Kanye, Swahili for ‘Only One’
Kanye Omari West is an American rapper, record producer, record executive and fashion designer. He was born in Atlanta, Ga., U.S.A., to Black parents. Ray West, his father, is a former Black Panther and was one of the first black photojournalists at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He would later become a Christian counselor.
His mother, Dr. Donda C. Williams, was a professor of English at Clark Atlanta University. She was also the Chair of the English Department at Chicago State University. When West was just three years old, he moved to Chicago with his mother after his parents’ divorce. At age five, West began writing music and started rapping in the third grade. West evolved into creating musical compositions in the seventh grade and selling his work to other artists.
I think being in China got me ready to be a celeb because, at that time, a lot of Chinese had never seen a Black person.
West’s early cultural influence, which later persuaded aspects of his musical style, can be traced to his relocation to Nanjing, China, when he was 10. While living in China for his mother’s job as a lecturer, West was forced to learn the language in order to attend school. West has attributed his adaptation to fame and identification as a celebrity to his time spent in China. In an interview with “Time Out Shanghai” prior to his 2008 Shanghai Grand Stage concert, West remarked, “I think being in China got me ready to be a celeb because, at that time, a lot of Chinese had never seen a Black person. They would always come up and also stare at me, fishbowl me and everything. And that’s kind of the way it is for me right now.”
West attended Chicago State University and dropped out after his freshman year. In an interview with Ebony magazine he said, “I dropped out of school because I wasn’t learning fast enough…. I learned from real life better.” Instead of feeling dismayed by her son’s decision to drop out of college, Donda was fully supportive of his dream of making music. Her unwavering support during this time would eventually be referenced in many future lyrics of Kanye’s songs.
Speaking to the Washington Post, West said, “My mother was my everything. My mother always kept me around music. She was also my first manager. I remember her driving me out to the suburbs that would be like an hour away to studios, and her just sitting there with me in support.” In 2001 West moved to New York after rapper Jay-Z hired him to produce his music. Shortly after this move West’s career would take off, fueling his particular brand of obsession with music and God.
I dropped out of school because I wasn’t learning fast enough.
West’s music has always been revolutionary. He possesses a unique music style consisting of an experimental approach to progressive hip hop music with unique combinations of live instruments with manipulated vocal samples. According to The McHenry Messenger, “Kanye West has influenced contemporary rap music more than any other artist.” With the release of his fourth studio album “808’s and Heartbreak” in 2008, West reached a groundbreaking level in pop culture. The album was named on several year-end best records lists and would eventually reach triple platinum. The album has also been hailed as the most predominant influence on all genres of music that followed; particularly the new genres of experimental R & B and emo rap.
West is the first commercially successful rapper to incorporate his unabashed belief in God into most of his lyrics. His mother’s sudden and untimely death in 2007 deeply impacted West’s faith and his musical style. West’s despair and grief translated into music that was instantly relatable to the average listener living an average life.
Rather than rapping about aspirational lifestyles laden with unimaginable material wealth and travel, Kanye was able to connect through insightful and universal lyrics about heartbreak, insecurity, vulnerability, and fear. But this relatability would be short-lived. While West’s life up to this point was far from average, it was about to move into an insane stratosphere of fame with his introduction to Kim Kardashian, his marriage to her and the initiation into the Kardashian empire.