This past weekend, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West—who, the argument could be made, is the world’s most important artist today—married in Florence, Italy. Their nuptials, and the buzz leading up to the wedding date, have been well documented across media outlets. Jay Z and Beyoncé bailing on the wedding, oh no! Rob Kardashian too!! KimYe-mania overtaken by Bieberfever!!! Teenage mystic Jaden Smith’s all-white Batman costume is insane!!!! But the wedding wasn’t really about any of this. Not entirely.
As with most things, this made-for-reality-TV union was about Kanye. Or rather: what Kanye means to us. For the better part of his career, Kanye has had to contend with his feelings in the spotlight. And, mostly, we have either found amusement or meaning in his public unraveling. There’s socially aware Kanye (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”), I-don’t-give-a-fuck Kanye (“I’ma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best music videos of all time”), grief-stricken Kanye (2009’s VMA performance of “Love Lockdown” just a year after his mother’s passing), fun Kanye (#KanyeShrug), passionately-obsessed-but-maybe-angry-depending-on-who-you-ask Kanye (his 15-minute “rants” during the Yeezus tour), and sad-but-not-really-sad Kanye (zip-lining in Mexico). Yesterday, as wedding images surfaced online, many voiced their satisfaction to finally see Kanye “happy” and “smiling” and, in doing so, fashioned another guise for him to wear—again, no less (we’ve encountered Happy Kanye before).
I’m not sure why we’ve always felt the need to take ownership over Kanye’s story—no, he’s crazy… I mean sad… wait, now he’s happy. Like the time the New York Post told us why, exactly, Kanye was mad (there were 10 reasons, as it turned out). We could blame the media, but we were equally complicit in the attempt to seize his narrative (yes, myself included). The Tumblr posts, the tweets, the 23-person email chains, the texts, and the gchat conversations with friends: We wanted to steer the outcome of the story just as much as the next person. At some point, we probably felt entitled to Kanye’s story. Because let’s be real, for the last 10 years Kanye has embodied the contradictions that have defined who we are, too. We claim ownership of the story because, however ugly or amazing or uncertain the reality, we see pieces of ourselves in him.
So what does Kanye mean to us, and why is any of this important? Last April, when Jason Collins came out as the first openly gay basketball player in the NBA, a friend observed on Twitter how his doing so would help “complicate and humanize black masculinity in the public square.” Collins, it should be said, wasn’t the first to upend black masculinity in the mainstream, just maybe the first to do so in a time that is defined largely by 140-character micro-messaging and Facebook status updates.
The same is true of Kanye’s marrying Kim. The significance in all of this, I think, lies in the existence of all these different Kanyes at once and how they are constantly reshaping our perception of him, of who we think Kanye should be, and who we want him to be, at any given moment. And our want for Kanye, really, is a reflection of our own deep personal conflicts—how we view ourselves—and our wrestling with the reality of where we are in the world.
Walt Whitman, quite famously, wrote about this feeling of conflicted selfhood: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Meek Mill, less famously, also alluded to this when he said: “There are levels to this shit.” Danyel Smith, writing about Tupac in 1997, captured the sentiment perfectly: “Tupac’s different lives were very much in league, though; none would have been vibrant without the others. He managed them, like he managed his blackness—with a fantastic, desperate dexterity.” Consider, then, the “multitudes” Kanye has had to, and continues to, contend with in the public eye: being a black man from Chicago; being a black man who dropped out of college despite his mother being a college professor (which, in a weird way, is why I think he tries so completely to master everything he does: music, fashion, design, etc); having your passion misunderstood as “black rage”; being a black man and marrying a non-black woman many people consider a “sex positive” opportunist; being a black man with a biracial baby; being scrutinized in the media daily for your vulnerability; being vulnerable.
Seeing Kanye grapple with all of this in front of a national audience has, in the way that, say, Collins and Michael Jackson and James Baldwin and Barack Obama and Tupac and so many others before and after him, helped to unsettle this idea of how a black man should act or talk or love when others are watching. Tying the knot with Kim only further complicates our understanding of Kanye and what this business of being black is all about. This complication, too, is a good thing; it helps to paint a more complete portrait. Angry, sad, confused, passionate, happy: Kanye West is all of these things, because we are all of these things, too.
[Image via E!]