Watching the VMAs With My Daughter Made Me Finally Understand Kanye West

kanye west, kim kardashianIf you're the parent of a teenager, like me, chances are you're more than casually acquainted with the cultural phenomenon that is Kanye West. And if you're the parent of a teenager, also like me, chances are you've maybe done your share of eye-rolling at the cultural phenomenon that is Kanye West. But watching the MTV Video Music Awards last night with my 15-year-old daughter, I realized something: While you might not like everything Kanye has to say, he is the voice of a generation -- your child's generation. And we should probably start listening.


Here's the thing: I didn't always get Kanye. Sure, I liked his music, but some of his more seemingly arrogant antics (rushing the stage during the award acceptance speeches of other artists, taking "Jesus" on tour, asking Mark Zuckerberg for a loan) made it hard for me to take him too seriously. I even called him out for what I saw as pretension on this very site. But lately, I've started to soften toward the rapper.

Watching his videos (at the request of my daughter), I began to appreciate that Kanye is definitely a person with artistic vision. (After all, Paul McCartney recently compared him to Andy Warhol in an interview, and far be it from me to dismiss the opinion of a legit living legend.) Plus, I must admit that I respect his unwillingness to compromise that artistic vision, even if I don't think he needs donations from billionaires to help him achieve it. Somehow he managed to come out of the latest Taylor Swift scandal looking like the more forthright, straight-shooting superstar. And honestly, he just plain cracks me up on Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

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So when I heard that the VMAs were going to give Kanye free rein for an entire four minutes, I was actually pretty curious to see what he was going to do with it. I mean, this was the VMAs, after all -- the scene of that infamous "Imma let you finish" exchange with Taylor Swift in 2009. Would he go on a rant about the ongoing "Famous" controversy? Would he go on a different but equally unrelatable rant about some other issue very specific to only the extremely rich? Would he stage a brief runway show featuring a parade of models wearing various shades of beige and army green?

He did none of those things (save a very brief and completely amicable shout-out to Swift). Here is what he did:

Bruh!! Now, okay. I've read a lot of criticisms of the above speech -- how it was disjointed and self-indulgent and rambling, just one more example of Kanye being Kanye (in the insufferable sense). But hearing his words through my teenager's ears (that's not really an expression, I don't think, but whatever), giving Kanye the absolute benefit of the doubt, I think I understood what he was trying to say: Fame is a truly bizarre construct, one that deserves to be exploited and tested and used to push boundaries in our society. ("You know, just to put ... the audacity to put Anna Wintour right next to Donald Trump ... I mean, like, I put Ray J in there, bruh! This is fame, bro!") All of these ridiculous celebrity feuds everybody is so obsessed with are taking attention away from the real issues. ("If you think about it, last week, it was 22 people murdered in Chicago. You know like, people come to me like, 'Man, that's right! Tell Taylor to ... ' Bro, like I love all y'all!")

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But the part of the speech that had the most meaning -- particularly for my daughter and teens like her -- was the part where he talked about role models and how kids should be given the freedom to compare themselves to any personal heroes they choose and aspire to absolutely anything, no matter where they come from. How these role models can literally save lives:

So I was speaking at the Art Institute last year and one 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 it has to ... you know, you have to think like, you know when you're a senior and it's like 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? You know like, life could be like, start to feel worthless in a way. I know times for me, I sit down and talk to older, rich people, you know (AKA WHITE!) and uh ... they tell me, 'Don't compare yourself to Steve Jobs, don't compare yourself to Walt Disney.' And my friend Sekaya told me, 'Ayy bruh bruh ...'

They tell me don't compare yourself to these people, right? My friend Sekaya told me it's three keys to keeping people impoverished: taking away their esteem, taking away their resources, and taking away their role models. My role models are artists, merchants. It's less than 10 I can name in history. Truman, Ford, Hughes, Disney, Jobs, West.

Did Kanye just call himself his own role model? Maybe, and you know what? It's a ballsy move, but I'm okay with it. Because what you see as over-the-top arrogance, your kid sees as the kind of next-level self-confidence you need in order to become -- well, to become Kanye West. The kind of self-confidence you need to make even the most outrageous dreams come true. Which is not to say you're gunning for your kid to become an award-winning rapper married to a reality star (who, while we're on the subject, has made an art of translating little more than self-confidence into a multimillion dollar empire). But we all want our children to make their dreams come true, right? And I'd rather have my kids be a little over-confident than under-confident. The former condition propels people to achieve the seemingly unachievable; the latter paralyzes people with self-doubt. This is hardly a concept that's new to Kanye West -- decades ago, another media mogul, Lucille Ball, uttered these famous words: "Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world."

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Ain't that the truth -- and Kanye West is proof. So if what my daughter learns from Kanye West is that believing in yourself is important and that it's okay to speak out about what matters to you, then I'm all for it ... bruh.


Image via Jackson Lee/Splash

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