Kanye West: Rock Star, Philanthropist, Performer for a Dictator

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October 10, 2013; Wall Street Journal (blog)


Kanye West believes that rappers are the new rock stars in our culture, and he’s the biggest star of them all. It’s good that he has positive self-esteem. We should all feel as positive about ourselves.

In West’s case, hopefully some of his self-confidence comes not only from his amazing rap compositions, but his reinvented charitable activities. After having taken a load of criticism for the rather sparse activity of his foundation, he has been trying to step up his positive charitable activity. In the South Side of Chicago, Donda’s House, named after West’s late mother, linked up with St. Sabina Church to teach children between the ages of 15 and 24 to write and record their own music. The 10-week program will be led by rapper Rhymefest and offer nutrition and exercise advice from an unnamed former professional football player.

Perhaps less positively, West gets the confidence to name himself the world’s number-one rock star by being paid $3 million to give a private concert for the grandson of Kazakhstan dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, a strongman whose record of human rights abuses is widely known and despised. West took the gig, but another rock star, Sting, has turned down offers from Nazarbayev. In the country’s constitution, Nazarbayev is both president and “Leader of the Nation” and controls the country through an authoritarian grip on the nation as well as control of a substantial portion of the nation’s wealth.

Our guess is that the 10-week Donda’s House program should have wrapped up by now. This week, West declared himself a “creative genius” on the Jimmy Kimmel show. Is West a creative genius in the field of charity and philanthropy, too? Will any of his Kazakhstan booty go to his charitable activities? As questionable as it was that he performed for this dictator, it would be a nice charitable move to turn the largesse over to his Chicago charities.—Rick Cohen

  • C Howat

    Better yet, turn the largesse over to those who suffer from the authoritarian grip of Nazarbayev. That would make Kanye a creative genius!

  • Deb

    How nice it would be and how ironic if he would take every sent earned for that gig and use to for the good of human rights in the US and around the world. Or give it away to the people of that dictators country. Sort of a modern day Robin Hood–perform gigs for the rich dictator and give it back to the poor of his country. NOW that would be a true star!

  • Rick Cohen

    Dear Deb and C Howat: Thanks for your notes. To be fair to Kanye, he is hardly the only celebrity to cozy up to a dictator for a well paid performance. Among the others who have performed have been J-Lo (for Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan, and for other oligarchs in the region), Beyonce, Nelly Furtado, and Mariah Carey serenading the Gaddafi clan (all three said, after criticism, that they would donate their fees to charity, though it didn’t seem that the charities were focused on Libyans, and we have no independent information that the celebs followed through with the donations), Hillary Swank (for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov), and Sting himself, who despite refusing the request from Nazarbayev, performed for the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, and defended his performance by saying that cultural boycotts were pointless and counterproductive, despite Karimov’s reputation and track record. Of course, Sting performed for Karimov’s daughter, which doesn’t strike me like much of a cultural exchange with the people of Uzbekistan. I don’t know whether Dennis Rodman received money for his appearances with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. There’s lots of room for creative genius here, but sometimes the celebrities are a little short in the application of their genius to the needs of the people of countries ruled by iron-fisted, human rights-denying authoritarians like Nazarbayev.

  • Reasonable

    Mr. Cohen, it’s rather interesting that Kanye West is called out for performing for a dictator. Is that the underlying issue here; or is it the amount he was paid for the performance; or is it that certain movers and shakers don’t approve; or is it because a Black man from the U.S. chose to express his independence? By the standards you’ve expressed here, Kanye shouldn’t perform in any U.S., or U.K. venues. Don’t even try to suggest that because the peoples of these lands switch dictators every once in awhile that there’s a distinction. Please, don’t rationalize. The U.S. refuses to acknowledge its crimes against humanity. Right now, countries are suing Britain for its crimes against humanity. Until the U.S. and Europe fully atones for their crimes against humanity (which they are STILL committing) against Black people, the mere notion that a Black man shouldn’t perform for ANY foreign venue is laughable at best.

  • Rick Cohen

    Dear Reasonable: No, it’s a matter of performing for dictators of countries where the dictators are widely recognized for human rights violations. See my response to other commentators, where I note the involvement of Hilary Swank, Sting, Nelly Furtado, and others also performing for recognized dictators. So it wasn’t to address Kanye West as a black man. In fact, look for my article last year on Nelly Furtado. Thanks for writing.

  • Reasonable

    Yes, I’ve read your response. If the only criteria is that “it’s a matter of performing for dictators of countries where the dictators are widely recognized for human rights violations”, then your charge is without merit, unless you raise the same charge when he performs in the U.S. and Europe.