Kanye West is possibly the most polarizing celebrity alive. He is also a billionaire capitalist, with a clothing line and music to promote. Creating the moment, a tactic Kanye has perfected, serves his business aspirations well. That’s exactly what he was doing July 4 when he tweeted that he is running for president:
Elon Musk tweeted his support.
Journalists everywhere, no doubt cranky about interrupting their Independence Day, dutifully covered the announcement. Within a few hours, everyone from The Los Angeles Time to USA Today covered the news.
Social media exploded, including speculation that West, who cozied up to Donald Trump in 2019, is trying to siphon the Black vote away from Joe Biden. It was as if Kanye provided a welcome distraction from a somber Independence Day amid a pandemic and social unrest.
In other words, Yeezy did what Yeezy does best: create the moment. It’s a skill he’s mastered for years.
This is not the first time Kanye has talked about running for president. In 2015, he announced his #Kanye2020 bid at the 2015 MTV Music Awards, and the reaction was just the same as it is now: social media lit up, and everyone with access to a keyboard (including me) fired off an analysis. At the time, I wondered how Kanye was any different than Trump, as both were (and are) known for their erratic comments and actions. This is what I wrote in 2015:
. . . the media coverage of #Kanye2020, which has put Kanye West on a platform alongside Donald Trump, forces you to ask: why is the white guy with the big mouth a real presidential contender gaining in polls, whereas the black guy with the big mouth is, at best, a farce? When Kanye disrespects Taylor Swift or Beck on TV, he is scorned. When Donald Trump makes disparaging remarks about women, insults Mexican immigrants, and kicks people out of press conferences, his popularity seems to rise. If Kanye were white, might he be treated seriously as a real candidate as Trump is? If Trump were black, where would he be in the polls?
Not much has changed since then, has it? And yet everything has changed. This, after all, is 2020, and anything goes. Trump has demonstrated that the Kanye approach — create one outrageous distraction after another, each one more outrageous than the last — builds loyalty among his core base. So what is Kanye’s rationale to announce a presidential bid, even though he’s missed the filing date to run as an independent in many key states?
First off, it’s useful to view the announcement in context: it’s the latest of many “look at me!” moments dating back many years. Within the past two years alone, Kanye has been all over the map, appearing with Minister Joel Osteen to announce that he’s both the greatest artist who ever lived and a servant of God, wearing a MAGA hat, referring to President Trump as his brother, and, most controversially, referring to slavery as “a choice.” Meanwhile, his business empire has expanded because of the popularity of his Yeezy line of sneakers. His new gospel musical has received mixed-to-lackluster reviews.
What does Kanye want? Is he serious about running for president? This much I know: for Kanye, being outrageous usually means he’s got something else to promote. Unlike Trump, Kanye uses outrage to build visibility even at the risk of alienating his core fans. So what’s Kanye selling these days? Let’s look at the two things he’s most serious about: being respected as an artist and as a business person. As to the latter aspiration, he said in 2015, “One of my dreams was to be the head creative director of the Gap. I’d like to be the Steve Jobs of the Gap.” Well, guess what: he’s just about getting his wish. He just signed a deal to bring his Yeezy line of clothing to the Gap in 2021, and as part of the relationship, he’ll have creative input into the merchandising. His financial stake in the deal is worth about $100 million.
But the Gap is in financial trouble as COVID-19 rages on. Kanye has every reason to promote the deal. And part of promoting the deal is drawing attention to himself. How does he do that? Through the art of outrage, a tactic that has worked well for him in the past. The numbers speak for themselves; Forbes recently announced that he’s officially a billionare, with his Yeezy sneaker line generating $1.3 billion annually in revenue. Kanye needs that Gap deal to work if he’s going to bring Yeezy clothing to the masses through the Gap.
As to Kanye the artist? Check this out: Kanye has new music out, a collaboration with Travis Scott known as “Wash Us in the Blood,” and he has announced a new album coming, “God’s Country.” He also said he will join his longtime Kid Cudi to voice characters in an animated show inspired by their 2018 album Kids See Ghosts. He’s also badly wanted respect for his forays into gospel (read more about that in my post, “Kanye West and Al Green: The Sacred and the Profane”). With music, it’s all about relentless promotion, especially when you’re taking your sound in a different direction, as Kanye has been doing with gospel (traditionally a niche form of music at best and hardly a money maker). When Kanye cozied up to prosperity minister Joel Osteen to raise awareness for Kanye’s gospel in 2019, the two talked seriously about going on tour together in 2020. COVID-19 put an end to that talk. Kanye running for president is Kanye’s solution. He gets the stage all to himself, and he can rely on digital aggressively as the two current candidates are doing.
Now it all makes sense, doesn’t it? Kanye has irons in the fire. And the fire needs stoking. Kanye has created his moment once again.
Kanye West has made a career of throwing people off balance, just as he is doing now with his embrace of Christianity. And when Kanye embraces something, he goes all the way. In October, he released a set of Christian praise songs, Jesus Is King. The next month, he appeared at the mega-church of celebrity pastor Joel Osteen. Oh, and on Christmas Day, he released Jesus Is Born, an album version of his Sunday Service worship events.
Is he for real? How could a hip-hop artist who has seemingly rapped about every sexual act imaginable now release Christian music? Is the Sunday Service a sincere attempt to spread God’s word, or is Kanye just hustling us to sell more music and $240 crewnecks? What’s up with West appearing at Joel Osteen’s church, discussing his love for Jesus, and then announcing that he’s the greatest artist God has ever created?
As journalist Tobi Oredein wrote of Kanye’s Sunday Service, “He’s employing a choir of people who are not only singing his songs, but are all dressed in his apparel. Is Christ really at the centre of this gathering? I’m not sure he is.”
He’s not the first artist to explore the spiritual and earthly realms in his music. Let’s go back to 1974 to take a closer look at another man who confounded his audience by injecting faith into his music.
Al Green: Sex and the Lord’s Prayer
Al Green. One of the greatest soul singers ever. He sang “Love and Happiness,” “So Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s Stay Together,” and a host of other hits about love, sex, and romance, on his way to becoming named one of RollingStone’s “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”
But at the peak of his popularity, there was more to Al Green than “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).” He was also capable of unsettling contradictions. For example, watch the following video from a 1974 appearance on Soul Train, in which he seduces an enraptured audience while gyrating in canary-yellow pants. He sings, “Oh, I wanna dance with my sweet love sixteen” in between grunts and shouts — and then, in one fluid motion, he brings the song “Sweet Sixteen,” a song about obsession with young love, to a close — and recites the Lord’s Prayer. Yes, the Lord’s Prayer.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” he prays with the same conviction as when he sang “You try to move your body, you might lose control” only seconds earlier. Then, as his band lays down a quiet groove, he eases into “Jesus Is Waiting,” the song that closes his 1973 masterpiece, Call Me.
“Jesus, save my soul, I’ll live for You,” he sings, his bejeweled fingers gesturing to the audience, his arms outstretched. With a charismatic flourish, he presents the Bible with one hand and Lolita in the other.
The disturbing part is that the moment works. Perfectly. Why? Because in the Soul Train performance, Al Green creates a convincingly smooth persona who is part-Lothario, part-preacher. This persona makes no distinctions between the carnal “Sweet Sixteen” and the spiritual “Jesus Is Waiting.” He is the same slender, twisting, sexual dervish, as he performs both.
In doing so, he shows us there is no difference between seducing and preaching. Both actions draw from the same reservoir of energy. When he recites the Lord’s Prayer, he is both praying and engaging in foreplay.
And is this association off the mark? Not at all. We all know of real-life ministers throughout history whose legacies have been tarnished by sexual misconduct — some of them well known (Jimmy Swaggart), some of them historical (Martin Luther King Jr.). But the stories of prominent pastors stumbling badly keep coming. Consider “the Billy Graham Rule,” or Rev. Billy Graham’s practice of avoiding meeting women in private to avoid falling prey to temptation. Billy Graham knows whereof Al Green sings.
As The Daily Beast commented in the aftermath of a number of high-profile cases of ministerial sexual misconduct, “Exposing religious sexual hypocrisy is, as the cliché goes, like shooting fish in a barrel. If you follow the right Twitter accounts, literally every day there’s a new story of religious conservative leaders philandering, downloading illegal pornography, cruising for gay sex on the down low, or, by far worst of all, sexually abusing minors or other vulnerable people.”
With this 11-minute musical flourish, Al Green seems to say, “It ain’t hypocrisy if you own it.” In doing so, he teaches us something about great art: art confronts and confounds. Great art makes connections you don’t see, but were right in front of you: in this case, the carnal and the spiritual.
Dual Impulses in Song
Those dual impulses were always evident in Al Green’s recorded music. “Jesus Is Waiting” (“Jesus is waiting/If you’re broken down/Jesus is waiting/Don’t let yourself down”) appeared on the same album in which he sang of a smoldering, unapologetically sexual attraction in “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” (“All this love’s inside of me/I believe there’s going to be an explosion”). When he wrote the hit song “You Ought to Be with Me” in 1972, he had God in mind, not a woman. As author Jimmy McDonough recounts in Soul Survivor, a recently published Al Green biography:
When writing the song [“You Ought to Be with Me”], Al explained that he was “playing with God . . . I was so arrogant at the time, not being born again . . . I was saying: ‘You’ — Green pointed upward — ‘ought to be with me.’”
In the song “Take Me to the River,” from Al Green Explores Your Mind, carnal desire and gospel overtones somehow made their way into the same song.
The sacred and the profane themes were an expression of Al Green’s own life. Spiritual forces and sexual desire roiled away inside him always. According to Soul Survivor, he was a notorious womanizer, happily (and callously) partaking of groupies and paramours, even after having a religious awakening in Anaheim in the early 1970s. As Al Green wrote in his autobiography, Take Me to the River:
As I spent more and more time out on the road, I had begun to accumulate a certain type of girlfriend from one town to the next. It wasn’t a romantic or even a physical thing, just a way to satisfy the fascination I’ve always had for beautiful women. I’d come into town and give them a call, and they were always available to drop by and spend a little time.
In 1974, one of Al Green’s girlfriends, a woman named Mary Woodson, assaulted him with boiling grits in his home, before committing suicide, despondent that Green would not marry her. This ugly incident contributed to the mythology of Al Green: a man so desirable that a woman would kill herself if she could not have him.
And yet, spiritual impulses coexisted with his fascination with women. The spiritual longing manifested itself in 1975, when he founded the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Al Green had become a minister for real.
Alienating His Audience
After he became a minister, Green attempted to amplify the spiritual side of his identity in his concerts, praying onstage and making overt references to Jesus in his stage patter. His immersion in both worlds of love and spirituality could be upsetting. One of his longtime musical collaborators, Mabon Lewis “Teenie” Hodges, became frightened. As quoted in Soul Survivor:
I got scared. He started mixing the songs up, R&B and gospel . . . I can understand if he do a show and then maybe a few gospel songs at the end. But going from “Sweet Sixteen” to “Jesus Is Waiting?” No, I couldn’t handle that.
Al Green’s audiences eventually couldn’t handle it either. Here’s how Soul Survivor describes one night when his references to scripture onstage went too far:
It happened again one night when Al was playing “this weird little casino gig. I stood onstage and said, ‘When you open the Bible to Deuteronomy’ . . . I had never seen 3,000 people leaving out of a place so fast! All the pimps and their ladies . . . were gone.” Lee Hildebrand attended a Circle Star Theatre show where Green started preaching between hits. “I remember a lady sitting behind me saying quite loudly, ‘I didn’t pay to hear no gospel shit!’ She was upset.” When the woman rushed the stage to touch the hem of Al’s garment, he recoiled: ‘No, no, no — I want you to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.’”
Al Green went from packing theaters to clearing them. His willingness to push an audience beyond their comfort zones was costing him commercially. He continued to mix love and spirituality on his records, as in the 1977 album, Belle, when he sang, “It’s you I want, but Him I need.” But after an incident in which he fell off a stage, he took it as a sign from God that it was time to stop singing secular music.
The Flawed Preacher
Al Green began to record gospel exclusively and focused on preaching. He met another gospel singer, Shirley Kyles, who became his wife. But this new direction didn’t stop women from throwing themselves at him, even in church — perhaps especially in church. For Al Green as a minister was as charismatic as he was a singer. Now he possessed spiritual agency. And women knew where to find him every Sunday. According to Soul Survivor:
One woman in particular was a thorn in Green’s side. He and the band returned from the road to find an unexpected visitor in Al’s home. “She’d jumped over the fence, went to the pool and was lyin’ out there naked.” This same dame showed up at the service wanting to say a few words about what the Almighty had done for her. “The Lord turned out to be Al Green, and she was dreaming of having sex with him right there in the middle of the service,” said Johnny Brown, who claims Al “knocked her cold.”
A man facing these kinds of temptations regularly needed more than the Billy Graham rule. He needed a 24/7 watch. And, as it turns out, he fell, and fell often. Shirley Kyles filed for divorce twice, alleging adultery and spousal abuse. He admitted to spousal abuse under oath.
Although his church sermons evolved into free-form concerts, his recorded music became one-dimensional. Gone were songs about burning for women. He sang about God full-time. He won Grammy awards for his gospel, but McDonough contends that Green lost his artistic spark. Indeed his gospel albums are generally less critically acclaimed than his secular music, and I seldom listen to them. His gospel lacks the tension between the secular and spiritual; the tension that made his music so interesting was gone.
In addition to losing his secular audience, he also struggled to gain acceptance by other gospel singers. He was viewed with suspicion, as Kanye West is now. Was Al Green for real? Was he going gospel only because he had run out of secular songs to write? But those misgivings did not stop him. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he recorded even more gospel. At the same time, he was immersed in cocaine. His performances became erratic.
Such are the risks that people take when they strive for a life of the spirit: they fall short. And he fell short in his personal life, while becoming a less-interesting artist.
A Return to the Secular
Eventually, Al Green returned to secular music, recording three albums full of familiar themes of romance and love throughout the 2000s. These albums received generally positive reviews. They did not open any new artistic vistas, but they reminded the world that he was capable of singing about those time-honored themes that made him famous in the 1970s.
These days, Al Green continues to preach at Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. It is said that his sermons are still like dynamic showtime. Here’s a taste of Al Green in the present day, exuding emotion as he preaches and sings in a free-form style — you can judge for yourself:
He recently toured as a secular artist, too. At one concert in Chicago, he played the role of gospel-tinged romancer, handing out roses to the women (as he famously did at the height of his fame) and once again moving between songs about earthly love. But he was older and out of shape. His performance lacked the power of Al Green in his prime, although that sweet voice could still hit those high notes.
This duality was evident when Kanye appeared at the mega-church of Joel Osteen on November 17. He talked of God sending him visions and the struggle to be taken seriously as a gospel performer. He referred to himself as a superstar and then said, “The only superstar is Jesus,” in one sentence.
Here, apparently, is Kanye West as he wants to be known today: follower of Jesus and denier of the devil. “I’m here in service to God,” he said at Osteen’s church, and denounced his past “service to fame.” Even so, standing onstage at a church, his notorious egotistical behavior emerged as he gave his confession: “Now, the greatest artist that God has ever created is now working for him.”
Hence, the questions about Kanye. Is he in love with God, money, himself, or all three? In fact, the Kanye who talks of money is completely in sync with the teachings of “prosperity theology,” a type of Christianity that teaches God rewards the faithful with material blessings on earth. Prosperity theology also teaches that God wants us to experience happiness and joy. Prosperity theology has been criticized for encouraging people to become focused on material wealth. Its critics also contend that and that taken to an extreme, prosperity theology’s ethos of self-care can lead to narcissism.
Prosperity theology has been around awhile, adopted by a number of televangelists, such as the aptly named Creflo Dollar. Guess who the face of prosperity theology is today? Why, none other than Joel Osteen. But he’s far from the only proponent. After analyzing the growth of prosperity theology and visiting with Osteen personally, Edward Luce of the Financial Timeswrote in 2019:
Hardline evangelicals dismiss the prosperity gospel as unchristian. Some of Lakewood’s more firebrand critics even label it “heresy.” They point to the belief, which Osteen seems to personify, that God is a supernatural ally whom you can enlist to help enrich your life. There is scant mention of humanity’s fallen condition in his motivational talks.
Yet the market share of US churches run by celebrity prosperity preachers, such as Osteen, Creflo Dollar (sic), Kenneth Copeland, and Paula White keeps growing. Three out of four of the largest megachurches in America subscribe to the prosperity gospel. Formal religion in the US has been waning for years. Almost a quarter of Americans now profess to having none. Among the Christian brands, only “non-denominational charismatics” — a scholarly term for the prosperity preachers — are expanding.
Though precise numbers are hard to find, one in five Americans is estimated to follow a prosperity gospel church. This offshoot of Christianity is quintessentially American — a blend of the Pentecostal tradition and faith-healing. It is also expanding worldwide. Among its largest growth markets are South Korea, the Philippines, and Brazil.
Luce also observes that Osteen himself has a fortune estimated at $60 million and lives in a $10 million mansion. So just how incongruous is Kanye’s Jesus-Is-King-of-My-Wallet ethos with this brand of Christianity? It seems perfectly fitting that there is talk of Kanye and Joel Osteen touring together.
Will the Struggle Stay Real?
As with Al Green, Kanye West now faces perhaps one of the biggest challenges of his career: growing as an artist. Jesus Is King debuted at Number One on the Billboard charts, and all 11 of its singles debuted on the Billboard Hot 100. But the jury’s still out as to whether the album represents an artistic triumph. The album received a 55 Metacritic score, meaning mixed or average reviews.
I find Jesus Is King to be fairly standard praise music — overreaching for emotional highs in a singular pursuit of sermonizing. And frankly, the video for “Closed on Sunday” looks like a cringeworthy, if slickly produced, segment of Kanye and the Kardashians.
As for Kanye the flawed preacher, I’ll let Al Green have the last word from his biography:
Black people in America have always been torn between walking with Jesus and wandering in the world, clear back to the times of slavery when we either cried out in captivity by singing the blues or held out for a better hope by singing spirituals. We’ve been walking the line for hundreds of years. It’s only natural that some of us lose our balance once in a while. That struggle is part of what makes us great as a people, and part of what makes our music so powerful.
Struggle makes Kanye West create great art. Will Kanye the Christian keep the inner struggle alive?
The release of Kanye West’s new album, The Life of Pablo, is a testament to the enduring relevance of record albums even as people buy fewer of them year after year. Albums no longer possess any of the commercial power they once had. But they can create tent pole moments that generate awareness for an artist and support other commercial endeavors.
The Kanye formula for an album release combines Kanye’s penchant for creating controversy and cultural relevance with some confusion tossed in for good measure. It looks something like this:
Months before the release date, stoke interest by leaving hints on social media that you’re going to drop some new music, even giving your new album a name, So Help Me God. Keep leaving hints on Twitter but don’t release any music, thus inspiring news articles such as “So Help Us God: Where’s Kanye West’s New Album?“
Collaborate with a music giant and a hot star on a single to remind everyone that you exist, as he did when he created “FourFiveSeconds” with Paul McCartney and Rihanna
In case no one noticed your single, draw attention to yourself by annoying Western Civilization with an ungracious remark about a popular Grammy Award winner. Break the Internet in the process.
Continue to remind the world of your relevance by appearing at a major music festival, as he did by performing at the Glastonbury Festival. Surely Kanye was pleased that 135,000 people signed a petition against his appearance. You must be doing something right to generate that kind of reaction when you haven’t released new music in a few years.
Keep your name and pending album in play by distracting, breaking, and confusing the Internet with the launch of a presidential bid.
Twitter should ask Kanye West to be its CEO — or at least a member of its board.
In 72 hours, Kanye has done more to make Twitter relevant and compelling than anything its beleaguered executive team has done during the past year.
First came the #SWISH moment on January 24, when he tweeted a hand-scrawled image of the track list for his forthcoming album, Swish, with the words “So happy to be finished with the best album of all time.”
The Kanye West brand is like a Ferrari careening down a highway. Sometimes you want to watch the spectacle. Other times you want to get out of the way. And then there are times when you wish you were in the front seat. Kanye’s recent presidential election announcement makes me want to grab the steering wheel.
Kanye launched his #Kanye2020 campaign August 30 during the MTV Video Music Awards, where he received the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, presented by none other than Taylor Swift. Obviously, MTV engineered the moment to create fireworks and ratings. After all, Kanye and Swift were parties to one of the most awkward moments in TV history in 2009, when Kanye ungraciously dissed Smith onstage for winning a video award he believed she did not deserve. Although the two have mended fences since then, they are hardly BFFs, and Kanye West is unpredictable under any circumstance. What kind of Kanye would accept the award from Swift? A defiant Kanye? Bombastic, perhaps?
Well, Kanye hijacked the moment from MTV, refusing to take the bait. Instead, he delivered a rambling but fascinating discourse on art, self-acceptance, and media manipulation that had the crowd cheering for several minutes. He admitted to making mistakes in the way he expressed himself and his passion for art (an obvious reference to the 2009 incident) but affirmed his love of art and the power of ideas, before announcing his bid for presidency.
The audience was eating out of his hands, even if no one was entirely certain they understood what he was talking about. He had engineered his mic drop.
After selling 100 million albums, reinventing the rock concert as theater, launching their own comic book series, and scaring the bejesus out of parents everywhere, Kiss was finally admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. But the band really belongs in a hall of fame of its own. More than 40 years ago, Kiss created a modern template for rock branding. As I discuss in my new SlideShare presentation, the band’s ability to create compelling rock theater was one essential element of the band’s blueprint for success.
Kiss made memorable music in its heyday, but it built a true following by creating visual personas that inspired intrigue, derision, and fright — in other words, a reaction, which means attention. The four original members of the band — Peter Criss, Ace Frehley, Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley — were more than a drummer, lead guitarist, bass guitarist, and rhythm guitarist. In public, they were known by the alter egos they created, each of which was expressed through elaborate costumes and face paint. If you grew up listening to rock and roll in the 1970s, you didn’t even have to like Kiss to know about the Catman (Peter Criss), Space Ace (Frehley), Demon (Simmons), and Starchild (Stanley).
No one had seen anything quite like Kiss. They created intrigue and curiosity, even fear that they were somehow linked with devil worship — all of which, of course, made them more appealing to record-buying teens. Onstage, the band’s four personas thrived like they could nowhere else. Demon, Catman, Space Ace, and Starchild were like three-dimensional performers, spewing blood, spitting fire, levitating from drum kits, and literally creating smoke from their guitars as they sang in their elaborate costumes (including exaggerated high heels). Although they were actually decent musicians, fans came for the experience.
Their stagecraft earned them the scorn of critics, who viewed the pyrotechnics as a slap in the face of real rock and roll. But in reality, Kiss were adopting ideas that other bands were using, too, most notably David Bowie, Alice Cooper, the masters of shock rock, and Genesis. But Kiss made rock theater more accessible and fun — pushing the boundaries of taste without crossing over them as Alice Cooper did, and playing tighter songs than did Genesis.
Concerts made Kiss. The band actually struggled to sell albums until fans began to learn about them on tour. It was, in fact, a concert album, Alive!, that triggered a run of multi-million album sales that continues to this day.
For modern rock bands, albums don’t sell: concerts do. The more established artists with bigger budgets have created fully realized theater. For instance, Roger Waters recently achieved massive financial success through the visually stunning Wall Tour. And U2’s 360º tour — the highest grossing of any rock band — was a theatrical tour de force that featured a massive “claw” structure that resembled a space ship.
Today Miley Cyrus and Kanye West best exemplify the Kiss legacy of music as theater. Cyrus has been making headlines with her controversial Bangerz tour, which launched in February. She collaborated with several designers on costumes, including Roberto Cavalli, Jeremy Scott, the Blonds, and Marc Jacobs. Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi has created visual props, including “imaginative animals he’s made on his own.” Her tour has featured Cyrus emerging from a giant image of her face and sliding down a facsimile of her tongue; riding a giant hot dog; and wearing provocative sexually provocative costumes.
Meantime, Kanye West has created his own brand of music theater with his on-again-off-again Yeezus tour, which features West performing (at times) in a bejeweled mask, massive, surreal stage sets, and elaborate choreographing. At one point, the show features the appearance of not one but two mountains, one of which splits in half and becomes a volcano.
Jonathan Ringen of Rolling Stone describes the Yeezus show this way: “crazily entertaining, hugely ambitious, emotionally affecting (really!) and, most importantly, totally bonkers.” As for the bejeweled mask, Ringen writes, “OK, so yeah, he does wear bejeweled, full-face Martin Margiela masks for most of the show. And while on one level they suggest a supreme ‘look not upon the face of Yeezus, mere mortals; arrogance (which is so off the rails it’s kind of awesome), the masks also have real theatrical usefulness. Given that most of the audience is way too far away to see his face, they provide a vivid, readable visual.”
A “vivid, readable visual” — that’s how you turn an impersonal arena into your own stage. And Kiss created the model 40 years ago.
Louis Vuitton knows how to target an audience with rock celebrities. The iconic luxury brand is working with another iconic brand, David Bowie, to produce the second television spot ever aired in the company’s 160-year history. The ad, an installment in Louis Vuitton’s “L’Invitation au Voyage” series, will feature the Thin White Duke in an as-yet undefined role. But given Bowie’s well-known sense of style and visual storytelling, you can be sure the ad will be memorable — and another smart musical pairing that positions Louis Vuitton as a classic, upscale choice for the affluent Baby Boomer generation.
But just because hip-hop loves Louis Vuitton, it doesn’t mean Louis Vuitton loves hip-hop. In 2008, the company (along with Gucci) stopped rapper TI from releasing a video for the song “Swing Ya Rag,” because the TI used the company’s products in the video without Continue reading →
Underground rapper Mike Lo sings with the swagger of Eminem and smirks like one of the Beastie Boys. He lives in two worlds — the one he needs to make ends meet and the one he creates for himself. His day job consists of tending tables in the Chicago suburbs, where he is known for being exceptionally polite and considerate. But even when he’s tending tables, he has one foot in the world he built — full of swagger, drinking, and raw sexuality. While at work, he frequently uses his cell phone like an artist’s palette, recording snatches of dialogue and building lyrics into the songs he raps at bars and parties.
Those songs become videos — where he parties with his own posse (“Rack City”), lands in jail after drinking and driving (“Bars After Bars”), and laughs like could care less.
His recently released 17-track mixtape, Fully Lo Did, reveals a sound that is at times aggressive (“Fully Lo Did”) and reflective (“Up All Night”) — but it’s always moving fast, with catchy beats (check out the beginning of “This Is Wack” or “Floatin”) and cocky bravado. His songs remind me of what Dr. Dre once said about his own songs — music made for adult ears.
And, yeah, his word play is clever and smooth, whether he’s celebrating the joys of partying or smoking, similar to rapper Wiz Khalifa, whose Tumblr site features fan-uploaded videos including Mike Lo’s. (“Bars After Bars” was featured on Viewhiphop.com as well.)
I asked Mike Lo to describe his songs to me and explain how he constructs them. As it turns out, he lives by the beat. The beats talk to him and fuel his words, giving him energy that he processes and throws back at you through his songs. He lives off energy of the audiences where he performs, whether he’s at a party or a bar. As he says, “I feed off all energy. I even feed off negativity. It keeps me going.”
I come from a very diverse family. My mom is white/Puerto Rican and my father is white/black. I am from Elgin, Illinois, born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. Music has always been around me. Riding in the car, I grew up listening to my dad playing songs on the radio in the car, and I sang along with everything I heard, whether from Snoop Dogg or NWA. As I got older and started really getting into music, I listened to Eminem and 50 Cent.
I have always been into rapping. I have been writing lyrics since I was in sixth grade, and I’ve never stopped. Back in sixth grade, I played on the boys basketball team, and during road games on the back of the bus, you could find me writing and rapping. I didn’t know I wanted to pursue music as a career until I was about 21. Whenever I heard a rap song, I would wonder, “Damn, why can’t I do this?” So I went out and tried it.
How did your diverse background affect you growing up?
I believe growing up with such a diverse family had a major effect on my life. I never really knew how to label myself, or knew which friends would accept me because I’m a certain color. Everyone was always asking me what my race was, and I simply respond “mixed.” Even if I had labeled “white,” people knew I wasn’t just white. It wasn’t until I was older that understood more clearly. My background encourages me to show people no matter where you come from or what your background may be, you can do whatever you want if you do it with passion and work hard at it daily.
Rock concerts for causes have come a long way since George Harrison and Ravi Shankar organized the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and raised $250,000 to help refugees in war-torn Bangladesh. The Concert for Bangladesh was an untelevised rock show (actually two of them) witnessed by 40,000 people in Madison Square Garden. By contrast, last week’s 121212 Concert for Sandy Reliefwas a multimedia experience accessible to 2 billion people globally, earning $35 million in one night (with millions more to come). Here are five marketing lessons from the 121212 Concert:
1. Extend Your Reach
The 121212 Concert, which supported Robin Hood Relief (a highly regarded organization assisting Hurricane Sandy victims), made it virtually impossible for you to miss the show. The concert was broadcast on 39 television stations, streamed to 25 websites, and aired on 50 radio stations, creating “the most widely distributed live musical event in history,” according to Nielsen. By contrast, even the highly successful 2001 Concert for New York City (which also benefited Robin Hood Relief) was broadcast on VH1 exclusively. If you wanted to watch the concert, they gave you no reason to miss it.