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By Jason M. Lucia
Credit: Forbes Magazine
It’s rare to achieve genuine iconic status in one’s own lifetime. These days, the word “icon” is applied a little too often, and a little too recklessly. In the case of Kanye West, however, the tribute not only applies, but is “richly” deserved. If you read the Friday ‘Forbes’ piece on Kanye’s billionaire status, titled “Kanye West is Now Officially a Billionaire (and He Really Wants the World to Know)”, you might not get that impression. When the premiere financial magazine failed to recognize West’s billionaire status at multiple junctures, he provided them with records of proof…repeatedly.
Late on Friday (the best time to bury any story), the magazine finally relented to assert that West is, indeed, a billionaire…but it wasn’t the celebration others normally receive. Instead, the tone of the announcement was snide and sardonic. The piece senselessly attempted to diminish the feat and denigrate a genuine, accomplished entrepreneur. Forbes magazine is based on the celebration of such achievements, not the burying of them, and certainly not with a dismissive tone of mockery. When one considers the twists and turns of Kanye’s journey, and his place in our pantheon of public figures, his treatment by Forbes is not only senseless. It’s just plain wrong.
Credit: Def Jam
Kanye is a tirelessly creative visionary whose vast, almost cosmic artistic ambition and tricksterish, paradigm-smashing behaviors have taken him outside the domain of the merely famous, into the realm of the mythic. From his earliest emergence in the mass media playground of the demigods, he’s had an obvious gift for unfolding his inner voices and the minutiae of his sensual and spiritual life into sprawling, sexualized hip hop gospel operas that feel like blockbuster movies as they crash through us on our headphones. This is a man who takes the urgency and the obsessive demands of the art life seriously.
His body of work provides a portrait of a wild mind evolving from lovelorn adolescent turmoil (The College Dropout…Graduation), through slick careerist mating games of skill and chance (808s and Heartbreak), through shadow work in a world of hysterical decadence (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus), through acceptance of love and art as the keys to inner peace and emotional survival (Ye, The Life of Pablo). Most recently, his work expresses a passionate acquiescence to the will and wonder of an intimate divinity (Jesus is King), and the community that has gathered around that knowing, collaborating and raising the spirit at Kanye’s Sunday Service, yet another evolutionary leap.
Every artist who expresses the spirit of their age tends to embody its anxieties and excesses. An element of Kanye’s obsessive sensibility seems to come from the fact that his achievements are measured in the press according to the same standards that apply to pop moguls and hitmakers and American idols when the only competition he perceives is with a pantheon of game-changing artistic and cultural icons he has seen himself in since before his beginning. The composer of “Heartless” and “Robocop” just wants a woman who will get with his arrangement, but the more mature and ambitious composer of “Power” is building pyramids, erecting empires that will only be judged by God. God and Forbes magazine, that is…but we’ll get back to that.
Some would argue that Kanye’s sometimes outrageous behavior has complicated his legacy. His bold statements and award show stage invasions and apocalyptic twitter squabbles are clearly the actions of a sensitive, passionate individual. Kanye’s openness about his mental health issues is another example of his fearlessness and raw humanity. That sometimes scary realness inspires those who experience similar struggles to accept themselves and to express themselves. It likewise inspires them to insist on the respect that is their birthright, not a gift to be bestowed or withheld by elitist arbiters of taste. Amongst those arbiters of taste, Kanye’s behavior inspires denial.
Kanye contains so many multitudes that for every choice of his that you support or embrace, he is bound to make another that confounds you. His expressed empathy for President Trump has created controversy, although their association seems to stem not from politics so much as a recognition of shared larger-than-life energies and their shared tendency to verbalize the free flow of their imaginations at the expense of all etiquette.
The media’s reaction to their meeting exposed certain double standards in the world of the rich and famous. Ironically, most of the Fortune 500 have their resources channeled in such convoluted mazes of high finance that their actual ideologies are ambiguous, if not impossible to define. Those who have made their fortunes in any quadrant of showbusiness are expected to automatically endorse the most liberal candidate on the menu who won’t mess with their money. Kanye goes his own way for his own reasons: the very embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit.
Kanye, in his radical honesty, sometimes seems to have no filters to dilute his inner pain, but he’s a consummate artist, and his pain turns into music. The pain comes back. Maybe it never leaves. No one can promise that music will fix you, but that pain does need a place to go. Into a song. A fashion collection. A business model. A way of seeing. Maybe we hurt less when the song flies free of us, but welcome to Earth. There’s always more pain where that came from. With that pain, in Kanye’s case, comes more success. Like the alchemist of old, he spins the dead lead of misfortune into living gold, making it hard to imagine a more fitting business role model.
In the midst of his mesmerizing musical experiments and breakthroughs, Kanye has also been a lifelong entrepreneur, fashion designer, and cultural engineer. A great artist finds the seeds of his actualized reality in the waking dreams of childhood, and the Kanye who was writing poetry at five years old (and who started rapping in the third grade and selling musical compositions in the seventh grade) is now alchemizing even his compulsively doodled high school sneaker designs into a lucrative manifest reality.
It isn’t greed that seems to drive his creations, either. It’s the joyful grind of creation itself and the desire to break into and maintain a place in the cultural conversation. Kanye has a lot to communicate. Like Alexander the Great sobbing in the night because he was afraid there were no new worlds to conquer, Kanye hit the ceiling of the changes you can make in this world as a mere entertainer.
The wealthiest level of society, on which the biggest dreams are actualized and monetized to finance even bigger dreams, is a zone with closely guarded gates, despite the apparent democratization of media by the internet. The closed community covered and celebrated by the billionaire list in Forbes magazine is an ethos in which a certain net worth means you are taken seriously and future ambitions become increasingly achievable.. For a largely self-invented South Chicago kid who builds empires out of style and sound (especially when that kid, now a man, is African American), getting on that list is not a matter of vanity or gratuitous cache. It’s a hard earned, milestone achievement, rarely received.
Credit: Forbes Magazine
So when Kanye West made the August 2019 cover of Forbes magazine, it meant a lot, not just to him, but to everyone in this country who can see some facet of themselves in his story, the seeking soul that strives to be authentic in the midst of every meltdown, the struggling artist who makes the world listen to a sound that at first only existed inside them, the kids from Southside Chicago whose dreams are bigger than their neighborhoods, the young Person of Color who is trying to build something in a world still mostly run by old white men, despite our Oprahs and our Obamas, trying to build something so beautiful that it cannot be dismissed, devalued, ignored, or forgotten.
Making the cover of Forbes as one of the great retail success stories of 2019 is meaningful on yet another level when we consider the fact that Kanye West was $53 million in personal debt as recently as 2016. His fiscal catastrophe was known more publicly than most business glitches because in the same way that Kanye has refused to politely disengage from open discussion of his mental health issues, he openly tweeted for help to Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg, asking for a $1 billion investment. Zuckerberg did not reply and, from what we’ve seen, neither did anyone else. Within a couple of years of that dark night of the soul, Kanye went from an abyss of debt to rebuilding and augmenting his fortune, doing so 100% on his own terms. Whereas most of the major players on this list are beholden to investors, Kanye maintains 100% ownership of his enterprise. Last year Bank of America valued the sneaker side of his business alone at 3 billion dollars. Possessed by a vision and a plan few others can see, even in the visionary circles he moves in, Kanye’s career in business is partially the story of him perfecting the articulation of that plan, so everyone in the room can see what he sees, and innovate accordingly.
The Forbes August 2019 cover story acknowledged Kanye’s ambition and achievement, but it would not go so far as to call him a billionaire. Kanye, for reasons already mentioned, took it personally, and publicly called bull$#%t on the magazine’s arbitrary withholding of the title. When the Forbes annual billionaires list was posted earlier this month, Kanye was once again absent. He responded not in the measured bureaucratic fashion preferred by CEOs and more genteel money-folk, but like an artist who has been denied recognition for the business acumen that he rightfully considers an aspect of his art.
The Yeezy brand generates oceans of revenue, and his restless intelligence is evident in everything he touches, but Kanye West is a big picture thinker, not just challenging Nike’s Air Jordan for sneaker world supremacy, but making future-friendly moves with his G.O.O.D. music label and DONDA, his creative content company. He wants to “pick up where Steve Jobs left off.” He wants to surf the mad waves of a melting society and develop new technologies and mythologies to connect those above and those below, to pivot the dynamics of media so commerce serves and nourishes the community. His name on that list is a key to doors that his dream needs to open. Thus, he bombarded Forbes with documentation, so they’d be forced to publicly admit their error…and so they did…in as snarky and as patronizing a manner as possible.
Instead of finally accepting the facts, and soberly acknowledging the magazine’s miscalculations, the editor used the clarifying article as an opportunity to ridicule the injured party, attempting to make a clown out of a serious businessman with a legitimate grievance. The article diminishes Kanye’s achievement by using a half-the-money-is-Kim’s formula that only begrudgingly admits that Kim has her own income to contribute to the partnership.
Throughout the article, there’s a disturbing elitist tone with a subtext that is almost sinister. It’s as if Kanye’s invitation to walk the corridors of power can’t be ripped up by the butler, because his influence is irrefutable, but it pains the industrialists and aristocrats to suffer the pop of his presence. Kanye is invited to the party, but Forbes magazine would prefer that he use the service entrance.
Credit: Def Jam
Considering the pandemic and the turmoil our world is in, it might seem at first glance a silly thing for a person outside the industry to care about: a billionaire demanding acknowledgement from the magazine that counts the billionaires. It’s hard to get our human heads around those numbers when some of us are smashing open piggy banks and counting quarters in quarantine. But with so many of the “respectable” people on that exalted Forbes list enmeshed in the hustles, scams, and bailouts that are shattering our faith in democracy and exacerbating our pandemic problem into a surreal catastrophe, maybe it’s not so silly.
Whether or not you appreciate every facet of the Kanye West story, we should all agree that the world we wake up in post-quarantine should not be a world where a talented, driven Renaissance Man who is honest and authentic to a fault, with a genius-level aptitude for art and business and a work ethic to match, is denied factual recognition for his great accomplishments, then ridiculed for demanding it.
We’re all entitled to our opinions (as long as those opinions are approved by the right magazines), but people who count billionaires for a living shouldn’t be using their dubious prestige to punish accomplished artists and entrepreneurs for making the list on their own terms and being forced to prove it, repeatedly. More importantly, this is the true story of a person who not only is self made, but also transformed millions of debt into a billion dollar fortune in the space of a few years, by never wavering in his fidelity to his own vision and his own spirit. As our world, our countries, and our communities go through this trying time of massive unemployment, political uncertainty, and economic anxiety, Kanye’s journey to financial success should serve us as an inspiration.
Jason M. Lucia is a media critic, columnist, and professional ghostwriter whose work has been published under several pseudonyms. He was raised in Medford, MA. He went to school in NY. He lives to rhapsodize the stories he loves on the page and in the flesh.
Founded by Emmy winning journalist Maria Menounos and Producer Keven Undergaro, artist-friendly AfterBuzz TV is the world’s largest digital broadcast network and pop culture news platform, producing post-game ‘after-shows’ for nearly all favorite TV shows, interviewing cast and showrunners and providing the widest video, audio and article coverage of shows, content and influencers than any entertainment news platforms in existence
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