The Genius Work of Kanye West: The Effect of a Cultural Icon on Issues of Race Relations

For the start of the 2017 semester, Washington University in St. Louis has offered a class called, “The Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics”. The class, which holds 75 students, had a waiting list. The class focuses on the effect of his music and presentation in which he has created a reduced frame in which to view black famous people and how that has affected black culture. The course is taught by Jeffrey McCune, a professor in the African American studies department, who aims to connect issues of politics, race, and gender to how West has shaped the view of African Americans. The professor notes that, “We [African Americans] are always thought of as maybe being articulate or smart, but not really genius.” So while Kanye may be pushing boundaries, his popularity has served as a means to influence civic issues related to race. For years, Kanye West has served as a public icon, noted not only for his music, but for his political stances, beliefs, and fashion. Despite the controversial role he has played in mainstream news, many would argue he has taken on a role in civic issues that has influenced public opinion both about him and the topics themselves.

While many people may see this idea as irrelevant, Kanye West has used his music as an outlet in which to address civic issues concerning society. Kanye has gone to voice his opinions at his concerts, catching social media attention. With his platform, he has been able to talk about race relations and police brutality in the United States. While many celebrities can feel threatened by the backlash they could receive on taking a stance on controversial issues, West has never shied away from sharing his opinion. More than just civic topics, he has encouraged people to pursue their dreams despite obstacles and has once notably caught the attention of a person’s sign that said “Hire me” and asked his staff to get the person’s information, showing his identification with things outside the norm. Additionally, Kanye has spoken out about politics, issuing claims about running for president in 2020, and said at a concert that if he had voted, he would have voted for Donald Trump. When Donald Trump and Kanye West were seen together in December, social media and news outlets were in a frenzy, with many people drawing comparisons between the somewhat “confident” nature of both individuals.

Because Kanye has always represented the unconventional, his “genius” qualities can stem from him going against the grain, in some ways inspiring people to do the same, regardless of their race, gender, or political background. The class at Washington University has proposed a lot of interesting topics about Kanye’s role in the music industry and beyond. In terms of his music, Kanye West has changed the development of the hip hop genre. Before Kanye West’s rise to music fame, hip hop music was not traditionally a mainstream music genre. A Kanye’s rose to success, it appeared as though mainstream trends in music changed as well, paving way for other hip hop artists to gather success off the back of someone else who led the way. More noticeably in recent years, hip hop music has gained a greater attention at the Grammy Awards, while others still feel black artists often don’t win more reputable titles such as “Album of the Year” because the hip hop genre is still ostracised in ways.

As the music industry has started to recognize hip hop music more, successful hip hop artists have used their music as a way to communicate about being black in America. With their platform, artists like Kanye West and Beyonce have used their success to express the difficulties of being African American. Kanye’s album Yeezus and Beyonce’s single “Formation” as well as her entire Lemonade album, all aimed to address racial issues, and while controversial, they were effective in generating conversation. As Kanye has transitioned as an artist, now with a family and children, his music has changed with him. While he is still able to emotionally connect with his audience and speak about culture, listeners can now hear how Kanye has looked past black adversity and is thankful for his current blessings.

Civic life gives celebrities the powers to be influential, but these figures, in turn, have the ability to use it at their discretion. Kanye West is a member of society that has not held back his opinions on civic issues. While it’s easy to criticize someone who may go about it in a different way and on such a large scale, one might consider that we, too, should take on a role in civic life, regardless of the opinions that come from it. So while West is now the focus of a class at a university, his contributions to shaping opinion and the ways in which to approach civic issues related to his own personal experiences as a black American, are not unnoticed. His views may not always align with public majority, but perhaps, he has put them out there in hopes that the public itself will form an opinion on the issues that affect each of us. More than ever, the opinion of the people needs to be heard, and by taking a voice and getting involved, civic life could play a role in changing the result of civic issues.

2 thoughts on “The Genius Work of Kanye West: The Effect of a Cultural Icon on Issues of Race Relations

  1. Hi Mary,

    Immediately after opening your blog post for this week, I was intruiged to read what your post had to say about Kanye West because I have always been a Taylor Swift fan, and if you’ve followed popular media over the last few years, and even few months, you’ll know that Kayne and Taylor have had some conflicts (which all started when he grabbed the microphone from her at the VMAs).
    I did not know this class was offered at Washington University in St. Louis. After reading that it does indeed have a waiting list, I was curious: can any student sign up for this class? What kind of credit does this course count towards (gen. ed., etc.) I have a friend who attends Washington University, so I can’t wait to ask her if she knows this!
    I think the statements you make about Kayne’s music and Beyonce’s music and their effect on societal beliefs, norms, etc. is extremely relevant in today’s society. In fact, a club at my high school made a dance to Beyonce’s single (“Formation”) which ended up receiving unintended backlash – they were criticized for dancing “in a white girl manner” to a song that’s meant to empower black women.
    While reading your post, I began to have a few questions (that I understand you might not have answers to, nor might the internet). Do you think Kanye is voicing his opinions, for a purpose of letting society realize how these issues affect each individual? Or, on the other hand, is he rather just preaching his ideals before he sings to enlighten the audience on his beliefs? These questions are completely subjective, because it is pretty unlikely that the internet would provide any discrete answer to these questions. Just food for thought! I look forward to reading next week.

  2. Mary, I often do not know how to feel about Kanye, as it seems like much of society also does not at times, so it is intriguing that such a topical class on a relevant icon today would be offered. Now I wish Penn State offered a class on this artist’s “genius”. The defintion of the word “genius”, according to, is a noun that means “an expceptional natural capacity of intellects, especially as showin in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc…. a person having such a capactity”. And by this defintion, Kanye could be considered a genius. His orignality in his artform is undeniable, as he addresses racial matters in new ways, by identifying and counterarguing stereotypes. He is original, as you also mentioned in the way he carries himself. Often it seems that those who are famous enough to just go by a single name are rather eccentric, and he is no exception. From his plain clothing on the red carpet (see this almost comical article about his office attire:, and seeming lack of enthusiasm in pictures, to his mannerisms in interviews, Kanye is a man all his own.

    His genius might be the way in which he balances explicitly racially-based lyrics, with a level of success that silently demonstrates his ability to achieve as an African American man. His musical platform provides the foundations for civil discourse off stage. As you said, though, with such power, Kanye and other artists must watch the messages they promote, intentionally or not, for their consumers. His interactions with Trump, for instance, could send mixed signals to some of his fans. Does he support Trump, or is he just keeping an open mind? And maybe that, the not knowing, is the true genius of Kanye. He is almost an enigma, or at least an enigmatic figure, and such a figure holds lasting influence.

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