Kanye West might not be a role model, per se, but he can teach us something about being authentic.
Kanye West is a man of great wisdom best avoided. If you’re looking to quickly end a relationship, lose a couple friends, make questionable parenting decisions, or otherwise enhance your worldly suffering, the Chicago rapper is a treasure trove of relevant advice. It is with great reluctance that I share my experience embodying the life philosophy of Kanye West.
Indeed, many a college admissions offers must have scoffed as they read that oddball essay—written by an Eagle Scout from Bloomfield, N.J.—detailing how West’s music was integral to his education. A word of advice: if you’re a high school senior getting started on the Common App, do not, I repeat, do not admit that Kanye West is your role model, no matter how much the essay prompt tempts you. No one appreciates your honesty, and you’ll be better served picking a more respected public figure, like Michael Phelps or Tiger Woods.
I first heard West’s “Through the Wire” in fifth grade, and for better or worse, it stuck with me. West was then a young artist, initiating his career after a car accident. His jaw still wired shut, West bravely detailed his stint with death, and how it changed him (“Through the fire, to the limit, to the wall / For a chance to be with you, I’d gladly risk it all”). I was then an introverted 11-year-old with a heavy speech impediment, and the idea that this man—who at the time was nominated for his first Grammy as a rapper—struggled to find words resonated with me.
For a time, it would seem I had picked the wrong role model to cling to. Soon after his emergence as a national celebrity, West was built out by the media as an arrogant, insensitive figure. But I did not see arrogance. I saw an artist, speaking with candor—not even blinking as he pointed out the inherent racism in President George Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina on national television.
The idea of “celebrity” developed quite rapidly in the 20th century, with technologies like television and consumer photography elevating certain people to an almost godlike status. The role of celebrities in pop culture grew more rapidly over the last decade with the mass proliferation of online content. Over the years, West’s brash remarks have been magnified by the evolving viral landscape. While most artists took added measures to shrink away from the headlines, measuring words to avoid media scrutiny, West’s comments have grown more extreme.
I am not necessarily endorsing any of West’s recent behavior. I do not regard every remark he makes as a pearl of wisdom, or even defensible, for that matter. Embodying West’s extraordinary egotism will not get you far at dinner parties, and any defense of his antics is unlikely to get past a first read in the college admissions process.
But the untethered caution by which most public figures are watching their speech is crippling our sense of what it means to be authentic. It’s a challenge to pick role models when near all artists are careful cropping their public images—so much so that media relations business has bubbled to one of the biggest pieces of the entertainment industry.
Authenticity isn’t synonymous with reckless behavior, but with nearly all of us now tailoring our online personas to appease family members, potential employers, even casual acquaintances, strangers, it’s worth looking at how West made a career doing namely the opposite. Kanye West is a man of great wisdom best avoided—but you need not agree with his publicly held beliefs to admire the conviction with which he holds them.
So what exactly is Kanye West telling us? Take a stance. Write something controversial. Don’t shy away from pointing out that elephant sitting across the room. Few of us actually claim to be gods, and it’s a waste to measure our words as if we’re trying.
Featured Image Courtesy of Frank Micelotta / Fox / PictureGroup