Rapper Kanye West gave what people are calling a “totally surreal and brilliant” talk at Oxford University recently. West arrived as a self-proclaimed genius and gave a “stream of consciousness” gabfest. Not the typical style of a celeb campus visit, which is usually more prepared, glib, chatty—absent the self-importance. But not West. Not West ever. Back in the day, you would rarely find a celebrity much interested in gabbing with university students, excepting poets (it’s often said rappers are poets). A star may have performed on campus, but never played the artiste. West plays the artiste well: he compares himself to Picasso, makes ponderous statements about the “suppression of humanity” through the limitation of the creative spirit. It’s a good show. But could you imagine Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Little Richard, or Louis Armstrong doing it?
That’s to say, did rap mainstream too fast? Rap has been around for three decades. It took jazz eight decades to be taught and accepted as a fine art, and not kitsch. Yet rap is taught at Ivy League schools, given institutes, discussed as an aesthetic object in serious magazines, and in books, like Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty,” for instance—all in 30 years! This rather fast acceptance has likely made rappers, from Nas to West, invest too great an importance into what is, at its best, a highly interesting popular art, and to inflate their own importance as propagandists and artists in it. While a great artist, perhaps the great modernist of the 20th century, Louis Armstrong never made that mistake. Check out this interview.