Kanye West’s VMA award speech did two things for me. One, it demonstrated the man’s immense intelligence; two, it demonstrated how brilliant of an artist he is. What he did during his speech was immensely important. But first, I’ll get to what he actually said on that stage.
To begin, the points that mark his intelligence are, among others, when he talks about the institution of award shows. When West says that he doesn’t understand award shows, he says that he doesn’t understand how it makes sense to judge someone’s life on an institutional level (or at all). You might say that West is exceptionally judgmental about artists—not exactly. When he defends Justin Timberlake, he defends Justin Timberlake the loser of album of the year, the Justin Timberlake who is told by the institution that his life’s work amounts to a loss (indeed, all art is the work of a lifetime). West didn’t say that Timberlake was better; he said that he deserved to win, implicitly because of the devotion Timberlake put into his work, marked by his tears at the Grammys.
If art is truly good for its own sake and brings joy to otherwise dull existence, then West diagnoses a massive flaw in society on this point. The institutional message is that some of us have value because of our life’s work, and others don’t; what’s more is that this message is nearly everywhere, virtually wherever one finds hierarchy (education systems, economic systems, etc.). West simply thinks that it’s crazy to go around calling people losers—and we all do this, year after year, when instead we should be celebrating the one spec of equality that institutions cannot take from us: art.
You might object that what West did to Taylor Swift was unquestionably judgmental and criticizing her art. Sure. But this year’s speech is precisely an apology/explanation of what happened those years ago.
Most importantly, West knows that we do not need to think this way. “2015… This is a new mentality.” He genuinely wants the world to change for the better. He wants to bring back art for itself, equality, and for all to affirm existence. This, naturally, is where I locate West’s brilliance as an artist. He knows that truly great artists and revolutionaries are willing to die for their cause. He knows that the only way to create change is to express oneself so boldly at risk of death. He praises artists that understand this. He knows that there are fixable problems that people simply don’t see when money and awards are the objective.
As for his presidential bid, this is all I’ll say: Just over halfway through the speech, one can hear a woman’s voice following Kanye’s command, “listen to the kids, bro.” She yells out: “Kanye for president!”
I’d bet West made that iconic statement, four minutes later, for the purely inspirational value of “listening to the kids.” Whether or not Kanye heard, the symbolic value is there, and it took a truly great artist to manage such potency in such a moment