Last night Kanye West closed out the 2015 VMAs by delivering a ten-minute speech that began with West saying the word "Bro" twice, touched upon juice, fatherhood, artistry, capitalism, weed, and the fallacy of awards shows, and ended with West announcing he was going to be running for President in 2020. It was, to borrow a phrase from West himself, one of the best awards show moments of all time. I, personally, screamed at least three times while watching it.
Perhaps the most poignant moment that didn't garner headlines occurred when West pointed out that the network had engineered a way to exploit his truce with Taylor Swift, who West famously interrupted in 2009. "You know how many times MTV ran that footage again? Because it got them more ratings. You know how many times they announced Taylor was going to give me the award? Because it got them more ratings."
When Kanye goes off like this, it feels a little bit like an episode of the show Black Mirror, in which characters often find themselves trapped in a system designed to exploit them even when they do succeed in speaking truth to power. Indeed, TMZ reports that MTV executives loved West's speech so much that they're considering West as a potential host for the 2016 VMAs.
It's fairly obvious that Kanye West will not actually be running for president in 2020. The presidency is a thankless job, one that requires whoever takes up its mantle to constantly be compromising: with other nations, with politicians on both sides of the aisle, with industries trying to stay afloat, with other branches of the government. This does not seem like something that Kanye West, an uncompromising auteur who once famously made Pusha T rewrite a verse over and over while screaming "MORE DOUCHEBAG!" in his ear, would particularly enjoy. Still, the sheer audacity of the moment—taking the stage at one of the most-watched nights in music to decry the very concept of that night, only to then announce that you've decided to apply for the most difficult, least fun, and most prominent job in the free world is, without a doubt, a quintessentially Kanye move.
It goes without saying that Kanye West is a guy who thinks incredibly highly of himself. On the flip side, as evidenced by his February interview with Zane Lowe, he thinks equally highly of human potential. It's like he sees himself as an avatar of what humanity should be; he wants everyone in the universe to have as large an ego as he does. "I didn't come here to be liked," he said to Lowe, "I came here to make a difference." In that same interview, he says that he wants Miucca Prada to design uniforms for America's youth. He says he wants to get Elon Musk and Obama together and send them to China. He says he wants to eliminate the class system in America. He says a lot of things, many of them well-meaning, many of them more than a little outlandish and much easier said than done. "And I'm not saying I have answers," he told Lowe later on, "I'm just saying these are my current opinions."
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The unifying theme of Kanye West's career might be expressing these big, populist ideas that resonate with people. In this way, he's sort of the left-wing, non-evil version of Donald Trump. As UVA historian Brian Balogh told our own Mike Pearl when discussing the possibility of Trump becoming President, "I think Donald Trump... reminds us that there is a solid percentage of Americans out there who feel utterly ignored and neglected by the candidates that both parties have put forward." Given that Donald Trump is currently leading the Republican Presidential candidate and a teen running as Deez Nuts was polling at nine percent in North Carolina, the idea of Kanye West very quickly morphing from a novelty candidate to serious Presidential contender in 2020 isn't totally out of the question.
The fan-fiction-esque possibilities of a Kanye West Presidency are numerous. His first order of business would probably be to pump several trillion dollars into NASA, contract Balmain to design a set of all-new space suits, and then work towards establishing an artist colony on Mars. He would knock down Mount Rushmore and erect a new one featuring busts of Steve Jobs, Riccardo Tisci, Martin Luther King Jr., Pimp C, and himself. He would appoint noted non-prescription drug salesman Pusha T as head of the FDA, put noted horndog Big Sean in charge of America's sex education program, and, much like on his albums, put Houston production legend Mike Dean in charge of all of the complicated stuff that makes the proverbial trains run on time. His wife Kim Kardashian, with her preternatural poise and newfound sense of political agency, would be a conventionally exceptional First Lady. President Kanye's speeches would be soaring and brash and powerful and fun, just like they are now.
On top of that, Kanye West seems perfectly comfortable with being the object of hatred. He invites it; he revels in it. Invariably, almost every decision the President makes is polarizing, and when something goes wrong, the President is the first guy who catches flak. Economy shits the bed? Blame the President. Drone misses an ISIS stronghold and accidentally hits a school? Blame the President. Global warming? Blame the President. Alien invasion? President's fault. President Kanye would probably be fine with being blamed for everything; he might actually sort of enjoy it and use it as motivation to solve all of society's problems through some audacious plan that would somehow involve Justin Bieber, sped-up atoms, a school of dolphins, and Albert Einstein's reanimated corpse.
One of the reasons Kanye West is so great is that though he started his career out by positioning himself as a big-dreaming everyman, he's slowly ascended to a point where he's one of the few larger than life artists. Musicians such as Drake, Taylor Swift, and Nicki Minaj, even guys like A$AP Rocky or Miguel, are all artists whose public image is structured around this idea that they're normal people whose job is that of "Pop Star." They might do extraordinary things onstage and in the studio, but at the end of the day we're meant to understand that they're just like us.
The basic idea of "Kanye West" rejects that premise. Though in his music he often compares himself to Michael Jackson, Kanye West in 2015 is more akin to Prince: an enigmatic figure whose charisma, artistry, and flamboyant weirdness are all equally self-evident. When he articulates his worldview, he does so in a way that can seem both a little goofy and deeply profound, to the point where the actual gist of his message can be lost in the soaring rhetoric.
When Kanye West says he wants to run for President in 2020, he doesn't actually mean he's going to run for President in 2020. Instead, this seems like is his way of expressing a fairly basic idea: that hip-hop is still one of the primary venues in which society as a whole expects to hear black voices. If those black voices aren't given legitimacy as artists and thinkers beyond that realm, then their voices are still being marginalized—just on a larger scale. And sometimes, it takes a someone brave enough to hop up onstage at the VMAs and make himself look silly by announcing he's going to run for President in an attempt to get that message across.
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