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


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.

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

  • kveikur

    Nope. He is being mocked for being Kanye West not for being an ambitious black man.

    • jenni

      “Racist”. Really? Seriously, really? Take a look in a dictionary for enlightenment.

  • Alvaro

    Photo bomb? Back row, 4th in from the left.

  • Raven

    It has nothing to do with being racist. People are just allergic to his persona. That’s all.

  • Ria

    The mockery is purely directed at Kanye West as a person and not because of the colour of his skin. This is just another way to gain more publicity for the African-American activist, and blame the mockery on race.

    How can anyone take Kanye seriously, just watch his new Bound 2 video, horribly distasteful. Listen to his lyrics- disrespectful, unpleasant, vain, rude.

    “I wanna f*** you hard on the sink,
    After that, give you something to drink,
    Step back, can’t get s**** on the mink,
    I mean damn, what would Jeromey Romey Romey Rome think?”

    Personally I believe these lyrics really show Kanye’s
    creativity, ability to think deep and show respect and seriousness. It really does show his a talent. I mean seriously!

    I’m all up for celebrities entering the design world and producing some wonderful designs. They have the money to realise great design, so if this is where they want to invest, that’s fantastic. I admire Kanye’s perseverance and interest in design. It
    shows shallow minded celebrities have an interest beyond fast cars and alcohol. Maybe Kanye has maximised his lavish lifestyle, and is looking elsewhere for satisfaction.

    I’m not saying Kanye should stop speaking about design or architecture, or even stop contributing to it. I’m just saying that the accusations of racism in this situation are utterly absurd!

  • John Maxwell

    West gets mocked for the size of his ego, not the colour of his skin. The disparity between the percentage population of Black Americans and those who successfully make it in the design field is a travesty and it is important not distract from it with this ridiculous sideshow.

    West may be a great designer. West may be a great architectural thinker. We don’t have any evidence of that however. The usual way to get attention in the design world is to create speculative projects, to prototype, to show those designs at the relevant events (even if they are not ‘global’ in stature to the same extent as the MTV awards), to take on pro bono work where available, to build your portfolio from the ground up and with it your credibility.

    What you don’t do is tell the NYT (not that anyone else has that opportunity) that you’re not getting the respect you deserve in a field in which you have shown no graft; and by the way, employing high profile designers is not the same as being a high profile designer, even if you’re employing 5 of them at a time:

    “Yeah, respect my trendsetting abilities. Once that happens, everyone wins. The world wins; fresh kids win; creatives win; the company wins.

    I think what Kanye West is going to mean is something similar to what Steve Jobs means. I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period. By a long jump. I honestly feel that because Steve has passed, you know, it’s like when Biggie passed and Jay-Z was allowed to become Jay-Z.”

    West has a far bigger stage than any struggling design student, one he could easily use to prove his design credentials without needing a manufacturer to back a product he’s designed or a developer to erect a building he’s imagined — publish the design work, I’m sure that there are many outlets who would cover it, write an article on design and architecture that is actually about the state of design and architecture and not about your unproven ability. Then we can have a proper conversation.

    I am passionate about these disciplines and would like nothing better than to discover that West is a fantastic talent that has something valuable to add to the discourse and to raise the profile of the design disciplines. At the moment, however, he is making a mockery of it.

  • pipo

    Eeeeeh?! They do realise that a lot of people commenting on this website might not necessarily live in the U.S.A since it is the World Wide Web? Or do we all suffer from “remnants of the racist society that we have grown up in” around the world?

  • signin

    If you behave like Kanye and are not getting mocked, now that would be racism. Because then people would just be afraid to mock him because he is black. I think we have have reached a point where everybody can be mocked equally and in their own special way.

  • tin

    If Jasper Morrison or Rem Koolhaas would decide to become a rap star, we would laugh about him in the same way like we are laughing about Kanye West trying to become a designer or architect.

  • DimitriTech

    This isn’t racism. The greatness he’s self proclaiming is supposed to be earned, not bought.

  • Wolf

    Gathering by Will Am I’s car design skills, say no more about Kanye Wests alleged architectural skills. Leave it to the professionals boyz.

  • Wolf

    Gathering by Will Am I’s car design skills, say no more on Kanye’s architectural design ambitions.

    Leave it to the professionals boyz.

  • fox

    “That most can’t afford”. Really, it is a matter of will and talent. I funded my design degrees from two elite universities purely by working, and to a large extent, money I got from design competitions. Yes I am proud of it, and no my parents did not pay a penny. And yes I feel personally offended by statements that try to talk down other peoples achievements, presumably out of personal frustration.

    • Hermann Tringle

      I’m not trying to put down anyone, only commenting on the general education system which does not give equal chances to all. I am myself privileged to have had a financially supportive background. I am not sure had I not had that support (or the will that you might have) that I would necessarily enjoy the position I am at the moment.

      The point is people of equal talent do not have equal opportunities. And it is not only a financial issue. Hence the race issue underlying the broader issue of class in the US. The Kanye West case is just an opportunity to address them.

  • farwest1

    I think racism is part of it, but a much larger part is the sense that an entertainer could somehow just overnight become an architect. I remember the same sort of reaction when Brad Pitt pretended to be an architect in Frank Gehry’s office. It demeans our profession to assume that architecture is like riding a bike – something anyone can do overnight.

  • equus

    Mr. West could prove his design abilities and see how successful the outcome is, regardless if it is a shoe or a building because apparently they are in the same realm. Just like Mr. Pitt and his furniture designs. And please correct me if I’m wrong, but I haven’t heard of Mr. Pitt’s great success as a designer – despite his race privilege and his privilege as a celebrity.

  • Concerned Citizen

    When he played the race card, he lost the argument.

    • guest

      He didn’t. A student group did that got inspired by his achieving by proclaiming attitude.

      • Steeevyo

        A student group whose raison d’etre seems to be to play the race card…

  • Denis

    Question for Mr. Tarrido-Picart. Racism is sited as contributing factor that only 1% of the profession is registered. I am not challenging your assertion that there is racism in the profession, but isn’t it up to the architect to pursue their registration? All of the registered architects I know and work with came out of school, made jack for money, saved up, took the exams and became registered professionals. Is there a structure to this system that makes it more difficult for certain people?

    • seedhub

      Are you actually unaware of socioeconomic inequality?

      • qweasdzxc

        Message to the AASU of the GSD – If you get out of school wondering why you can’t get a job, don’t bother to wonder whether your work suffered due to all of those hours spent soaking in your own misery. It’s probably just because you’re not white.

  • C_

    At least it was mentioned… Michael Bay’s visit the very next day didn’t even warrant laughing…

  • dgh

    I can’t answer for the apparently general mockery West has received for what he says are his design achievements (not ambitions, mind you; he seems to think he’s already there). But I can answer for my own.

    They initially stem from his indignation that Fendi failed to appreciate his tight leather pants designs, or whatever they were. Just because you’re at the height of success in one field does not make you able to skip all the steps in another; when you do, you look like a privileged idiot, and your efforts will be suspect. (And if there’s a racial subtext here, it’s this: we’ve reached that awkward point in America where, despite very real and very damaging systemic racism, a black person can, with determination, talent and a little luck, become a privileged idiot, just like Donald Trump.)

    I’d have a lot more respect for West if he took a few years off and apprenticed himself to an artisanal tight-leather-pants workshop on the unappealing outskirts of Milan, rather than leaping in on the assumption that sitting front-row at Fendi’s fashion shows makes him perfectly suited to design for them as well. Taste is not ability.

    Likewise, commissioning architecture is not architecture, and I wonder if he realizes just how presumptious and grating it is to hear this: “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…”

    My goodness, what an impatient Renaissance Man! Ten long years and no one appreciates his… what? To-do list? What architects and designers is he hanging out with who can keep a straight face for this stuff?

    Also, he is quite wealthy, and nothing at all (excepting any necessary professional licensing) stands in the way of his manufacturing anything he wants and throwing it into the market.

  • dgh

    Oh, and if West really wants to address the lack of color in the fields of architecture and design, he might think about using his largest assets: his name and his bank account. Fund early childhood education in the arts, start a design-school scholarship program, become a mouthpiece for increasing awareness of how urban design has impacted communities of color, make a video about Paul Williams instead of one about himself, commission product designs from members of the African American Student Union up there and open a pop-up to sell them. Rich people can do a lot of good if they just look away from the mirror.

  • hairsplitting

    You also seem to lack an over-sensitivity to humour. Or maybe you totally lack humour :-O

  • Donatas Pabrėža

    Money and entrepreneurship.

  • mb

    Race is not a card, but remains a barrier to entry in many areas of work. Just because one attains a level of success, doesn’t mean that they have not been subjected to discrimination / racism. Just because you may not see it, does not render it non-existent.

    There are many students from lower economic backgrounds who have gone to university, attained a degree and have been saddled with debt. Unfortunately, some also do not have the connections to attain the kind of jobs that their well-connected, privileged counterparts have access to.

    • Concerned Citizen

      Your denial of the truth makes it no less so. Whenever one uses race as an excuse for not achieving, that is the race card. There are too many success stories out there to give any credence to a racial factor.

  • lemi

    He just sounded as stupid as Brad Pitt talking architecture.

  • Ria

    @disqus_16Sk1otATB:disqus I am a 22 year old indian woman who graduated in architecture. So the same could be said of me.

    I wouldn’t blame race for personal achievement. My company recently hired an African American graphic designer; the company is thrilled with her work and the quality. During university I also interned at a graphic design company and the CEO was- guess what, African American, and doing superbly well!

    If Kanye West came out and showed me
    some great designs then fair enough, but all I hear is chat and no produce so he can hardly justify being a designer just as yet.

    All we have to judge of him is his life as a shameless celebrity and his current lyrical and visual work.

    The opposition against him is to do with reality. The creative industry is a tough world, 60% of the people who graduated with me are now not working in the creative industry because they have not been able to get jobs. This is not because they are victims of racism. In fact, Kanye has an advantage. He has money and power, and a celeb status – more than most white men I know have.

    There is natural opposition to anybody’s work, you’ve just got to stick with it and show it through. He shouldn’t give a damn and just do what he wants and prove everyone wrong. As a celeb he just wants media attention and justification that his work is being rejected due to racism. What if it’s just really s***?

  • TwoCents

    I wouldn’t call it racism but I do think there is a certain amount of elitism that exists within the architecture profession and academia.

    Mr. West perhaps could not express himself as eloquently with those who are immersed in our world but I’m certainly disappointed that he has received the backlash he has. He came into our world to show our profession love, respect and admiration; something that in the United States we don’t get really from the general public.

    The fact is, is if we don’t find a way to reach out to those who aren’t as knowledgable about what we do in a matter that the average joe can understand, our profession suffers from it both in relevance and in commissions because folks will always feel as though they can’t afford our services.

    Lastly, I know I listened to a lot of Kanye during late night studio hours. Certainly if he had the right training as we all have had in a architecture school would most definitely succeed because he has an critical / artistic mind.

  • Fraperic

    This is blatant racism. When Kanye West dabbles in architecture it’s all negative comments, but when Brad Pitt does it it’s ‘cool’:

    I’m being really sarcastic. They both should leave it alone, have at best a passing interest in it. The guy West just makes people want to punch him and each other, or at least descend on the message boards.

  • 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.

  • 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.


    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”.

  • Sebastián Corral

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