Hate him or love him, Kanye West is an icon, and his story needs to be told. While there may be countless biographies on him, a new book is bringing receipts to show all the ways the multi-hyphenate has changed the world. Written by Howard University graduate Joshua K. Wright, “Wake Up, Mr. West: Kanye West and the Double Consciousness of Black Celebrity” examines not just Kanye West as a person, but how his power moves affect what it now means to be a Black celebrity in general. It was only right that HBCU Buzz interview Wright about his attention-grabbing book, and we discussed everything from Kanye in pop culture to how HBCUs are ingrained in his story.
With such a long career in the public eye, Kanye West represents different things to different people. Just as Diddy has done in the past, Kanye has even changed his name several times, from Yeezy, to Yeezus, and most recently the legal change to Ye. The way someone identifies with Kanye may differ especially based on that person’s age. “If you’re someone who’s younger, like an undergrad in college now, you may only know Kanye of the last few years,” said Wright. “So think of Yeezys, think of the Kardashians, Donda, Sunday Service too maybe.” Adding that are headlines about his comments that ‘slavery is a choice for Black people,’ and his devisive relationship with former president Donald Trump. Meanwhile his OG fans may think back to his teddy bear mascot, early fashion, relationship with Amber Rose. Also, his first albums The College Dropout and Late Registration, included several nods ro HBCU and Divine 9 culture. So to have a conversation about West’s legacy in this day and time would mean sorting through his praise as well as his backlash.
Among the most telling things to come out of Kanye West’s mouth wasn’t a song, but rather his famous outburst criticizing the handling of Hurricane Katrina. In 2005 shortly after the hurricane slammed New Orleans, West declared on a celebrity fundraising telecast that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” While many people rebuked West for his comment, it underscored how pure his intentions were for others who needed a hand. “What people don’t know is that with the Hurricane Katrina telethon, he and his mom were out there and they wanted to meet with the people,” said Wright, “and meet up with the folks at the SuperDome, meet with the people in Houston who had been displaced, and really help them.” Kanye, along with many across the nation, felt that the response from FEMA, the President of the United States and other members of the government were not urgent or substantial enough. It infuriated him so much that he felt obligated to speak out.
In fact, Kanye received much of his activist roots from his beloved mother Dr. Donda West. The maternal West came from parents who grew up in the Jim Crow era, and went on to be a Fulbright Scholar and professor at institutions like the HBCU Morris Brown College. “Her father worked in a place that said ‘no dogs and n****** on the street after dark’” said Wright. Her mom worked in the homes of a white woman who was like ‘you have to enter from the back of my house.’” The treatment of her family and community led her to gravitate towards ideas of Black nationalism and the Black Power movement. “In the summers, she would take him to Washington D.C. and they would trace the path of the March on Washington. They would visit the Lincoln Memorial because she wanted him to have that culture and that history.” With this lens in mind, West’s Katrina comments weren’t so far-fetched at all. By providing more of a context as to where West came from, Wright hopes readers are better equipped to discuss Kanye West as an artist, entrepreneur, and Black man.
Wright first decided to write about West thanks to a conversation he had as a PhD student at Howard. At the time he was stumped trying to figure out what topic was going to be the focus of his dissertation. He credits his friend Dennis Rodgers, who was the then-president of the Graduate School Student Council on campus, with encouraging him to study and write about his passion in hip hop. His interest had been piqued by a project where he reviewed other scholars’ papers about Kanye West. Although he was a longtime fan of West and hip hop as whole, he doubted how well his writing would be received. Wright remembers thinking, ‘they’re not going to take that seriously at Howard University, and I’m in the History department…’ Yet by taking Rodgers’ advice to heart, he began to flourish. Along with other hip hop fans on campus, he created a hop hop symposium which took place every spring. Artists, athletes, and other celebrities would come to Howard to hear conversations like the importance of hip hop in the classroom.
This work led to the creation of multiple hip hop-related courses being taught across the country in the following years. At Howard, the symposium led to an undergraduate course in the African American Studies department and a graduate course in the History department. As soon as he graduated from Howard, he woked to make his mark as professor at another HBCU: the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. “I think I launched what may be the first hip hop class at UMES,” he said. Now that he’s at Trinity Washington University in D.C., he launched a class there called Intro To Global Hip Hop. He says through that program “we look at hip hop’s evolution, from the U.S., to then overseas and see how hip hop differs in places like the United Kingdom, parts of Africa, Japan, etc.” He believes that much of his foundation came from experiences he had at Howard and UMES, where he learned about Black history, Black culture, and connected with Black people from all over the world.
Ironically as the author of Wake Up, Mr. West, Wright is able to show how Kanye West has become a teacher in his own right. Of course, he has become an innovative force in how artists and producers make music. But he truly changed the paradigm in fashion, and used what he learned to lift up those coming behind him. For years he fought to become a force in the luxury fashion industry. He knew that with his lofty goals, it would take more money than his own to establish a brand that could sit amongst the well-known fashion houses like Louis Vuitton and Dior. Unfortunately, in an industry with so many gatekeepers, Kanye found his appeals to fashion heads going unanswered. His frustrations came to a head during the viral Sway interview, where the radio host asked him why he couldn’t build up his own fashion house. Kanye infamously asked the host “How Sway” repeatedly. Today, as the orchestrator of a lucrative years-long partnership with Adidas to create the Yeezy brand, Kanye has achieved his dreams so strategically that his work serves as a blueprint for others.
While Jay-Z and 50 Cent have had fashion endeavors in their own right, Wright believes Kanye helped normalize celebrities like Travis Scott landing significant deals with Nike and other brands. “Kanye also opened the door for a lot of unconventional Black fashion designers who are big in terms of hip hop. We call it street wear or urban wear,” said Wright. For the author to name examples of creatives touched by Kanye, the list was endless. “When you think about Virgil Abloh who had Off-White, and Virgil ended up working with Louis Vuitton and Nike before he passed away. Virgil worked with Kanye, with Donda, Kanye’s label. Kanye worked with Jerry Lorenzo. If people don’t know that name, you probably know his gear, he’s the one that puts out the Fear of God… Salehe Bembury is another person who if you follow sneakers, you know his name because he’s got the hottest collab right now with Croc, with New Balance, etc. Then he also worked with Versace. Salehe got his start from working with Kanye. Don C (Don Crawley, who has worked as Kanye’s manager) is another person.” Even with all these names, the list of those touched by Kanye’s influence is growing by the year.
Because of his determination, Wright says that today Kanye is worth somewhere between 1.3 and 3 billion dollars. “In hip hop everybody is talking about how they want to be a billionaire. You know, ‘I’m going to get a billie.’ But it’s only 17 Black billionaires in the entire world. Kanye’s one of them. And a lot of that isn’t just because of the music, it’s because of what he’s making from fashion.”
Learn more about “Wake Up Mr. West,“ by Joshua K. Wright and purchase your copy today here.