Since the publication of “Keep Talking Kanye: An Architect’s Defense of Kanye West” I have become an unwilling Kanye apologist. Each time he produces music that tempts us to use the moniker “creative genius” he quickly follows with an interview or tweet that makes him look like anything but. Invariably thereafter, a chain of text messages and emails with titles like “just to irritate you” or “come get your boy” begin to flood my inbox. My standard response is often no different from SNL’s Michael Che on Weekend Update: when presented with a headshot of Kanye and the caption “slavery was a choice” the comedian shakes his head and states simply, “Pass!” However, now that Kanye has once again entered the sphere of architectural discourse with a proposed new endeavor called “Yeezy Home” I am compelled to intervene once again with a more direct “put up or shut up” message.
we’re starting a Yeezy architecture arm called Yeezy home. We’re looking for architects and industrial designers who want to make the world better
The central thesis of “Keep Talking Kanye” remains pertinent. Using one’s celebrity status to help increase architecture’s appeal to a broader audience is great for the profession, especially given that celebrity’s ability to reach grossly underrepresented populations. This may be the most plausible silver bullet solution to architecture’s continued lack of diversity, profitability, and cultural relevance. There is a huge chasm, however, between Kanye being a champion for Black architects and promoting the architectural equivalent of $120 brown t-shirts and $260 gray sweatpants.
We initially believed Kanye’s intentions were in the right place after he agreed to meet with the leaders of Harvard GSD’s African American Student Union in 2013. We imagined at the time that the meeting would be a catalyst for recruiting new Black and Latino architecture students, funding their education, investing in their development, and potentially collaborating on designs that would directly engage these young designers and their communities. The excitement and hope that filled the room quickly dissipated. Though many enlightened conversations came out of that moment and the ensuing social media frenzy, the meeting itself had no productive outcomes besides getting a deeper understanding of Kanye’s frustrations with not being taken seriously as a designer. Though I maintain that the first reaction within the architecture community to his design aspirations are slanted with structural racism and institutional elitism, he has yet to distinguish himself from other celebrity designers. None of his design collaborations thus far have been with or for underserved groups; instead, they have been exclusively with wealthy white male designers (a group with no need of additional endorsement) and for his own ego-driven projects.
Inevitably, our two narratives are forever connected by that moment. For Kanye, it gave much-desired legitimacy to a design agenda initially ridiculed by the discipline’s gatekeepers. Having Harvard connected to your name tends to do that. For me, it became a catalyst for my work on Hip-Hop Architecture, a topic I’d originally been exposed to at Cornell in the mid-1990s, and had long considered exploring more thoroughly. Though others in the field have based much of their argument on casual celebrity connections with architecture, my work over the last five years has sought to consolidate experiments by students, academics, and practitioners into a singularly cohesive narrative. The result of this research will be the subject of a new exhibition at the AIANY Center for Architecture this fall, entitled, “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture.” The central questions of this show—What is Hip-Hop Architecture? Who are its practitioners? What does it look like?—must be directly applied to Kanye’s new venture. If a hip-hop artist opens a design firm hiring architects to design high-end projects for himself and his peers does that constitute Hip-Hop Architecture? To answer these questions, I’ve organized the content of the exhibition into three categories—identity, process, and image. A section of the curatorial statement for the show is excerpted below to elaborate on these three pillars:
“Identity is a key pillar of hip-hop culture. Having been stripped of their histories, names, language and sense of self as African slaves, Caribbean immigrants, or recipients of public services (housing, schools, prisons), the hip-hop pioneers invented a new identity as aggressive, defiant, and flamboyant as anything New York had ever experienced. Practitioners in this category explicitly identify as hip-hop by first being a practitioner of one of the original four elements or by adopting hip-hop as their personal identity. This will include work from Carlos “Mare 139” Rodriguez and Boris “Delta” Tellegen, noted writers from the early days of graffiti in New York and Amsterdam respectively, who now produce sculptures, installations, and even architectural façades. Also included will be the work of Tajai Massey, part of the Oakland-based groups Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics, who recently received a Master of Architecture degree from UC Berkeley.”
“Each of the four elements [of hip-hop: DJing, MCing, b-boying, and graffiti-writing] expresses itself through a unique set of techniques, methods, and processes. DJs sample, scratch and mix aspects of preexisting sounds from contemporary references, rare musical discoveries, and long-forgotten standards. MCs deftly layer their rhyming schemes over the structure of pre-engineered beats, weaving in and out of synchrony with the timing of bars. B-boys twist, contort, spin, pop, lock, and defy gravity in myriad formal styles, each conforming with the predetermined hierarchy of up-rock, down-rock, power move, and freeze. Graf writers transform surfaces in obscure, forgotten, disregarded, and hard-to-reach locations. They layer paint, stencils, stickers, and other materials unto any accessible face of the built environment. The work presented in this category, mostly student theses, professional speculations, and products of hip-hop-themed architecture courses from Stephen Slaughter at the University of Cincinnati and Chris Cornelius at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, reflects one or more specific processes reminiscent of the four elements or a process born out of hip-hop culture in general.”
“The image of hip-hop has been reified through decades of album covers, music videos, fashion, and photo documentation of early hip-hop environments. Each graffiti-bombed abandoned building or subway car, rope chain, do-rag, baggy denim, Kangol hat, or shell-top Adidas helps to compose the overall image of hip-hop culture and burn it into the global collective consciousness. Though there is no one image that represents the entirety of the hip-hop experience work in this category is primarily invested in finding an architectural language easily recognizable as hip-hop. The work of visual artist Olalekan Jeyifous, to be heavily featured in the show, is possibly the best a hip-hop image for architecture’s future while simultaneously constructing a convincing link between Afro-futurism and Hip-Hop Architecture.”
There are several other progressive individuals, like Amanda Williams, Lauren Halsey, James Garrett, Jr. and Craig Wilkins, who have been working diligently to produce spaces and to construct narratives that reveal the complex relationship between hip-hop culture and architectural production. Each will deservingly be exhibited, debated, and recognized during the show’s three-month run, within the associated symposium, and in the subsequent print publication. Meanwhile, Kanye appears out of his league among these designers who have equally valid hip-hop credentials, and no part of the Yeezy Home announcement suggests a process that will be any different from the standard elitist practices for wealthy patrons.
Kanye West, with his millions of fans and social media followers, has the power to bring this work to the attention of a much broader public. Instead, he has chosen to undercut all of its potential impact with his fixation on self-aggrandizement. His rants, once the catalyst for five years of fruitful work, have now become its main distraction.