BY HANNAH SILK CHAMPAGNE
When is a listening party not just a listening party?
When it's a Kanye West listening party.
[jump] Of course, this can be said of almost anything that Mr. West is up to these days. When is an SNL performance not just an SNL performance? When is an XXL magazine cover not just an XXL magazine cover? When is a comeback not just a comeback? Oh wait... don't call it come back.
The event started off pretty typically. A few questions were asked. I learned that Kanye's favorite album is "Bizarre Ride to the Pharcyde" (awesome!). The host then offered up the novel idea that perhaps some songs from the new album could be played. Kanye gladly obliged, hopping onto his Mac Book Pro (omg we have the same computer, Kanye! let's be friends!) and cued up track 1.
I won't get into the details of the album, but trust me, if you've enjoyed any of his G.O.O.D Friday releases, you will love this album. Enough said.
Following the listening portion came an audience Q & A. I thought it was great that the audience had a chance to ask questions. And then I remembered that this was an audience randomly generated through a radio competition. "What is a secret hobby of yours?" someone asked. Really? Really? What are you expecting him to say? "Oh, well, don't tell anyone but I secretly love to knit." No. Anyone who has kept up with Kanye can see how transparent he is with his life. Be it via Twitter or in his music or interviews, Kanye doesn't keep too many secrets. He responded saying that he gives so much of himself to the public. So if he did have any secrets left, he would rather keep them.
When asked what inspired Runaway (the film) and his music, Kanye gave two very interesting responses: In regards to the film's inspiration Kanye replied... "You know Tumblr..." I guess that, just like so many of us, Kanye loves to scroll through endless photos on Tumblr and wanted his film to be something that could exist as a series of screen shots. Funny because just the other day I "screen grabbed" a great shot from that film and put it in my Tumblr. So, mission accomplished! For his music he gave an equally populist answer. He said that when he writes his music, he just thinks of t-shirts. He writes lines that can exist as they're own singular statements that would be great on a t-shirts (screen printers, take note!).
There were other questions asked, but the conversation really got interesting when he commandeered the Q & A and began just spoke his mind. The most powerful portion of the monologue revolved around his views on the media and pop culture. The thing that frustrates me the most about the current conversation around Kanye West is that there seems to be very little recognition of the fact that this man really GETS it. It is rare that someone who is so completely involved in pop culture is able to look at it as clearly and break it down like Kanye does. In his speech on Friday, and during a recent interview with MTV's Sway, he demonstrated just how deeply he understands the way that the media works. He's experienced first hand the way that media builds someone up, only to bring them down. He recognizes why so many true artists, who have the talent and dedication to be the greatest, step away from the spotlight. He straight up said, "I understand why people like Thom Yorke and Trent Reznor backed away from the top" (ok, that was paraphrased, but you get the idea). He sees them, and himself, as artists who love the craft so much, have so much talent, but don't want to take the media and the push of the paparazzi. He talked about the role that award shows play in this. He feels pretty strongly about award shows.
I guess he had a bad experience at one about a year ago... but he really learned a lot from it. He talked about Rage Against the Machine's appearance on the VMA's. How they had to go to the show. They were nominated and had to go, only to lose to Limp Bizkit. And they retaliated. Just like Kanye did. He compared going to an award show and watching someone else win, perhaps someone less deserving, to watching your girlfriend cheat on you. You see, pop culture is the love of his life. The way the media treats people... that's the reason that pop culture is so watered down. The people who are truly invested in the artistry don't want to deal with the media.
He also sees the way that this affects culture. When people try to be different, to do something different, they are pushed away. And that message, that it's wrong to be different, is definitely absorbed in our culture. In his film "Runaway", a young boy runs out of a field wearing all red and bearing a torch. A few scenes later the same boy is shown wearing a hooded cloak, much like a KKK hood. In the interview with Sway, he explains that he uses the image of the KKK hoods to symbolize cult mentality in our culture. And through mainstream media and the watered down pop culture that it propagates, you become a part of that cult, and lose your differences.
That's why he knows that he has to be a soldier. A Solider of Culture. He recognizes that he's in the unique position to expose people to different sides of culture than what you'll normally see on MTV or in Rolling Stone, etc. Whether that is through working with up and coming rappers, like Cyphi The Prynce or musicians like Justin Vernon, or by mixing ballet and hip-hop in Runaway or even in the clothes he wears, he finds a way to curate and highlight talents and ideas that may never have had such exposure. He realizes he's not some great philanthropist, he's not going over to help in Africa. But what he's doing, as a Soldier of Culture, is bringing culture to the masses; culture that encourages being different. And really, isn't that just as good as philanthropy?
I could really go on forever, preaching "the gospel of Kanye", but I think he does a much better job than I do. Seeing him speak live I was struck by how completely passionate he is about not just pop culture and music, but people. He wants to uplift people and let them know that it's ok to be different. And thinking and questioning are great! And with his oratorical skills, I believe he can do it. As he left Seven after the event, I felt compelled to stop him and tell him that he is an amazing public speaker. Because I mean, if this whole hip-hop thing doesn't work out, he could totally be a professor of cultural criticism.
--Hannah Silk Champagne