I recognize that many of you see Kanye as an arrogant, tasteless good-for-nothing. And I don’t debate that.
He has had some terrible PR moments, some sucky sound bites, and some bad run-ins with people—not to mention his music isn’t exactly that of a humble man.
But let’s review where pop rap was when Kanye busted onto the scene. It was pushing toward mostly product-placement songs or severely violent music. Most of us had Get Rich or Die Tryin’ on repeat.
We were on the heels of the Nelly, Ja Rule, P. Diddy, Ludacris years.
I had a cousin who worshipped 50 Cent and G-Unit, but honestly, wearing baggy junk and being a badass didn’t appeal to me. It didn’t seem like a sustainable lifestyle. Talking mess and threatening people? I saw it where I lived and I saw it in these songs, and it honestly wasn’t for me. It was like the story of how we got here wasn’t important. All we were focused on was that we had it, ignoring the pain that we carried on our way to the top.
As a young black kid, especially one who got to walk the line between some dangerous environments and some much better ones, Kanye was this beautiful means to be true to both sides of me.
I remember listening to The College Dropout on the bus from a Leadership Broward event where I was selected as one of the leaders of tomorrow or whatever. I remember listening to it as I walked by two black mothers in bed slippers fighting in the street. I remember listening to it on my way to catch the bus to go to a school out of my zone, so that I could get a better education.
I wanted to be able to wear clothes that fit me better but still command the respect that’s important in the black community. It wasn’t that I wanted to be white—it’s that I knew that the particular way of being a black man set out for me was one that I didn’t fit into or want to.
“Spaceship,” “All Falls Down,” “Never Let Me Down,” “Jesus Walks,” “Family Business.” Those were anthems of mine that I kept in the back pocket of my heart as I walked the line between black people finding me too white or proper and white people clamoring for me to be their “black friend.”
Good intentions don’t always translate to right actions. And Kanye may be the biggest modern case of that. But I will say this: His desire to change the game has paved the way for a lot of other rappers I love now. J. Cole, Lupe Fiasco, even Kendrick Lamar to a degree.
Because without him, the “nigga you gay” ceiling would still be intact. Fear of opening up and being vulnerable would keep the necessary kind of music away from the ears of all the little brown boys and girls who know that they have to blend their African-American culture with that of a white-dominated society.
Aundre Larrow is a former Reader intern and contributor. He’s also a professional photographer, and you can find him on Instagram at @aundre.