Yesterday evening, Kanye West gave a lecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—the same school awarding the rapper an honorary doctorate. During his hour-long talk, students asked him questions regarding music, fashion, and art. Unlike West's lecture at Oxford University in London, phones weren't banned, which meant videos and even quotes surfaced online in real time. Cody Norman, an Art & Design student at SAIC, gave Complex his personal account of the event, which you can read below. We've also uploaded audio of West's appearance, plus a full transcript. Enjoy.
The room, where Kanye West was holding his lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, erupted when the rapper took the stage. All of the critical views that have surrounded West following the announcement he’d be receiving an honorary doctorate from the school evaporated instantly. The cheers from the audience left him speechless.
In the next hour, students asked questions, most of which steered away from what he would do with his honorary doctorate and focused more on his creative process. West stood there in his Haider Ackermann jacket and explained that he often immerses himself with material that inspires him. An example: The room in his house that’s filled with vintage samples. Oh, and a bathroom flooded with footwear samples including the first Louis Vuitton collaboration and an unreleased Yeezy colorway.
West, like previous award recipients, has an artistic vision that may differ from “fine artists” in some ways. Still, he says he feels the artist’s responsibility to push the boundaries in whatever medium he is working with. He’s also not afraid to do something that may end up backfiring on him. When Picasso started painting cubism he did it because he felt that was the way he needed to communicate, and that’s what West does when he picks up the microphone. He communicates his ideas and creates cultural discourse through music that’s easily digestible to the masses. It’s easy to critique an artist that is so bold and has such radical views.
Before the talk, students, alumni, and professors varied in opinion on whether or not Kanye West really deserved an award often given to “fine artists.” Many lean towards “no” because of the rapper’s behavior. But consider this: When we look at a de Kooning or Dali painting we’re not judging the work on their public behavior.
Kanye West is an interdisciplinary artist who crosses the lines, which is one of SAIC’s core principles. I am proud to say I go to the school that gave the college dropout his honorary degree.
Speaker: I’d like to begin by quoting from the Chicago Tribune, which I hope many of you saw, just this past week, our guest has—and I quote: “the most important, influential cultural voice to emerge from Chicago in a generation,” and that’s the Tribune. And that’s accurate. Kanye’s voice, and what a voice it is, and you will be hearing him live, is bold, expressive, complex, innovative, and I think he truly is a visionary. His voice is unmistakably his own; you recognize it immediately. But I’m also interested in how his voice comes out of a long, historied view and vision of Chicago’s sounds.
Much like Kanye, who was born in Atlanta, much of these sounds originated in the South, but then found their way North through the great migration. And during that time they took on the air of their newfound home, those songs, images, and voices became Chicago, and they were transformed into something entirely new. A few of the names, many of you under a certain age may not even recognize, but you should know: Louis Armstrong and his jazz, Nat King Cole, Gene Ammons, from right here in Chicago, Ahmad Jamal—another Chicagoan; Chicago Blues: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Bo Diddley; the Chicago-style gospel of Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Singers, and the Afro-futurism of Sun Ra, and the Chicago soul of Curtis Mayfield. 20th Century music would not be so rich without many of these diverse Chicago voices, and this is the legacy that Kanye West, who is always a Chicagoan at heart, is carrying into the 21st Century.
But through his profoundly original music, he’s also carrying this vision and these voices, and images forward, and his visual work in film, fashion design, and all his many other pursuits. So we are very proud to welcome Kanye West back home on this Mother’s Day weekend, and we are so honored that he’s agreed to allow us to honor him tomorrow. We are honored that he’s bringing to us his wide-ranging creative spirit, and his powerful voice that we celebrate here at the School of Art Institute of Chicago.
Kanye West: Thank you so much. It’s moments like this that make the fight so worth it. To know that, to know… there’s people who appreciate how hard it is to be an artist in an industrialized, commercial world.
KW: So, I’d like to start with a question that can build an idea, energy, vibe, or something you’d like to know, and I riff off that—as opposed to preparing anything.
Question: All right so, question, how do you avoid being stereotyped as a hip-hop artist when you have all these forms that you work in?
KW: Well, metaphorically, to be stereotyped as a hip-hop artist can be very much a hood that can put you in positions where people wouldn’t expect you to be. And in the same way how, when you step into places that have a “you’re not from here”-type vibe, if you are from there, and you’re too accredited, a lot of times people will put their guards up, and be less willing to work with you. And a lot of times I’ve been able to work with the most amazing people on the planet because I was considered not be a threat to what they do—because I was just there to be a “hip-hop artist.”
So it’s allowed me to work with a Murakami or a Condo or Riccardo Tisci, or Spike Jonze, Spike Lee—all these different fields—that so-called “box” allowed there to be a level above, like a marriage or something, like working with people that are married, obviously these people are willing to be controlled and compromise. Actually, I use that little box and that stereotype to my advantage–to just be able to put that hoodie on and collaborate as much as possible.
Question: Being in the music industry, do you ever feel like you’ve had to dumb yourself down or make yourself palatable for a certain audience? Was there a time that you actively decided not to do this?
KW: Yeah I think people know the times where I “actively decide” to do something thanks to the Internet.
KW: But I think the idea of dumbing down—each one of the things that you guys are gonna say I look at and there’s a positive—there’s a negative you thin of as an artist, but there’s a positive to it too. It’s the ability to step back from that immediate battle to win an overall war, and to understand how long the war really is, and understanding exactly how much to push on your concept, and how much information to put in there, how much to concede, win the fight. I remember on “Gold Digger” I had this line that said: “And when he get on / He leave your ass for a white girl”—
KW: There was a radio guy who wouldn’t play it because he was in an interracial relationship—he had a white wife, he was a black disc jockey—so it directly connected to something he had issues with his entire marriage and relationship so he didn’t wanna play that. I remember there’s video footage getting really upset and fighting for that to be played, and you get one of those “Kanye West outbursts.”
KW: At that time, for the idea of the art not being compromised, I was like—I didn’t curse, so what’s wrong with this concept? Whether I was using imagery of the Klan on MTV, and I would say: “OK, wait a second, so we can play G-strings, but if you play an image of the Klan…” and what it came down to is: “This is all bad for business, this is bad for advertising, or it’s making people think too much, or it’s bringing the truth to people’s attention that we don’t want to, or feel like right now.”
You know there’s different kinds of drugs, if anyone’s been on vacation and taken drugs before…
I’m at an art school so I’m just gonna assume…
But there’s drugs that make you tell the truth, there’s drugs that make you happy, there’s drugs that make you sad—there’s different types of moods it can put you in. And music… is like a drug. People go on vacation and say: “Did you bring the…” [whispers] “Did you bring the drugs?”
And they say also: “Did you bring the music?” These things go together, “did you bring the alcohol?” So, the interesting balance of making enjoyable music that also has truthful information in it, it was always a very, very fine line. A fine line when to break the high, in a way. Because there’s a lot of dance music, like four-on-the-floor, it seems like it’s trying to be strictly the high and never break it, never giving you any type of information, just being the smoothest drug possible.
And with backpack rap, there was always this responsibility that we felt to our parents, our ancestors, and to our generation at that time, to use our platform of the drum to educate with it. We took it as a responsibility, more than the responsibility of personal wealth, and I think that was the beginning—first notes—of any Steve Jobs comparison. Before I even knew to have the audacity to compare myself to Steve Jobs—
There was uh, that idea of the fans and the backpack, the mix of the information, responsibility to my parents who were educators, and the understanding that it had to be a bit dumbed down, accessible in a way.
Question: Do you feel your work is influenced by the Baltimore riots or any other events within the black community? Can you give us an example of how current events targeting bodies like yours affected your practice?
KW: I think every time we go to the studio, we recap our entire history up to that point. Current events and the past 500 years, or the past 2100 years. I say that because I’m on the Christian clock.
And when I work, I work really slow. I let the steak marinate. So the idea of jumping from current event to event to event, they usually come out in the music over a 4-6 month period. Everyone wants to speak so quick, so emotionally, and react right away, and just the way I create my music, the way I create my content, it just takes me a little bit longer, a lot more conversations, and I don’t like to complain without trying to find or offer a solution, which takes even longer. So, that’s the process and that’s how events like that affect the things I eventually say.
Question: I’m from the West Side of Chicago—this is gonna get a little emotional—I’ve lost two of my friends to violence. They got shot and killed. I made all the right decisions—never did drugs, never did anything, but… I’m scared. I’m scared I’m next. My family and I we live on a corner street, and we’re scared for bullets to come through the window and hit my sister, but like… I’m the last hope. I’m the first one to ever make it, and I’m so hungry, and I need something now. Just hoping you give some guidance, to all of us… We need something to keep on in this city… because I don’t know if somebody else is gonna end my life or… if I’ll never get out.
KW: I’m speechless. I don’t have the answer to that. I can only just listen to you and feel and understand what we’re dealing with here. And I can’t say that anything that I do or say will be the end-all be-all difference. I mean, we could just try. Yeah, I’m not even gonna try to give any politically correct answer that makes it seem like, after I say it, it’s all good—‘cause it’s not all good; it’s fucked up out here.
Question: I’m a fashion student, and I was thinking about my process. My process being something based on feeling, based on mood. I don’t really respond well to sketching, and I’m really interested in what your hand is in your design with your collection, and wondering what your process is—how you start, how you get an idea.
KW: My process is very similar to how I work on music, and I had this epiphany like two months ago that I was in the exact same situation, obsession, and position in clothing that I was in music about 13, 14 years ago, because when I moved to New Jersey from Chicago, my entire apartment was filled with records from head-to-toe. And when I was looking at my room in my house two months ago, it was completely filled with vintage samples, and the bathroom had been taken up with shoe samples–it had like the first Louis Vuittons, a pair of Yeezys in a color way that never came out—you couldn’t even use the toilet.
I was like: “Wow this is the same process.” It’s funny that you talk about process, because when I hire designers, a lot of them have an issue with my process because I do one million style-ups. A style-up is where you take vintage clothes, you have a like a hundred vintage pieces, and you, one stylist, maybe six stylists, sit there—and I say “stylist” because design is so contained, most designers are extremely arrogant and don’t ask a lot of questions, and then like Jony has 17 designers, and he’s the best designer on the planet.
So my process, I think about the way Jony Ive would approach it, the way Steve Jobs would approach it, the way Walt Disney would approach it, the way Howard Hughes would approach it. As opposed to the way fashion had normally been. I don’t even like the word—you know… um… I’m trying not to say extra-politically incorrect things, anything unnecessary, but to speak to that idea, I’m constantly trying to find my process.
Even right now, as I’m doing recruiting for my next collection and we’re going to fashion houses and poaching talent, and schools and getting talent, I talk about not the process of just a fashion brand but the process of an animation studio, the process of a car manufacturer, the process of Apple obviously.
I wanna see everyone’s org chart. I wanna see ten versions of org charts just in fashion alone. Why does H&M work and Zara work? Why does Céline and Givenchy work? Why does the Gap somewhat work not really?
Why did the Gap used to work?
But J. Crew works, because Mickey Drexler is a genius of course. Why does Apple work? What are the strategies? What is the set-up? What is the process that makes these all companies work? It’s interesting I always hear about, now tech is pulling from fashion, because fashion has this understanding of culture, which is what art drives. And, how do you do it in a way where you truly understand it and you’re part of it?
The reason I always say I like Apple better than Samsung—and I’m sorry I say it every year, but I mean they just kick their ass, know what I’m saying? It’s like the iWatch—“oh we don’t remember that.”
But, you know Jony will sit and get Marc Newson to come in that did Ikepod and design with them. Or like, when I worked with Murakami, I would get them to work together. And what happens with commercial or the average business world—You know in my mind, I see billions of colors. In the business world, I only see one. What color you think that is?
KW: Green, OK. Which actually is my favorite color, ironically. Not because it’s the color of money, but it’s my mom’s favorite color, and I think it’s the color of nature, and it’s an awesome color. I really don’t like blue, actually. The color—not the child, I love Blue.
I love Jay Z with all my heart so don’t try to… Now they’re gonna say: “Jay Z doesn’t like to ever fly on North West!”
But that question. It was so interesting that you asked that question because literally, I’ll be having a style-up, and I’ll be sitting there going through look after look after look, and the designer will come up to me and say “It’s time to sketch, now.” And I’m like: “No it’s not! We don’t have enough information!” Or “It’s time for you to do the styling, because I like the way you put it together.” I’m like” No it’s not! I don’t have enough stars to build this constellation yet.” I need to keep seeing information, because we want to invent, we want to contribute something. We don’t want to just capitalize off of what happened in the past.
We don’t wanna do our version of a polo collared shirt and put a logo on it, we want to think about what society needs, what people need right now, and how can we provide it to them better at a price that’s realistic. I don’t want to use the words “affordable” or “contemporary” and those types of things.
I just visited Axel Vervoordt… he has a—I’m gonna say his name wrong and you guys are gonna diss me—but Vertuni I think is the name—he has a palace in Venice, I just came from the Biennale, and Axel Vervoordt is a—you can’t even pinpoint exactly what he is, but he’s like a mix between an architect, an artist, it almost diminishes him to say he’s an interior designer, but that’s what he does. But his main point—and I look at him like Yoda, I don’t know if he looks at me like Luke… but, his whole point is proportion, how important proportions are.
So if you think of the whole idea of luxury, I have a theory and a feeling right now that I got from looking at Axel Vervoordt that luxury is in the proportion. Whether small proportions or Rome-sized proportions, so when you think of luxury, I don’t really think of a tight Gucci jacket with a logo on it. There’s nothing luxury about that. That’s an insignia to say “I’m part of this gang” or “I spent this much money on it.” But then you’ll see picture of families in Africa that look so dignified and so stylish, and there’s no way that anybody in family’s outfit costs as much as that one Gucci jacket.
And the understanding of proportions, when I was doing Yeezus and I was in Paris, I was working on my apartment, and I worked with this architect named Joseph Dirand, and he introduced me to Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand, and Corbusier. Corbusier—I bought this lamp, and it was dumb expensive, it was $110,000.
It was very inspiring to me, it inspired $100,000.
Not just because it was expensive, but more for the fact that it was free when it was first made. And, it cost a lot because it’s a statement now, of class, so these French galleries charge rich people more, which I thought was really interesting as the world becomes less racist, that there’s still a really big class war. There’s a real separation of the classes and the masses, and Corbusier gave the people higher ceilings—literally and metaphorically.
I remember at that time, I was going through leaving Nike and going to adidas, and I was also dealing with trying to get a deal with a luxury house. Because I wanted to paint, but I wanted to paint with usable art. Sculptures equals clothing. Clothing is a form of usable art. And I would look at that lamp that was made of rocks and cement, but the shape was so beautiful, and it wasn’t even made of marble.
So when it was time to do the adidas collection, and I left Nike because they refused to give me a percentage because I was not an athlete—I don’t have a NDA that says I can’t say this even though it seems wrong to say out loud—I left Nike because they refused to give me a percentage, they also offered me $4 million a year to stay, which is an unknown thing but I’m sure it’ll show up on Hypebeast tomorrow.
I wanted people to know that.
And I still left them, because they weren’t giving me the opportunity to grow. They were working off an old business model, and Phil Knight was somewhere on an island. And then, Mark Parker would go and find people who I collaborated with years before, and try to do collaborations with them to seem cool, and as you see, Nike hasn’t done like, one cool thing this year.
And these are available at Foot Locker.
These are just adidas that are fresh, they’re not even my shoes. I don’t even get paid to wear ‘em.
The point was, when I’d look at that Corbusier lamp and think: “He made this, and he put this lamp in zoos, so everyone could have it.” It was about everyone having an opportunity to have beauty, to be inspired. How many times have you walked into a designer store, where you really like the head designer a lot, and you just grab a piece, and it’s just impossible to even consider how you could possibly ever afford that?
And you might just spend some time in the store to the point where they make you feel so uncomfortable where you have to leave, and you’re like: “I just wanna be at least around it!”
Or you could take it to the next level and just try it on… catch a nice little selfie up in the dressing room, and post it.
So, one of the things that I loved about being nouveau riche was the ability to take those things out of the dressing room, and by doing that, I was able to learn and educate myself. You know I saw the Dior documentary, and Dior was educated from day one. He was born with wealth.
And as you guys know, whenever you try to get credit, or a car loan, or anything like that, you gotta have something to have something. It’s almost impossible to start from nothing, or maybe you have an extremely amazing talent, and you get a scholarship, like I did at one point. I had a—what’s it called when you don’t have the whole scholarship? Part-scholarship for six months at the American Academy of Art… and I had a scholarship here too—partial.
And then when that scholarship was up, I was fortunate enough that my mom was a professor at Chicago State University, so I could continue education until I had the opportunity where I was making enough money off the craft. You know, I wanted to talk about this barrier between art, music, and fashion. Because as you know with the class system, you know what’s the highest of course? Art. Art is considered to be the highest on the class system of creatives. Somehow even above a director, they can’t even be mentioned in the same breath as that.
I was on the phone with Steve McQueen one time and he said “I’m not a photographer!”
He acted like… you know OK, but you use a camera, Steve.
And I thought it was really amazing that Steve McQueen… the best thing I thought about Steve McQueen winning an Oscar wasn’t—as some people have told me—he is the first African-American Oscar winner… He’s not American, bro.
What I thought was the best thing about Steve winning that Oscar was the fact that he was able to be excellent at two disciplines. Absolutely excellent at two disciplines. And there’s theories about people who are amazing at stuff actually are amazing at other things.
It’s so weird, so Lewis Hamilton’s over at my house, right? And he starts playing music—I know I’m super Randy Jackson, I’m super random. These random ideas… they all make up a point.
And he’s there, and we’re playing some music in my studio. We’re having an Easter brunch and all of the family’s there, my wife’s family, my friends, everything. And he’s playing music, and everybody’s like: “What is this music?!” and I’m like “It’s Lewis Hamilton’s music.” They’re like: “Oh my god, I thought it was gonna sound like—“ and I’m not gonna say the names of who they thought it was gonna sound like, but it’s good, it’s really, really good.
And it goes back to my point of, which is a selfish point, ‘cause I was gonna make it back to the fact that I’m gonna be a really good clothing designer.
[Laughter and Applause]
Just as a point of discipline, like Vertuni… A theater designer, a clothing designer, painter, merchant, people can have more than one skill set.
Let me flip it on the other side, I have to use this example, and I won’t say their names, but I’ll just say “a friend of mine,” and they might be here. But “a friend of mine” showed me their sketchbook and their fashion collection, and when they showed it to me I looked at it, and it had vibes, it definitely was vibin’, and when I saw it I said: “Well, are you still in school?”
And the counter-response—maybe I’m gonna talk a little heavy-handed on it was—that they didn’t need school, and then when I tried to express why they did need to have that education or really get their craft together, they brought up of course my best friend and creative director Virgil Abloh, who has an extremely successful clothing line right now, and also is an extremely successful DJ, and extremely successful creative director obviously, but I really stressed the point of how important education was. And this is from “the dropout at it as always.”
I sat with Louise Wilson a couple weeks before she died and she told me—Louise Wilson is the acclaimed professor from Saint Martins that taught Phoebe Philo, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, and I feel like I’m her honorary student… She talked to me for three hours, and she’d always say “these students today, they ain’t worth shit!”
She got sued like four times. Very harsh. You guys ever saw Whiplash? Yeah, something like that.
And uh, she said: “How’s your daughter doing?” and everything. And I remember the last thing she said, she said: “You know what the problem is with all these students? Soon as they did anything from when they were really little, their parents clapped.”
And the point she wanted to make to me, that she said to me as we were leaving out the hallway to the restaurant the last time I saw her, was: “Don’t clap.”
You have to push them, you have to drive them. I remember the first time that North climbed all the way to the top of the stairs, and I’m trying to say that, Kim would’ve grabbed her by the third stair.
But she felt like she had to impress me so much, and be more dynamic, or hit the highest point that she had ever hit in her life. And Louise was really hard and difficult with the students, but I felt like, when you like Céline, when you like McQueen—all these things that I’m inspired from, I’m just talking directly about fashion—it’s because they were people that pushed that hard.
And, not to defend myself, but just to take this opportunity, because I have the mic—it’s not someone else’s mic, it’s my mic.
I feel a responsibility to push in the world. I feel a responsibility in my position to be like: “This is some bullshit.” Am I the only here that’s not crazy? Am I the only one here that’s not afraid of losing they Samsung deal right now?
[Laughter and Applause]
I think the responsibility that we have as artists—and I will mention myself in the same breath as you because Tuesday, I will have a doctorate.
That song “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” never rang so true. But I feel… as artists, our responsibility is to the truth. Because how else can history be documented? How else can our time be represented, this time that we have? Who’s gonna stand up and say, as the gentleman said earlier today, how it really is right now? Who’s gonna express that?
There was a time when hip-hop expressed that. It doesn’t anymore, in my opinion. It’s just very simple. It’s like: I’m gonna f- your girl, I got the drugs with me… and I bought a foreign car.
You know when I went to sit with Farrakhan, as I’ve done many times over this past year especially and got really close to him, he would stress that responsibility of the truth. Truth no matter what.
When I would sit with Steve McQueen, he would express that responsibility of the truth. The truth no matter what.
Matthew Barney’s my favorite artist… Vanessa Beecroft… uh… I got a list.
But Matthew is my favorite. That is my truth. And when I go and see a five hour piece, I just felt like he didn’t hold back from what was in his spirit. I feel like he expressed exactly the way he saw it, and that’s also the… I use all these words and I have a really simple word that I wanted to describe him the best. And I don’t wanna do a Porky Pig and just you know, just say four words to describe this one word.
That is the… [Sighs] …My hard drive, it has the little rainbow spinning wheel on my desktop right now.
That is the privilege of art, is to express exactly what you feel and to never lose that. I refuse to say this sentence all the way through about how everyone was born… I’m not even going to finish that sentence.
But you should capture your childhood… You know, I always say all the time, every opportunity that I get, every expanded opportunity to paint, I feel like I’m getting younger and younger. The idea of becoming an adult is the idea of conforming and compromising. My daughter, I know she goes to sleep and she dreams this whole plan of how she’s going to get away with whatever she can possible by the time she wakes up.
And I think that that’s also responsibility of artists—to try to get away with whatever you can.
Because everyone’s compromising. Everyone is placing themselves in a social debt based on how big their house is, how fast their car is, and how fast the car is next door to them. They’re losing their art, they’re losing their passion, they’re losing their purpose. It’s like the whole world is based on showing how much you have. I went into debt to chase my dreams. I went into debt when no one wanted a straight, black American entertainer to design a dress. I went into debt as a rapper. It was like an unspoken word amongst the industry that somehow people felt like they could posture on me, but I’m motherfucking Kanye West.
And there’s no value of house, or car, or idea debt that could control the three-year-old that I have inside of me that will stop my artistry, that will stop my truth. There’s no mass public perception, there’s no immediate finger pointing that will stop my truth. You’ve heard of the phrase, “no weapon formed against me shall prosper,” and I would gamble that there’s no current celebrity that there’d been more perceptions of mental or verbal press weapons formed against. And I’d also say there are no more prosperous. So this is just an example; it’s all smoking mirrors. Other than what the gentleman talked about earlier, none of it is real.
You could drive past a homeless person and think, “Who’s richer? Who’s freer?” Drive past a homeless person in a Maybach and think, “Who’s richer? Who’s freer?” In the future, I think, because we’re more visually driven due to… uh… thank you Instagram, thank you Internet, thank you... just the communication that people understanding art, like art being in style and fashion, and appreciated, I think there will be more opportunities for us to be successful as artists. Art means something. I got emotional with fonts, spacing, proportion…
Okay, that was my answer to that question.
Question: I wanted to know, as a person who’s pursuing music but also feel as though I have some academic obligation to finish school, what does this honorary doctorate mean to you?
KW: You have to move based on opportunity. If you have an opportunity to make a living as exactly what you dream about, you have to pursue that—at that time, when it’s there. If the opportunity isn’t there, just keep educating yourself as much as possible so that when the time comes you’ll be even better at that dream that you have.
What I keep saying is… I don’t want to totally touch on this too long because I might start crying because I would think that my mom would trade every single Grammy, BET, every award for her son to have a doctorate being that she was Dr. West.