Taking Kanye West seriously with professor Jeffrey McCune
Professor Jeffrey McCune knew that no one had taught a course on Kanye West before, but he didn’t expect the sort of media attention that his seminar, “The Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics,” would garner. A few days into this semester, media organizations, from Time to Fox, from Complex to Vox, had already written about the class.
Now, media attention can be positive (“Look at this great course being offered!”), negative (“Look at this horrible course!”) or more neutral, rather playing on perceptions of public interest, recognizing an anomaly (“Look at this strange new course!”). Though the articles fell mostly into the first and third categories, many commenters held negative views.
You can probably imagine the standard of vitriol found in that section. There’s no need to quote them. They’re all still online; you can read them for yourself.
But McCune said he took an hour to read these comments (a brave man to venture into that territory!), and never had to look at them again.
“That one hour did inform me that the very argument I’m making about the legitimacy of black people and black music, particularly hip-hop, is contested,” McCune said. “Folks do not think hip-hop deserves academic course attention.”
On one level, people identified the course on West with the stereotypical misconception of the prestigious private university as laughably easy. They see a star increasingly considered “pop” and associate his art with simplicity, and they see the study of that art as elementary. These are the easiest notions to displace.
Senior Alvin Zhang, a consistent West fan, said the course has been anything but easy thus far.
“We explore a lot of different media. We’ll bounce from a YouTube video to a song, then [we’ll] talk about some event in his life,” Zhang said. “It’s a really great exercise in pulling your brain in so many directions.”
But another, perhaps more troublesome, condemnation of the course comes from people who say that West specifically shouldn’t represent an academic topic (that is, the study of other pop stars would be acceptable).
McCune describes this disparity.
“I come from places where people teach courses on golfing and kayaking,” he said.
Soon, we see the stakes of legitimizing Kanye West are much higher than the stakes of maintaining the validity of media studies on campus.
“I think that—that inability to see the uneven and unequal treatment of black iconography versus white iconography—is quite striking. We still live in a world where we think about ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. And so often, what’s considered ‘low art’ is that which encompasses and incorporates those who are, as Zora Neale Hurston says, the furthest down below,” McCune continued.
McCune doesn’t suggest that a course on a single white artist, icon or work, is wrong or a waste of time. Rather, West, as an artist, deserves the same scholarly attention and validation as Franz Kafka or Jane Austen.
It is along these lines that McCune asserts the part of the course’s title: “Black Genius.” The term “genius” is not one of simple praise, exactly, but an acceptance of West’s artistic merits.
“I would say that his music—it’s a homage to the digital,” McCune explained. “In the use of digital voice overs, and the characterizations of the sonic-techno-ish sounds, makes him an emblematic moment of the Digital Era.”
The theory supporting the course relies on the basic and necessary constructions: That all music is art (any arguments against popular music’s “high art” qualities were put to bed by Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature), and West as a producer of music represents an artist, with an artistic vision of the world, who deserves to be studied as any other artist.
Still, people might have trouble with another basic assumption of the course, that West the boaster, West the Taylor Swift-interrupter, West the Donald Trump-meeter will be studied. To study someone and engage with his or her work is a kind of political or appraising act and, in the end, is one that suggests this person has something meaningful to say.
McCune addressed this necessary issue by referencing Tupac Shakur’s poem: “Long live the rose that grew from concrete,” but McCune adds the essential caveat: “And every rose has thorns.” Like other artistic and scholarly “geniuses” (see: T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism, for example) West has flaws. But, like any other study in the humanities, scholarship on West demands a broad approach to the subject.
“I’m trying to teach my students to practice critical generosity,” McCune said. “For me, critical generosity is that which takes into account the conditions under which folks perform… It’s about giving them the benefit of the doubt, given their conditions. If we do, in fact, say that Kanye suffers mental health issues, then we should be empathetic as we would with anyone else with mental health issues. People say, ‘Kanye is crazy; Kanye is bipolar.’ I say, ‘Is that an insult? Or is that a sign of injury?’”
More than anything, McCune takes the study of West as a study of art, not forgetting things that he says or does, but aiming to give each part of his experience its own place in the scholarship.
Perhaps, the strangest part of this course then is that it touches on such a prevalent and “now” topic, one that could become more complex every day. Zhang said he recognizes that this is not a common class structure.
“As academics, we often relate to things from at least 50 years ago,” he said. “Or we take sources from a long time ago and construct arguments for now. But this class is sort of shaking up all that. It doesn’t feel like it’s going to fail, but it’s a huge experiment.”
A course on West will always sound like a bunch of fun, but it can also take a form necessary for college courses: a chance to examine multiple discursive experiences of race, gender, class, etc. Though McCune’s students understand that this is a noble and real pursuit, he realizes that perhaps parents or grandparents of students might not feel the same.
“I think their parents and grandparents think that this is a waste of time,” he said. “And my one major goal for my students at the end of the semester is for them to say, ‘This is everything that my mom and dad are paying for.’”
As for whether West should run for president in 2020, McCune only has one thing to say. “If Number 45 can be president of the United States, so can Kanye West,” he laughs.
McCune is also publishing a book titled “On Kanye: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics,” and will host a number of lectures on the subject throughout the semester, including the Assembly Series talk on March 8 titled: “Mumbo Jumbo: The (In)Audibility of Kanye West.”