The Complicated Relationship between Kanye West & Black Millenials

All people handle grief differently. Some cry uncontrollably for months. Some dwell in the realm of denial until they suppress the person’s memory completely. Others lose a part of themselves.

But does the same hold true when dealing with not a physical death but a moral one? For many black millennials who’ve watched the plight of Kanye West, the experience is eerily similar.

As Justin Henderson, a 22-year-old Berkley Law student recalls, Kanye’s Graduation (2007), “caught me at a time where I was real uncertain in myself and it kind of reaffirmed the ideas about self-belief, self-confidence. And it’s become more and more clear [that] the visions of grandeur in his music is real life, like that’s really how he operates, that’s his real experience. He’s actually that delusional.”

The infamous 2016 rant from an elevated stage at what would be the final stop of the Saint Pablo Tour spelled the beginning of the end. There, in true Kanye fashion, the self-proclaimed god erratically jumped from his displeasure with Jay-Z to retroactively proclaiming his support for Donald Trump. Although heartbreaking to watch, it taught TJ Jeter, a Louisiana-born artist who cites West as one of his musical influences, a very important lesson:

“You can’t have somebody that you put on a pedestal and you worship everything that they say,” said Jeter, 22. “There’s no celebrity or person in this world that I take their word over everything else unless it’s like family: you can’t just have that with regular people because they’re human.”

Then came West’s hospitalization for “stress and exhaustion,” from which a blonded and heavily medicated surrogate emerged only to meet with the newly elected president. Nineties babies watched in horror as the man that had once served as their moral compass met with someone who weaponized white fear to assume the presidency.

What came next was a blur of “Make America Great Again” hats (which, to quote West, “made me feel like Superman”), botched TMZ and Oval Office visits and one particularly cringe-worthy SNL performance. And just like the loss of a family member, every Kanye fan — especially black millenials — found themselves mourning the artist they had mistakenly thought they knew so well. Ibrahim Conteh, a software engineer at YouTube Music, cut all ties immediately:

“I had always wanted Yeezys,” said Conteh, 22, about his decision to sell his Yeezys, “but there was no way I was going to put on anything related to that man. I just felt like that energy would pass through me.”

Conteh’s actions attest to not just how far Kanye has fallen but also the level of significance he once had. This is because despite all of the rants, contradictory actions and overall brashness, Kanye spoke for their generation before they possessed the correct verbiage to do so. He had an relentless work ethic (“doing 5 beats a day for 3 summers”) and stopped at nothing to bring his music to the world. Rather than comparing himself to hood folk heroes, Kanye, forever a paragon of self-confidence, spoke with a conviction that invited comparisons to Caesar, pharaohs and even God himself.

When viewed through the lens of his very public battle with bipolar disorder, Kanye’s recent actions start to make sense. Promulgating his mental illness as an excuse, however, completely disregards his personal agency. Still, wanting to support the man throughout his recovery process is the ultimate motivating factor for many unwavering fans.

“I think I will always support because I just love Kanye that much and he’s personally saved my life, we have a very similar narrative but I feel like now is a whole different Kanye,” said Eboni Ellis, 22, an Urban Marketing Coordinator at Interscope Records. “Certain things that Kanye does I just can’t support anymore.”

Ultimately, what hurts most is the loss of an authoritative voice. Hip-hop has always doubled as a news source. In a September interview with NPR, Roots frontman Black Thought referred to the genre as “a window into the world” and the “original CNN, MSNBC.” Like the Tupacs and Chuck Ds before him, Kanye was that news source for black millenials.

But as Interactive One’s Senior Culture Editor David Dennis noted, this was a role that he never should’ve occupied in the first place. His authoritative voice could never match that of a Chuck D, Mos Def or Black Thought. And, to make matters worse, his one ‘get out of jail free card’ seems to have expired long ago:

“We’ve seen that with a lot of artists; their music saves them from the controversies that they bring upon themselves,” said Dennis, “but his music hasn’t been good enough to do that.”

This, however, has not precluded others from giving up hope. Many, like Ellis, have chosen to love him from afar. His music helped many form an identity separate from their parents, a fact that can never be erased. It is these people, caught in the liminal space between college graduate and full-fledged adulthood, whom Kanye should strive to be better for.




Columbia Journalism School Student (formerly with ESPN’s The Undefeated)

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C. Isaiah Smalls II

C. Isaiah Smalls II

Columbia Journalism School Student (formerly with ESPN’s The Undefeated)

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