What Kanye West gets right about fighting poverty

It began the way one would expect a Kanye West speech to begin: “I am Kanye West, and that feels really great to say, especially this year.”

With those confident words, Kanye opened what would be yet another memorable monologue delivered to a raucous but attentive crowd at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards.

No background music, no flashing lights — simply a sea of darkened faces starring up at him as he spoke.

It was classic Kanye — a rambling mix of bravado and ad-lib references. But what was especially notable were a few choice moments of solemnity in the middle of what was otherwise a celebratory moment.

Namely, Kanye drew attention to the fact that the people in the crowd — celebrities, musicians, fashion icons — were doing so well while so many others were struggling.

“[I made my ‘Famous’ music’ video] for people to understand just how blessed we are,” Kanye said, referring to a now-notorious video that juxtaposes the lure of celebrity with the discomfort of nakedness. “It was an expression of our ‘now,’ our fame right now, us on the inside of the TV.”

Meanwhile, he said, the swell of murder, poverty and hopelessness, especially in inner-city black communities like Chicago, needs attention (although Kanye noted this without using some of the offensive blanket statements evident in a string of recent Trump tweets).

“If you think about last week, there were 22 people murdered in Chicago,” Kanye said. He then went on to decry how much attention has been focused on his recent social media feud with Taylor Swift, while kids are dying all across the country.

“I was speaking at the Art Institute last year,” Kanye continued, “and a kid came up to me and said, ‘Three of my friends died, and I don’t know if I’m gonna be the next.’ And you have to think, like, you know when you’re a senior in school and it’s the last month and you just don’t feel like doing any more work? If you feel like you’re seeing people dying right next to you, you might feel like ‘what’s the point?’ Life could start to feel worthless in a way.”

So, then, what is to be done about this tragic trend and this continuing sense of hopelessness?

For Kanye, the answer does not lie in toppling the government; it does not lie in political revolution or over-the-top antics; nor does it require some massive financial or social intervention from the government, or any other kind of top-down change.

Instead, it requires only that people on the ground learn to see things more clearly.

“There are three keys to keeping people impoverished,” Kanye said, “and that’s taking away their esteem, taking away their resources, and taking away their role models.”

For his part, Kanye did not back down from his insistence on comparing himself to historical icons such as Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. He said he transcended his own humble origins by constantly striving for greater peaks, and remembering to follow those who had done so before him.

So although it can be easy to laugh at Kanye for his exuberance and his famously inflated ego, there remains real truth in his message that a sturdy self-esteem is vital for rising up toward success. With the right role models, adequate resources and an unwavering belief in oneself, anything can be achieved.

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