Mockery of Kanye West's design ambition
is "racist" says African-American activist

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Kanye West at Harvard Instagram photo by joseramonsierra

News: the scornful response to Kanye West's recent pronouncements on architecture is part of the "long history of making fun of black people" in America, according to an African-American design student organisation.

"There's a long history in the United States of making fun of black people that actually make it," said Héctor Tarrido-Picart, co-president of the African American Student Union (AASU) at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

He told Dezeen: "We read it as him being mocked for being an ambitious black man."

Tarrido-Picart made the comments after his organisation spent two hours discussing the lack of black representation in architecture with rap star West, who visited Harvard Graduate School of Design last week and gave an impromptu speech to students. "I really do believe that the world can be saved through design," said West in the address.

The speech was the latest in a series of pronouncements on architecture and design by West, who has long been interested in the subjects but has recently started to engage with leading creatives, commissioning graphic artist Peter Saville to design a logo for him and hiring architects Office for Metropolitan Architecture to design a temporary cinema.

West also spoke of his passion for design in a recent interview with The New York Times in June and during an interview with BBC Radio 1 in September, in which he spoke of "going to the Louvre, going to furniture exhibits and understanding that, trying to open up and do interviews with this, learning more about architecture".

However West also expressed frustration at the opposition he has faced: "Taking one thousand meetings, attempting to get backing to do clothing and different things like that. Like, getting no headway whatsoever."

Tarrido-Picart believes the ridicule and resistance is due to the "remnants of the racist society that we have grown up in," which prevent African-Americans crossing over into "higher realms of culture" such as art, design and architecture.

He pointed to figures from the American Institute of Architects showing that only one percent of registered US architects are African-American, despite making up over 12 percent of the total population.

"Why [does] racism still exist in an era where Obama is president and cultural figures like Jay Z and Kanye West create culture," asked Tarrido-Picart. "But when it comes to trying to expand their creativity to other fields, [they] run into walls that could not be better described than remnants of the racist society that we have grown up in?"

West visited Harvard Graduate School of Design while in Boston for a concert, following an invitation from the AASU, who invited the star to meet them following West's BBC Radio 1 interview.

"I have reached the glass ceiling - as a creative person, as a celebrity," West said in the interview, adding: "When I say that it means I want to do product. I am a product person. Not just clothing but water bottle design, architecture, everything that you could think about. And I've been at it for 10 years, and I look around and I say, 'Hey wait a second - there's no one around here in this space that looks like me'."

Kanye West at Harvard Instagram photo by dashamikic
Kanye West at Harvard Graduate School of Design (photo by dashamikic). Main inmage by joseramonsierra

Tarrido-Picart said: "We were struck first by the depth of knowledge that Kanye West actually had on architecture and second, because of the real question that he raised, which is [that] when you're a very clearly a very talented and creative person and you choose to expand that creativity to new fields, you run into a wall. And that wall isn't a wall that's revolving around your creativity but a wall that's revolving around the colour of your skin."

He added: "That resonated a lot with us and we decided to send out a personal letter to Kanye West in which we expressed the same concerns and reverberated and resonated with what he was saying in that interview."

"He agreed with us in terms of us in identifying with the fact that he was a very creative person and wanted to start creativity in the realm of design and architecture, and he thought that the fact that the colour of our skin plays a very limiting factor," said Tarrido-Picart. "It's not just about under-representation but also an active question that racism is very much alive in the United States."

"He questioned us about what culture is and trying to surpass that by going into higher realms of culture, so art, design, architecture," he continued. "He sees that as the natural next step."

The AASU has signed a non-disclosure agreement with West so cannot reveal the precise nature of their discussions with the star, but it is understood that they agreed to work together to raise awareness of, and tackle, the under-representation of minorities in American architecture.

"We're going to try and maintain an active discussion with Kanye," Tarrido-Picart said. "He expressed a deep interest in this being something that is not just short term, but actually long term in terms of actually shaping the future of landscape of what design and culture is going to be, not only in the United States but around the world."

He added: "What we hope to do is to raise the question that Kanye has [raised in a] very serious manner in our industry."

Below is a statement issued by the AASU following its meeting with West:


Why the African American Student Union met with Kanye West at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design

This past summer, members of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s African American Student Union (AASU) were stirred by a series of interviews with Kanye West referencing his growing interest in design.

Mr. West’s very public frustration with the limits experienced by Black designers and artists energized and excited the group, prompting a series of internal conversations. Framing these discussions was the fact that only 1% of licensed architects in the United States identifies as being African-American. We discussed how this severe under-representation of African Americans in producing the built environment which have a range of effects upon our collective lives.

Subsequent to these discussions, the AASU decided to reach out to Mr. West.

We were tremendously excited that Mr. West, well-aware of these challenges, desired to meet us as well. This Sunday, he met with the AASU privately to discuss how we might pursue meaningful change together. Mr. West is an artist at the center of this generation’s cultural production and shares in our group’s optimism that transdisciplinary design practice can - as he stated Sunday - impact the world in positive ways. One of these ways is by encouraging the development and legitimacy of African American designers in their professional and academic practices. We are fortunate that the GSD has provided us with a platform in which this dialogue can occur.

We look forward to continuing this conversation with Mr. West, and through these efforts, we aim to catalyse a more inclusive design culture.

Sincerely,
The Harvard University Graduate School of Design - African American Student Union

  • Krista Marie

    If he were to step away from his existing limelight and brand, which as it stands is his name, and delve into ‘product design’ and architecture in a slightly more humble fashion, he would have more of a chance at being taken seriously. Whilst I have not seen any output, people don’t take him seriously because of his existing ‘brand’.

  • Ruby

    This guy mixed Steely Dan’s ‘Caves of Altimara’ with his own rap music… imagine what his buildings are going to look like.

  • Daniel

    Is this mans ego not big enough? I’m currently an architecture student. In my view the world is not prejudice free, however it has come a long way. This is not racism or prejudice, this is judgement. He is yet to prove that he can be taken seriously because he lacks the experience which made most architects and designers.

    As pointed out by most, Kanye’s talent is questionable. Maybe he needs a new direction, but he should take the long way round as celebrity status should not bypass the hard work and road to success which everyone else has to take.

  • SCAQTony

    Well a marginal designer who has a net worth of a $100-million (net, not gross) just maybe there is something to learn from him.

    • mrlumpy17 .

      Kanye’s net worth came from the music industry, not design or visual art. Maybe there is something to learn from that.

  • Weston

    He’s wrong. Kanye does not have a great knowledge of architecture. He misinterprets large concepts – he talks about minimalism and primitivism as the same thing, which is incorrect. A lot of people learn about utopia in school as an unattainable society and by definition it’s a place that doesn’t exist and it can be dangerous to assume that design can solve the problems of society.

    Pruitt Igoe is example number one that any of the students in the audience would know about, but I’m sure Kanye has no idea what it’s significance is.
    The guys head is inflated and we’re all witnessing someone with a lot of reach go mentally insane. I used to appreciate him a lot as an artist and I still greatly appreciate the fact that he wants to elevate creativity, architecture and design, but that does not mean in any way that he should be taking credit for that creativity.

    It’s unfortunate that someone so misguided and self-absorbed is in a position with the exposure and audience to make a difference and this has nothing to do with anyones race. Period.

  • ENOCH

    Actually, 10-15 years ago he WAS mocked making music. You’d be hard pressed to find a producer (“beat maker”) who also wanted to rap and sing on the same track outside of Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) 15 years ago in mainstream music.

    I have mixed opinions on some of the new ventures he’s embarking upon, but after I myself mocked him when he started getting into graphic design and animation, then having to scarf down a healthy helping of humble pie once those said things came out and were not only showed a genuine interest in what it was but it was also good, Im going to relax a bit, sit back and watch and not be so quick to judge just because he can be kind of an a-hole when there are cameras and other recording devices pointed in his general direction.

  • Sebastián Corral

    That’s stupid. Nobody mocks his “ambitions” and it definitely has nothing to do with his race. We just point out his lack of formal preparation in order to “achieve” his so called ambitions.

    If he was studying design or architecture, nobody would mock him. If he wanted to work as a doctor he would have to go to medical school, wouldn’t he? So why is being a designer any different? Is it less of a profession?

    Whatever he wants to do, it has nothing to do with race. It has to do with preparation, and respect for the people who have spent most their lives learning what they know. You don’t wake up one day and decide to “play designer”.

  • David Royce

    He’s already release several seasons of clothes from his own brand. Nobody seemed to like it. Is this racism? I don’t think so. It take s a lot of focus to run a fashion brand. Did he really put in the time, full-on? I don’t think so.

  • Sebastián Corral

    Now that’s a fact…West is a world wide arrogant fool who overestimates himself. And anybody can see that.

  • rad4d

    Kanye is simply a brand, not a designer, not an architect. Just because he can sell something or sell someone on an idea does not make him a designer. It does not disqualify him from selling products or designs. It just doesn’t make him a credible source worthy of teaching others.