School Spirit

I am told today is February 10, 2016, which means Kanye West’s grand album College Dropout was released on this day 12 years ago. What’s below is more or less a transcript of something I read on September 9, 2015 in Brooklyn, New York for LIT. Here is the audio recording.

Last week I read in the Village Voice that this is supposed to be, like, a cool reading — not a regular reading — but I’m going to be reading an unpublished piece of writing that is kind of about the uncoolest place in America: graduate school.

This piece is called “School Spirit.”

The University is no safe haven. No refuge. That’s something that Kanye knew from the jump by being fed by one. Kanye West’s debut album was a study on one of the most American institutions: college. (One that’s certainly intertwined with another American, but as sociologist Orlando Patterson might say, not particularly American thing: slavery.) That college deserves serious study is something academics and college-educated journalists writing on sexual assault might think they monopolize but it’s often the dropouts who have studied it the most.

At the age of 20, Kanye dropped out of Chicago State University, where his mother worked before she became his manager. Since Dr. Donda West was an English professor who wanted her son to have a sound education, College Dropout served both as his coming out as rapper for the first time (rather than producer) and as apologia to his mama. His commitments to black maternity wouldn’t fade over the years but his desire to be a good student swerved when he realized he could successfully — and stunningly — be pop culture’s bad teacher.

Perhaps from today, the 2004 album College Dropout seems like the Kanye anti-anthem. On track 2, he says he doesn’t care but shows he does. On “Jesus Walks,” he says rappers are role models, perhaps a nod to so-called “conscious” rap (…which is where so-called “conscious capitalism” got its name and morals from). On “Fly Away,” Kanye raps about retail, getting, no, taking his and a desire for fugitivity, for whatever’s “past the sky.” On “Never Let Me Down,” Kanye, poet J Ivy and post-Blueprint Jay Z together were a fuse that gave me the language to stop going to church every Sunday and still have cliff-hanging relationships. “Get Em High,” then, brought me back to an unbalance and nonchalance, which gave me the push I needed leave my teenage bedroom every day.

It may seem that College Dropout is less image than the Kanye we know today and more theory of the image (which of course has its own shine). Similar to how there is no such thing as effortless style, Kanye is all effort. Dropping out of college before Drake graduated from high school, Ye is a trying machine of high-end goods and low moods.

In typical god-like fashion, Kanye’s views on college come together in tomes of everything: afrofuturism, the struggle to live on minimum wage, the struggle to floss on minimum wage, flailing artistic dedications, the war on terror, fitness scams, and, of course, blow job techniques (and that last piece of advice is desperately simple: “stop, breathe, get up, check your weave”).

The peppering of gospel vocals with a rainbow of samples that operate more like a syllabus of black music than mere creative output create something like a buffer between Kanye’s early 2000 world in his bedroom making “five beats a day for three summers,” his accident, his Louis Vuitton backpack, and the seemingly untouchable world of Ye today. In other words, when Ye dropped out of college, he knew he had to take training that much more seriously.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Negro women and girls in a large hat-making concern.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1922. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-1f1b-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

It has been said over and over again that the university is in crisis. While what it takes to see or worse, name crisis is different than what it takes to feel and live urgency, reasons for this crisis have been explained away as rising debt, no jobs, whatever the hell we agree neoliberalism actually is, the longstanding hubris of public intellectualism. Of course, there was no crisis, say, when Amiri Baraka was denied tenure at Rutgers University in 1984. And as one of my favorite thinkers, a best friend, likes to say, how convenient that the university is in crisis when they’re finally letting just a few black people in.

What I mean to say is that Kanye is no grand lecturer. He is living with the feeling of slow, hard study and with the desire to drop out of college only, years later, to show up at Columbia to discuss a “project” at the Graduate School of Architecture in 2013 or to smile nervously on camera while receiving an honorary doctorate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2015.

Even as his mother would have been proud of these accomplishments (Kim said so on Instagram), the late Donda West, who was born and died a Boomer, once said, “It was drummed into my head that college is the ticket to a good life… but some career goals don’t require college. For Kanye to make an album called College Dropout it was more about having the guts to embrace who you are, rather than following the path society has carved out for you.”

“Society” has always been and is still Kanye’s target. The social life of Mr. West is also the social life of the American Dream, hardwork disguised or read as prosperity hack. Yet the rhetorical thrust of the College Dropout album comes not so much from the content of the tracks but from the skits…. and they’re not really that funny. I mean, they’re funny in the way I think almost-never-seen-smiling-Kanye is funny: exacting, sometimes corny, and sly yet in-your-face.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Provisions supplied by the Red Cross to hundreds of Negro families.”The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1922. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-1ef3-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

When College Dropout came out in 2004, I was fourteen and painfully serious but with a veneer of skittishness. In the next year, I was set to change high schools, smoke weed for the first time, get alcohol poisoning, and lose my virginity. As far as half the thinkpieces on college go, I was basically already in college. Plus, I had my Kanye. Through what was then the permanent channel on my television screen — BET — , I watched “Through the Wire” and I played out the tired old rap versus new rap debates and Kanye always seemed like he was unconcerned with either/ors but he wasn’t a both/and deconstructionist either. He set the tone for me, slowly getting after the logics of what we think to be truths, living pulse by pulse, getting high by twirling circles around the sparkling bottle.

At fourteen, then, “All Falls Down” was my anthem. “Man I promise,” Kanye raps, “she’s so self-conscious. She has no idea what she’s doing in college.” I was a girl who babysat and bussed tables for disposable cash to buy Air Force Ones and pierce my belly button. I was a girl who wanted to be a black woman.

Ten or so years later, I became surrounded by Asher Roth’s entire career: professional college students aka graduate students. I am more reluctant to say I became one myself.

In her 2014 book of poems, Red Doc, Anne Carson asks, “What is a culture? A culture is what approves or disapproves of the actions in its midst. Yet how rare for approval to be unanimous.” And how rare, I would add, for grad student culture — whatever that means — to be anything like what I thought culture would be while I was studying college and college life in high school through rap music’s purported refusal. How rare, then, for vocational graduate students to be interesting or provocative even as it rails to rarely approve of anything and certainly disapprove of everything including the one thing they actually get fellowship money to do: read.

While it may be enough for some of us to earn a small living reading, writing, and teaching, it was never enough for Kanye, and I mean it in the sense that they sure as hell wouldn’t give it to him. He knew that the only possible way to get his 40 acres would be to buy it back.