Dear Ye: An Open Letter To Rapper Kanye West From A Black Philosopher At Harvard
Past Kanye delivered what current Kanye has forgotten
I just wanted to holla at ya. One of the first times I recall critically reflecting on the world is when you dropped College Dropout. My mom started an AAU basketball team that year with her tax-refund check to give all of us rural project babies something to do for the summer. Being from a small area, we were always the underdogs—from the bottom of the crab bucket, as we say down there. But that summer we bumped your album all down I-95! Your perspective was a new kind of gritty, one that critiqued the very institution that the white-minded establishment illegitimately characterized as our golden ticket out of that cycle of poverty—college.
This wasn’t my first time hearing that kind of message. Like you, I learned a lot from my mama. She was well-read but had a rich street orientation. She always lectured me about the pitfalls of being a black person in this world, despite having an education.
Like what you're reading?
Get more in your inbox.
For a lot of my homeboys, however, your lyrics and delivery framed a necessary narrative. It told a story of ordinary bondage, bondage to mainstream culture and traditional institutions.
What do these institutions do to us, Ye?
I read a really good book about the purpose of a social critic a few years ago (I could send it to you if you’d like). It said that properly criticizing others requires us first to be critical of ourselves. So the point of this letter is not to critique you. The point is to describe to you how wisdom from your past-self is helping me navigate my own experience with similar social forces.
I thought a lot about your tweets on free-thinking. Professional philosophy requires me to think about a lot of things, but I tend to think mostly about my surroundings and the social spaces that are shaping me, whether I like it or not.
Things can get pretty comfortable here at Harvard. Similar to you, I’m surrounded by ego, wealth, and opportunity. I think a lot about how things like this seem to be corrupting the very values and orientation that led me to pursue and secure this privilege in the first place. One of the first rules a person learns in ethics (whether in the classroom or in real life) is that freedom can often undercut itself. I think that in my case, my desire to be free has led to a life where I am embedded in the very cultural framework I came out my mother’s womb critiquing.
First, you start talking like them. Then some of your beliefs change. And, before you know it, you’re exploiting other black folks over ginger peach tea. You essentially become the monster while fighting it. But that’s freedom used irresponsibly—the kind of freedom you reminded me was worthless in your debut album.
When I started becoming aware of this change in my disposition, I played that record over and over again. I was fifteen seconds into the “Graduation Day” interlude (right after DeRay says, “What in da f*** was dat Kanye!?! Now I told ya ta do sum sh** fa da kids!) when I discovered that you had revealed a timeless philosophical principle. It was an ethical principle for how to react to the white-minded industrial complex blinding us from the authentic elements of who we are: “Drop out. ”
Call it “Yeezy’s Maxim.” I think this principle captures something important about the concept of selling out. After all, it can be hard to tell when exactly you start becoming one of “them.” Staying true to this maxim reminds us that there is always an alternative. We cannot allow institutions we were born to rebel against to exploit our talents and intellect. In many ways, what the past-Kanye delivered and what the current-Kanye seems to have forgotten is that we should never become satisfied with a way to break free. The goal of our humanity is to gain and maintain our liberation.
But even time and space can’t capture your existence, brother. You will forever be the evolving-Kanye—the street philosopher from the Chi who will always be “highhh as a muthaf*****, flyyy as a muthaf*****.” So, don’t rush to write your philosophy book. Up to this point, your artistic presence has contributed more to black culture than an academic dissertation ever could.
You had it right the first time. We must resist cultural institutions that alienate us from the fundamental values that make it possible to be a free-minded black artist.
I guess what I am trying to say is that it’s okay to dropout again.