back to All Falls Down and specific lines in that song:
“Then I spent $400 bucks on this, just to be like ni**a, you ain’t up on this And I can’t even go to the grocery store, without some ones that’s clean and a shirt with a team – now, It seem we livin’ 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 – and for that paper look how low we’ll stoop – even if you in a Benz, you still a ni**a in a coupe.”
On one hand, you could read this as an assessment of where white power institutions have placed black people in our society. On another hand, you could read it as a criticism of where black people in America have chosen to place themselves.
If you listen carefully, this is a common theme throughout College Dropout. My theory is verified by this opening line in Jesus Walks:
“We at war – we at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all – we at war with ourselves”
The song goes on to talk about how a black man’s relationship with God is ridiculed and mocked in the hip-hop community. How it’s “uncool” for Kanye to rap about his faith, and even at times (it seems he believes) that it’s preventing him from landing his record deal as an artist.
“They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus – That means guns, sex, lies, and videotape, but if I talk bout God my record won’t get played, HUH?
Here’s the MOST important part of that song, for me:
“Well, if this take away from my spins – Which’ll probably take away from my ends – Then I hope this take away from my sins – and bring the day that I’m dreaming’ about – Next time I’m in the club, everybody screamin’ out” (Jesus Walk)”
Kanye West KNEW when he wrote that song 20 years ago that his principles might cost him money, make him uncool, or prevent him from success.
Do you know what Beyonce thinks about racial injustice? When was the last time she did an interview? You won’t know her thoughts, feelings, or opinions – and that’s by design. It’s how cowards protect their bag these days.
Remember John Cena apologizing to China in Mandarin? How about Duane “The Rock” Johnson bowing to his Chinese box office overlords? Celebrities these days are so afraid to hurt their money that you’ll honestly never know what they think about anything.
I’ll always hold the artists that are unafraid to jeopardize their fortune to tell the truth to a higher esteem. I’m clearly not the only one. While celebrities that keep their opinions close to the vest might make and keep millions, the outspoken Kanye has amassed a fortune well into the billions – setting trends and creating empires in not only music, but fashion, and now technology with his recently released “stem player.” If you’re brave enough to be authentic, you might just have to watch the bag and make sure it doesn’t explode.
Now, I’ve never met Kanye. My girlfriend had the privilege of working for him during his “Jesus is King” pop-up event in DTLA a few years ago. She told me he made a point to go around and shake hands, take pictures with, and thank every single person that showed up to work for him and rep his brand that day. It was one of the higher paying gigs like it she had ever worked, and they thanked everyone by giving them all free Yeezy’s – valued at the time around $900.
I was definitely jealous, as I’ve always felt a kinship with him as an artist. I’ve always known that some of the things I’d say would be unpopular, and that they would make my life and career harder. But I am BEYOND inspired by Kanye West, not only for what he’s accomplished, but for the fact that he continues not to compromise his vision and his belief system for easy money.
Some of the women I’ve dated over the years have been black. Many of our conversations as things were on the verge of getting serious were around the idea of having children – what faith would we raise them in? What would their belief system be? (Important side note, most of the black women I dated happened to come from religious families with strict but loving fathers).
I never shied away from the idea of having black children, but I knew in my heart that had I fathered black children, I’d have NEVER given them “the talk” about being black in America. Many of my potential partners agreed. We thought “we can’t control what the world throws at our child, but we can control how he or she chooses to see it,” and telling any child that the “world is against them” only hurts them.
Your children will only ever reach the heights they can envision by the limitations you set for them – not Netflix, or the media, or being represented on sitcoms – by what limitations their parents set for them.
I tear up watching Kanye talk with his mother, Donda. It makes me emotional, because it reminds me of my conversations with my own mother. Our mothers are the only people in our lives that never ONCE set a limitation on who we could be; what we could be; what we could stand for; or what we could become. They always had faith. They always espoused their faith.
Where does Kanye’s arrogance and self-belief ultimately come from? Having a mother that REFUSED to set limitations on her son because of their financial situation, or their education, or their skin color.
Greatness can ONLY be born out of faith. Faith in God; faith in humanity; hell, even just faith in yourself – but it cannot be done without faith.
Kanye has ALWAYS been an introspective, truthful, thoughtful, iconic, and contrarian artist. He has ALWAYS had faith. I truly believe it’s why he has been so successful. People know when you’re hitting them with the truth, even if it makes them uncomfortable. They know when you actually believe what you say.
…and if you’re surprised that Ye’ said “400 years of slavery sounds like a choice.”