what’s in a name? the radical self-evangelising of kanye west
He named his son Saint, goes by Yeezus, wrote a track called I Am God and describes himself as ‘the greatest rock star on the planet’. In doing so he takes on racism and class discrimination with a personal politics that is as radical as riot grrrl and...
The internet could barely contain itself on Monday night when Kim Kardashian tweeted the name of her and Kanye West's newborn baby son: Saint West. Veering from "What a joke," to "If this baby is truly a saint he'll save us from his parents," and "Yep, you heard it. Those two clueless gasbags named their kid @SaintWest. Because, narcissism," the Twittersphere reacted with predictable condescension. "Wow, I wonder how much of a god complex #SaintWest is going to have," another wrote, arguably hitting the nail precisely on the head.
If Kim and Kanye named their son for greatness, then they did so knowing the power of a name. It's no embarrassing slip of humility, nor accident of ignorance that Kanye refers to himself as Yeezus, wrote a track called I Am God and declared during his headline slot at Glastonbury that festival goers were watching, "the greatest living rock star on the planet".
Asked during a SHOWstudio interview in October why he refers to himself as a 'creative genius,' Kanye answered plainly: "Because otherwise I'm called celebrity, I'm called nigger, I'm called rapper. And when they use the words celebrity, nigger or rapper, it's not in a positive way… So I have to define who I am". Those who want to question his assertion of creative genius ought to consider what we mean by the phrase, and who gets to be 'legitimately' dubbed, say, a Godlike Genius. In 19 years of NME's highest honour, just one half of a winner was black -- Daddy G of Massive Attack, in 1999. Sure, the NME mostly deal in guitar bands and as Sarah Sahim noted in her now famous essay The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie, "in indie rock, white is the norm," but the mainstream anointing of 'genius' beyond indie and even music is just as troubling.
Kanye has compared himself to Leonardo Da Vinci, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs and Michelangelo, and said in the same SHOWstudio interview, "All of my aspirations are things that currently only 60-year-old white people do… So I have to redefine and let people know exactly who I am. And it's not letting them know by wearing a suit, or wearing a Rolex… it's letting them know by saying, 'Let's start with this: I'm a creative genius and it's proven,' and I will continue to prove it".
People are routinely stunned by the perceived arrogance of Kanye's statements, but as he explained later in the same interview, we should rightly be suspicious of the virtue of humility. "What's people's favourite word for me? Humble?," he joked, before explaining, "If you go on your phone right now and go to the dictionary and look up 'humble,' 80% of the definition is negative. It's a controlling word, it's a way to control the masses". "Yeah, there's a level of reality to being nice, to being cordial to people," he explained, "But if you have the ability to lead... and your will is to help, you should not be humble, you should speak up, because this world is broken, so someone needs to say something".
He later announced his bid for the US presidency in 2020 and was, of course, roundly ridiculed; but at least someone caught the drift most seemed to have missed. Speaking at a Democratic National Committee event in San Francisco where Kanye later performed, Barack Obama joked, "Do you really think that this country is going to elect a black guy from the South Side of Chicago with a funny name to be president? That's crazy. That's cray," of course alluding to his own name, Barack Hussein Obama, and history as a community organiser, civil rights attorney and law school lecturer in South Side Chicago.
Accepting his BET Visionary award earlier in the year, Kanye made a similar point. "Part of the reason why I'm not allowed to be in power is because of race, because of people's perception of celebrity," he said, "Because all they want to present to young black men is the idea of making it to the league or making it to be a rapper, but not the idea of becoming an owner.' And they would do anything they can to make it seem like a truthful idea is a stupid idea, or a crazy idea".
Kanye can call himself a 'creative genius,' or his son Saint, because when you think about it, the meaning we give those words is defined -- solely -- by their association to people who have been called that before. Like the title of 'icon', the words literally (and figuratively), have no defined meaning, and they never did. Icons and geniuses have always been defined practically and dogmatically by people, and those with the power to create mainstream cultural mythologies were and are old white men. And the 'icons' and 'geniuses' they christened are also white men, who are now old.
If it's easier for us to nominate Elvis, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie or Mick Jagger for the title, Kanye's provocation is asking us to define why that is, considering his many, various and substantial achievements. The establishment don't often confer the mainstream mythology of icon, legend or genius on men who look and sound like Kanye West. The real genius of Kanye is his understanding that, for all it's worth, he's better off bestowing it upon himself.
Text Charlotte Gush
Photography Peter Hutchins