You can be *anything*
learning from people, no matter what you think of them...
As a respite from the news, here are some thoughts about a new music documentary. For my writing and newsletter, try subscribing now!
Say you’re good at something, and people know it. That ought to be evidence you can master something, and thus succeed at other things, too. But many people view success as a kind of ceiling. They define you by that one thing. Then they don’t believe you can be good at something else. (Or maybe they are threatened by that idea).
There are many examples of this dynamic, from friends and peers, to colleagues and bosses, to how we view creators and artists.
And that brings me to one of the most unusual, revealing music documentaries I’ve ever seen, in any genre.
It’s about someone who many, many people put in a box; and who many people despise or pity; someone who is as infamous for his mistakes and antics as he is renowned for his contributions.
I’m referring to Kanye West, who now goes by “Ye.” Some of you may just stop reading now. (Which is your call! Freedom.)
Netflix just released a documentary 22 years in the making, Jeen-Yuhs, with tons of home video footage of Ye’s early years, before he had much success, respect or fame. It’s revealing in many ways. (I recommend watching the first two installments).
Right now, I’ll just share some thoughts from watching it, which may be relevant, no matter what you think of him.
“I didn’t know!!!”
The early footage shows how Kanye got his start as a music producer, making beats for other artists and rappers. So he was working for a top music label, in the studio, meeting artists. He wanted to be the lyricist on stage, however, to rap for the audience, not sit off stage, making instrumentals.
And even though he knew all the “right” industry people, and showed them lyrics that, we now know, sold tens of millions of albums around the world — virtually all of them saw him as “just a producer.” They told him to stay in his lane. They dismissed his lyrics and rapping.
One of the breakthrough moments comes when Pharrell Williams, the Grammy winning singer, producer and artist, finally “gets it.” After first hearing Kanye’s own songs, he says, like 8 times, “I didn’t know!” He seems to see the person in front of him anew, thanks to the art, for the first time.
Kanye had not released his own music yet; he was an eccentric, brash producer trailed by a videographer (an oddity at the time), and that provides a rare window into that raw reaction. The camera also may heighten how these performers played their role, as a NY Times review notes:
West also encourages the new people he meets to live out their relationship to him on camera. When he plays Pharrell Williams “Through the Wire,” Williams becomes a willing actor, walking out of the room and down the hall, overcome with thrill.
It took Kanye-level insistence to even get his peers to listen to his music. And they knew he made great, popular beats! But also, they “didn’t know.”
The more things change…
Seeing it all “before” the success is striking. A lot changed, but some things didn’t.
When Kanye later pushed to go into fashion, he met the same resistance. The same disbelief. For years. And the doubters were wrong.
Kanye now he runs a fashion company valued at over $3 billion dollars (per Bloomberg/UBS Group). It is a success by the metrics of sales, reach and impact. It’s also vaunted him to be richer than virtually all of his professional peers (and gatekeepers) in music and fashion.
Money isn’t everything, but it is relevant in business. He has built several businesses. So the success, and the repetition of this pattern, is striking even before you even consider the historical and systemic racism in America, which currently has under ten Black billionaires.
Kanye is now one of them, joining Oprah, Michael Jordan and Tyler Perry.
P.S. - A podcast interview for you…
There’s plenty of other topics to tackle when it comes to Kanye, including his reprehensible treatment of many people; his politics; and his mental health (a topic he has explored in his music and in public statements). In a digital exclusive, I spoke with the documentary directors about some of that, you can hear that conversation as a podcast, or watch it now online:
Some may disagree, but I feel art, in all forms, is enriched by our experiences-good and bad. I understand and accept that we are flawed, but that does not take away from the value of our work. E.g. David in the bible had the husband of the woman he loved killed, but is still celebrated among Christians. I could go on.
I watched the 2-parts and was so taken by Kanye's determination, resilience and brilliance as an artist, and his relationship with his mom. Yes, he needs and deserves help. But that shouldn't mean we can't credit him for his artistry and entrepreneurial spirit. As for us being capable of doing/being more, that one so hit home. Right in the heart. 💙👏🏾
Hello, Ari. Wishing you a great weekend, as well. My daughter and I had that same conversation this week, making some of the same points you identified in this article. She agrees with you…Yes, it is absolutely impossible not to see his many talents, but I see a train wreck coming. I want to rescue him, but can’t; push him into therapy, but only he can do that. I spent 26 years working in the psychiatric field, of which 10 were running Psych ICUs. “Ye” frustrates me to no end! He appears to be engulfed in pain, and his erratic behavior makes it difficult for me to enjoy all his brilliance. However, after digesting your viewpoints (heavy sigh😊), I’ll watch.