This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
You only need to spend five seconds on the internet to see that Kanye West is one of the world’s most powerful artists. A day rarely passes when his presence isn’t plastered across mastheads and pull-quotes—and to some, it’s become sickening to the point of gut-wrenching, vitriol spilling nausea. Spend a moment in a comment section, or look at the tabloids, and you’ll see there’s a strong dislike towards him. The hate usually focuses on Kanye’s ego or the incendiary idea he’s married the woman he loves, and usually tends to ignore the often-pertinent content of his long, stream of consciousness tirades.
In recent months, those speeches have focused on an issue that affects, to a varying degree, 95 percent of the human race: class divide. For Kanye, it’s about breaking down the idea of separation—the ability to be with a reality star, make shoes, and be a powerful black American, without being subjected to elitism. But in a wider context, he’s pushing for worldwide equality. The haters play the “Oh, but Kanye’s famous. He doesn’t experience injustice” card and look-down on what he’s saying—but surely that’s symbiotic of the exact divide he’s rallying against. As he said in his touching BET Award Acceptance Speech the other week, “don’t think that because 3 percent of a gated community has colored people in it, that we’re free.”
I think of seventh-solo era Kanye as a visionary for balance. Balancing racial divide, the creative process between artists through collaboration, and various isms. He’s pushing for the idea, as he says on “Power” and has referenced in interviews with the Breakfast Club and Zane Lowe in the past month, that “no one man should have all that power”.
So it’s pertinent that this Kanye, with his beneficial, well-wishing, equalitive thinking, chose to speak at Oxford University yesterday; an institution that dates back to 1096, and has been long questioned for its fair share of class divide.
The post-speech reports picked up on your typical, ostentatious, hit-grabbing Kanye West quotes—featuring Nicki Minaj to something about the Matrix being “the Bible of the post-information age”. But it’s the bits about class divide—which you can read in full on The Tab—that are important. Not just because he’s talking at Oxford, but because separationism exists across the board. And if someone has the power to talk about class divide from a position that demands coverage, without feeling crippled by their own status, then it's down to all of us to assess the vital and meaningful parts of his talk, rather than just the pull quotes.
With that in mind, I called up Abbas Kazmi—Chairman of the Oxford society that booked Kanye West—to talk in detail about why Oxford chose to book him, how they did it, and what they think about his comments on class divide.
Noisey: Hi Abbas. Yesterday must have been mad! Looking at the Oxford Guild Society’s previous events, you’ve held talks about banking, energy corporations, and pub quizzes. How did Kanye come into the conversation—why him and why now?
Abbas: Traditionally, the Guild is more of a student run career service focusing on getting people jobs and internships. The second side is social events, balls, and parties. We get a lot of sponsorship so we have the ability to do unlimited champagne events—things like that—which students enjoy. But we also want to be more than a careers service and have more social, intellectual speakers from different areas— we’ve had people like Alan Sugar, politicians, NGEOs, celebrities, fashion people, a big mix—but Kanye is obviously one of the biggest names we’ve had.
He’s huge! I don’t think you could get a bigger name than Kanye.
Well, that’s what people are saying. The last time anyone bigger came to Oxford was in 2001, and that was Michael Jackson. In the last 14 years there hasn’t been a bigger name.
It seems pretty obvious—Kanye’s one of the biggest stars in the world—but how did the decision to book him come about?
He was on our target list. We were actually in negotiations with Ne-Yo and Ludacris originally, to come before Kanye this term. The way Kanye came about—last Friday I saw he was at St. Pauls in London. I think he was there for London Fashion Week. So I sent out an invitation saying—I understand you’re in London, if you have a couple hours to come up to Oxford and give a talk, blah blah blah, we’d really love that. I was being opportunistic and didn’t think anything would come from it.
Ten minutes later we get a reply from his agent at Def Jam asking for a phone call. We had a series of conversations, told him what the format would be, and Kanye was really keen to come. It’s been pretty last minute because, obviously, he’s got a very busy schedule and a short time in London. Then we had to drop press releases and Kanye had to personally approve it. So on Sunday evening we had to wait four hours for him to personally approve the marketing. He took out the paragraph we’d written about him. Then we launched at 11 PM.
The press release is interesting—it’s understandable, of course—but there’s always rumors of celebrities making ludicrous requests. Did Oxford need to be quite accommodating toward Kanye?
It wasn’t that ludicrous. His agent gave us a list of six or seven things to do. One of the bizarre ones was—in his set-up room—he wanted Volvic water with the labels taken off. He doesn’t like stickers on the bottles.
The Tab published the whole transcript of Kanye’s speech, but what were your favorite bits as you watched it?
It’s essentially a stream of consciousness where he moves between topics he wanted to talk about. The way he started—he asked someone in the audience for a question, and they asked about his progression from his first album to his current album, Yeezus. He said OK. Then ignored the question, and talked about what he wanted to.
My favorite bit was when he was talking about his childhood and his parents. He was saying he felt one of the reasons he moved away from following their route into education and academia was because he felt disillusioned with his education at fourteen and didn’t have teachers to motivate him. It gave insight into what’s really driven him. The stuff he was saying about social class was quite interesting. He was passionate about that and getting riled up.
I thought that was interesting too. It’s pertinent he spoke about class divide at Oxford because the university’s notorious for separation between social classes. There was an instance recently, where students from minority backgrounds ran a campaign called “I, Too, am Oxford,” highlighting the prejudices felt by those from minority backgrounds.
Yeah, my friend ran [the campaign].
So you know what it is then, and that a counter campaign surfaced (in which students who need to check their privilege undermined the original campaign by starting one called “We are all Oxford”). So it seems appropriate Kanye chose to make comments about class divide during his talk at Oxford.
I mean, I’m not sure he’s aware of it himself. I’m not sure how closely he follows Oxford University—probably very little. I think the way he wanted to talk about things; he wanted to treat it like a University lecture, which is why he covered these different topics. He wasn’t talking so much about Oxford, he was talking about America, which is what he’s more familiar with.
But looking back at the speech, although Kanye talks about America, he also says “there’s still something you’re taught every day, especially in the UK, and that’s division by class.” Last month the Telegraph published a piece which said “there’s a stark divide” at Oxford “between those who study and those who serve.” Kanye’s talking about destroying that divide. What should students take away from what he said? Do things need to change?
In terms of Oxford? It’s very clear that Oxford has an image problem and it would be foolish of anyone to deny that. Anyone who walks around the center of Oxford can see that ethnic minority groups—from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds for example—compared to other universities is a lot lower. In terms of yesterday’s talk, that was the most I’ve seen such a mix of different races, which was quite exciting to see. But it’s something the university will have to try and fix. It’s something that will take time. I don’t think Kanye will be a catalyst for it. It’s more of a long-term change.
It’s definitely a long-term thing. But just getting Kanye to come down and do the talk is a step forward. I don’t think that would have happened years ago. Have you heard his new track “All Day”? What do you think?
Yeah. It’s going back to “Black Skinhead” days. Yeah, no. I quite liked that actually. I wasn’t really a fan of “Only One”.
I loved that one.
I prefer him when he’s doing his kind of…
Getting riled up?
Yeah. Traditional Kanye getting angry. “Only One” was a nice song but I wouldn’t be such a fan if that was all his music was.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil