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I hadn’t been out of college for a year when Kanye West released his debut album, "The College Dropout." The beats, the soulful samples and Kanye’s blended aesthetic were an unheard combination of prep meets street. This ‘backpack hip-hop’ aesthetic engendered love for him as an artist, while his radical transparency fueled appreciation for him as an icon in the making.
Kanye was both a visionary and a generational spokesperson.
His music revealed an internal conflict–the tension between the trappings of money and more meaningful pursuits. His music predicted the feelings of a generation who, in a few years, would be questioning if the founding principles of their parents’ generation were fundamentally flawed.
Go to college or get a gold chain? Worship God or money? Seek love or sex? Artistry or celebrity? Kanye’s cultural power is rooted in his exploration of the very millennial tension between old and new paradigms of success.
As Kanye’s brand as an artist reached prominence and regard, a few key moments fueled his transition from the hero to rebel. Hurricane Katrina and award show season triggered his vocalization and pop culture activism. Kanye started to say things some are thinking but wouldn’t dare express. He did it intensely. He did it publicly. Kanye becomes characterized by his “rants”–by his behavior as cultural rebel. In branding, the rebel or outlaw is characterized by rebellion and need for revolution. When Kanye declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on national TV and took a stage, snatching the mic to proclaim “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time,” he was working to disrupt and shock with the goal to destroy what was not working for him and society. What was not working for Kanye, for black artists, black people, and our culture was the undermining of black lives and black creativity by the establishment; whether you were the President of the Grammys or Taylor Swift or Hedi Slimane, Kanye used his gift of outrageousness to dismantle mainstream hegemony.
His public frustration started with the lack of recognition and regard in the music industry and in the beginning of the twenty-tens we see this frustration turn to fashion. The rebel’s greatest fear is being powerless and inconsequential, so we see Kanye using his platform to make sure the world knows about his plight as an emerging designer facing discrimination and closed doors despite his celebrity status.
What’s interesting about his latest fashion week presentation, Yeezy Season 3, is that we see the convergence of the hero, rebel and creator brand archetypes in one appearance.
Very few greats–in business or art–have been able to transcend the boundaries placed upon them by the public, peers or industry. When talking about his vision, Kanye references the significant impact his personal heroes (Steve Jobs and Walt Disney) have made across culture.
As he strives for their greatness, there are challenges–what we could call brand challenges– standing in his way.
Kanye’s first brand challenge is that the transparent content he deploys as ‘rebel brand’ is in conflict with the expectations we have from an entrepreneurial ‘creator brand.' Steve Jobs’ rants and interpersonal conflicts are the stuff of legend. But they were not published, captured, and propagated in real-time for the world to see. For Kanye, technology has become a frenemy; his stream of conscious diatribes on Twitter and backstage ‘meltdown’ at SNL work against him as he works to establish credibility as a designer and global problem solver.
Kanye recently published DONDA’s “Categories of Influence” chart outlining areas in which the organization might work or impact, he became the subject of Internet ridicule by many. As a strategist at a creative agency that works on businesses ranging from retail to hospitality to organ donation, I attest that this chart is not nonsense. What Kanye is missing, however, is a brand framework that allows him to communicate all of his interests and capabilities under a single positioning that is clear and compelling. Without a framework, his initiatives look haphazard, following shiny objects in culture rather than purposefully selecting opportunities and projects.
Finally, the brand of the black man stands in Kanye’s way. Over the course of hundreds of years, the consistent depiction of black men as oversexed, lazy and easily angry has created a deep insidious racism that affects institutions, individuals and Kanye himself. Society laughed when Kanye asked Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for 1 billion dollars to fund his work. The conversation became about why Kanye was asking for a handout (a word and behavior deeply associated with government assistance), reflecting ignorance about how the rich help each other get richer; about how venture capitalists and brands and banks fund new ideas. Kanye’s method of engagement gets him into trouble as he himself confuses which part of his brand he deploys when. In order for Kanye to more seamlessly transition from hero to rebel to creator, he has to develop a communications strategy that helps him follow guidelines on when to engage which brand to connect with a specific audience at a specific time.
Marissa Shrum is a strategist at Mother New York.
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