A letter regarding Mr. West.
The first question I usually get asked is—Why Kanye? The answer is a little lengthy. Years before I began writing poems about Kanye, in 2007, in November, Kanye’s mother died. At that time, my grandfather was sick with brain and lung cancer, and it was clear he wouldn’t get better. My grandfather lived with my family for most of my life, always in the room next to mine. He died in February, 2008. After that I wrote many poems about his death. It was part of how I grieved for him. In November, 2008, Kanye released 808s & Heartbreak, which I’ve always viewed as an album of grief, mourning both his mother and his breakup with Alexis Phifer.
The first thing that struck me was how I had grieved privately and here he was grieving publicly. Even if I wanted my poems to be read widely, they never would have the audience Kanye’s album had. My loss would always be private, while Kanye’s loss would always have a public element to it. (Donda’s presence is even in a law now—the Donda West law, passed in California in October, 2009.)
The second thing that struck me was the negative reception of 808s & Heartbreak. While the album is now respected as highly influential to hip-hop music that quickly followed (by artists like T-Pain, Lil Wayne, and Drake), many of the initial reviews were not good. Rolling Stone called it a “noble failure of an album.” To me, it felt like his grief was being criticized, almost invalidated. I hated that. Suddenly, I was glad my poems couldn’t be read widely. I was glad I’d never hear criticism of those poems. I realized that being able to grieve privately was a luxury, one that Kanye couldn’t have. And I thought him very brave.
I was finding all these different dimensions to sadness in myself—having lost someone so close to me, being so involved with his treatment decisions—and I couldn’t believe there were these other dimensions, too, that Kanye experienced. But no matter our differences, I will always feel connected to Kanye because we lost people close to us at nearly the same time and we grieved with our art.
In 2010, I knew I wanted to write about hip hop. I love how hip hop is rooted in the present. I love its mixed diction, its humor, how it’s political, how much collaboration is involved. When I tried to write about it directly, I couldn’t. So I decided to write about an artist. While there are many artists I admire, Kanye is the only one I feel a connection to. The first poem I wrote about him was “Kanye West’s Circulatory System” about the two year anniversary of both Donda’s and my grandfather’s deaths. I never knew if the poems would keep coming. I just kept reading about Kanye in the news and I kept listening to his music, and the poems kept surprising me.
Thank you for reading,