Kanye West has been called many things. Most of them are euphemisms for the very prejudicial and problematic “crazy” designation.
I’m on a self-imposed vacation. I am only doing things for fun. When commentary about the latest Kanye “episode” crossed my social media, I decided to indulge. As I watched Kanye’s interview on Sway’s radio show I found myself doing a little discourse analysis. Because that, apparently, is my idea of fun.
By the twitter comments I expected some raving man-beast to be foaming at the mouth. Instead, by minute 15 I started thinking I understood where Kanye was coming from. That is odd enough considering I’m inclined to think Kanye, the world’s greatest artist ever, is a wee bit over-hyped. He makes nice beats. But, I digress.
In the final analysis, the Kanye interview has a few take-aways. Some of those take-aways are even relevant to research! One, language out of context can look really strange. That is why I prefer to triangulate content analysis with discourse analysis and something I call episodic analysis. Out of context Kanye’s “bizarre” allusions to bad history like, “this is how the French Revolutoin got started!” and “a lot of slaves made money to buy they freedom!” seem, well, “bizarre”. In context, they seem like something else.
Two, discourse occurs between people. There are three people in that video, two visible and one off-camera producer of some sort. If Kanye is being Kanye Krazy we might want to interrogate all the people in the room. That’s part of that episodic analysis I do in qualitative research. When there is a significant emotional oeuvre, I isolate it in transcription and audio data. I analyze what came immediately before, during and immediately after the emotional change. What questions prompted the change? Was there a verbal or non-verbal cue from the interviewer? Did the environment change in some way? The change is part of the data. I found this immensely important in my interviews with students in for-profit colleges.
Three, there is a point at which we can write a script for a person and no matter what they do, the behavior will be interpreted through that script. That’s why I say sometimes it is best to cut your losses when your script has been so rigidly drawn that no matter what you do, it will be defined by important stakeholders as failure.
After watching the whole interview, I do not know if Kanye is Krazy but I do know that you probably don’t either. Not from this interview, anyway. Because what I saw in the interview was a man who perceives himself as an artist (Ok, fine, a genius artist; wherefore art thou ego) being forced, by the interviewer, into the role of pundit and teacher.
Kanye resists because he is not comfortable teaching. Which he probably shouldn’t be. Teaching takes training, formal or informal. Kanye is less resistant to being a pundit but he probably should resist. Unlike others who reduce criticisms of Kanye, the superstar, to being a child or a buffoon I am assessing his skill set. Kanye is not a good extemporaneous speaker, doesn’t seem inclined to become a good prepared speaker, and is not good at communicating his ideas. And that’s fine. We have enough pundits. He need not be one. He already has a job as superstar.
But that is beside this point. Kanye’s blow up, in context and considering all the persons in the discourse, is not all that strange. You ask men about sensitive subjects like money and you may as well be asking them about their sexual prowess. Hegemonic masculinities may be unfortunate and regrettable, but Kanye’s emotional response isn’t anymore messed up than any other man’s.
A few examples of these three take-aways:
What do people think is so strange about this particular interview? At about minute 17:01 Kanye proclaims that he is “Warhol. I am Shakespeare in the flesh!”. That strikes some folks as bizarre. Out of context, as I read it on Twitter, it sure seemed odd. But then I watched the actual discourse. In context, at about 16:10 the interviewer, Sway, continues to hammer at Kanye about how his clothing deal works and why he won’t just “do it for himself” instead of relying on dominant [white] benefactors:
That comment is about money. Discussing money is culturally relative. Indeed, whether you talk about money or not is a type of status group signifier. New, gauche moneyed sets can be disparaged for talking too crassly about the price of goods while poor people can be admonished for not disclosing their assets. When Sway interrupts to ask the question, Kanye has been talking about how, “powerful as [his] voice is Lucia* still cuts [his] checks”. He’s commenting on discovering, that even with fame and money, he is still in an employee arrangement. That is a commentary on capital, ownership, and commodification of labor in an era of celebrity as an exchange economy. It is a nuanced, difficult conversation to have. It takes Marxists decades to talk about it. And even when most Marxists do have the language, it is so dense as to be unintelligible to most people.
It’s a huge concept: how money isn’t the same as wealth and how fame isn’t the same as power. And Kanye is not good at having. Let’s get that out of the way. He’s not particularly eloquent off-the-cuff. So he’s talking about this big concept, bumbling it pretty badly, and then Sway asks him repeatedly why he doesn’t just do something different, i.e. better.
And Kanye goes off. In this context though his rant is less rant-y. If talking about money is relative and talking about the division of labor in a global capitalism is hard, then both are equally difficult when you are doing so extemporaneously. Factor in that for men talking about money is a proxy for all manner of things. And Kanye has to admit that he lost “$13 million of [his] own money!” trying to keep his business afloat. He has to talk about losing money. In public. Where some guy is asking him why he didn’t “just” do something else. Sounds rough to me. That might explain Kanye’s refutation of Sway’s judgement, “you ain’t got the answers!” Meaning, you are not superior enough to me to judge how I lost money on this business deal. (And seriously Sway’s blasé “so you don’t have the money to do it. That’s your answer!” would get him kicked in the sternum by many people, in many contexts).
The other thing I noted, which comes up a great deal in qualitative interviews, are Kanye’s verbal and non-verbal utterances. Usually, we understand these as “uh” and “yeah” and guttural sounds. Many qualitative researchers discount these when they code transcripts. For thematic coding that might make sense. But qualitative analysis, to me, is its best when it does not just count codes but (de)constructs meaning. For that it is important to code what is said and what is not said.
Kanye’s utterances are not the typical “uhs” and whatnots. He has no problem stringing together long chains of words. But, as has been noted, the strings often get twisted in ways that make him seem bizarre or childish. What if the word strings aren’t functioning as linear discourse but as utterances? Kanye’s body language makes this case. Look at him at about 17:21 when, again, Sway asks him why he doesn’t just “empower himself”.
The word strings become denser and more tangled as Kanye’s body language ramps up. The frenetic energy that often comes out in “uhs” and “indeeds” (for the academic conference set) is exactly like what Kanye is enacting when he starts going on about slaves and the French Revolution. What if the odd asides are the mental breaks people provide themselves verbally to give themselves time to think and process?
Kanye begins to look a bit more normal in that context. He’s being asked hard questions that are, to be fair, bordering on judgmental. He’s doing that live, on-air. He may not be a gifted or trained public speaker. He is thinking about large concepts that can take even trained scholars a great deal of time to process, much less communicate. And so his verbal tic protects him by kicking in, which is why we develop them.
But Kanye’s response sets the interviewer off as the energy reads like a challenge, perhaps. But maybe this also puts the interviewer on the defensive because by this point Kanye, The Character has already been written. Like worldviews, characters can help us save time and cognitive discomfort by pre-sorting random information into a framework that we already understand. The problem, of course, is when the point of the exchange is to understand what you do not already understand.
Here, as in qualitative research, is where a good interviewer or a good reader would challenge their preconceived notions about characters and worldviews. That is harder to do than dismissing inarticulate extemporaneous speaking as rambling and decontextualized behavior as bizarre. But, again, it depends on your goal. In research, at least, there is some mutually agreed upon goal: something akin to truth, however relative or differently defined.
In a way I am sad that is not the goal with Kanye, not for of Kanye but for ourselves. I saw a lot in that interview that I see when I interview research participants. People are messy. Messages don’t always choose good messengers. Not everyone has spent decades learning precise language to describe complex feelings and social experiences. And famous producers aren’t teachers and public intellectuals just because we shove a microphone before them and print whatever they say.
Which isn’t to say that Kanye isn’t mentally disturbed as many claim. But is to say that this interview, taken in context, doesn’t appear to be evidence of much besides a bumbling interviewer, a rambling pop star, and an audience who had written the script for a guy playing Kanye before the first minute of the interview ever played.
*This is my hackneyed interpretation of the company name Kanye references repeatedly. I can’t find it on the google machine, meaning I likely have it wrong. Which appropriately signals my cultural capital, ie I ain’t got none. I’m so new money I haven’t made any yet.