Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Kanye West wants to develop cities. Don’t let him do this.
The last 15 minutes of Kanye West’s world-pausing interview with Charlemagne Tha God finds the two perambulating across the rapper/designer’s 300-acre property he recently purchased. West explained that he’ll use the land to build five properties—a “community,” rather—because development is his “new frontier,” meaning his new life challenge, having apparently conquered music and sneakers.
“Anybody who’s been to any of my cribs knows that I’m super into developing homes,” he told Charlemagne. “I’m going to be one of the biggest real estate developers of all time, like what Howard Hughes is to aircraft and what Henry Ford was to cars.”
Kanye said this is possible because of the relationships he has with architects and his understanding of design concepts like space and “sacred proportions.” And for a second, his ambitions actually sounded worth fulfilling. He said, for instance, that “McMansions and Spanish roof homes,” are wack, and that the only home designer he likes is Howard Backen.
His last statement before the interview dramatically cuts to black: “Yeah, we’re going to develop cities.”
Given the maelstrom of incoherent and controversial tweets he’s unleashed on the public over the past week or so, it’s not clear that him playing Catan with real people and real estate is in the public’s best interest. In some ways it’s counterproductive to question Kanye given that he’s propelled by rejection, and criticism seems to be his vibranium. However, since we kinda have to take him seriously because he’s adept at speaking realities into existence, he has access to wealthy people in high places, and he has 300 acres of land, we have to consider that somebody might actually give him money and the green light to realize his development goals. And unlike his beats and sneakers—but very much like his sweatsuits—this would not be a good idea.
There are some indications that he could probably pull it off. He seems to know and study all the right designers and architects, and has some command of the language. He knows how shit gets financed. He finds tremendous virtue in holding millions of dollars in debt and going over-budget—both staples of your typical prized developer. He also fundamentally believes that design can have a positive impact on society, which he told a group of graduate design students at Harvard a few years ago. He said at the time:
I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be "architected."
I believe that utopia is actually possible—but we're led by the least noble, the least dignified, the least tasteful, the dumbest, and the most political.
However, there are many more reasons to believe that Kanye would be a terrible person for this job. For one, he can’t be managed, so forget your charrettes and community input processes—a person who can’t be managed doesn’t want to be held accountable. It’s clear that he would be the most technocrat-est of technocrats, if not a dictator—and one who believes that his love for all people is all the evidence that’s needed for people to trust his development vision, which is a personality trait of the worst kind of developer. He also doesn’t read.
But more appalling than all of that is that he doesn’t seem to understand the consequences of actions—or at least he doesn’t seem to respect them. The messages Kanye has been broadcasting to the world in recent weeks suggest that he’s lost some perspective on how words and actions impact others.
When Charlemagne asked Kanye how he could support a person like Donald Trump who is implementing an agenda of immigrant deportations and further marginalization of oppressed populations, Ye had no immediate answer. He fell silent for a hot minute as if trapped in his thoughts, or his feelings. The praise and admiration he has bestowed upon Trump and the MAGA life might lead one to think that an answer like, “Yeah, but I bet I can design a border wall that would be fire AF,” was not out of the question for Kanye.
Instead, he dodged the question entirely, choosing rather to focus on how awesome it was that Trump was elected because that meant “anything is possible.” He doubled down on this point, never considering for a second that just because anything is possible that doesn’t mean that everything is worth doing. Kanye is an outsider, he explained, “so whenever I see an outsider infiltrate, I connect with that.”
It’s clear that he has a passion for disruption, but the kind that far too many tech bros and Silicon wunderkinds are subscribed to, which is of the disruption-for-disruption’s-sake mold. But that kind of blanket disruption often is consequential for people’s lives. The urban highway was a disruptor that made travel smoother for car drivers and moving commerce, and for white people to escape to the suburbs, but it also led to the full ripping out of black communities, and the increased reliance on cars that contributed to climate change.
Those are the kinds of things a developer and designer must be aware of, and there’s a whole design justice movement invested in that kind of awareness that he’s completely overlooked. That movement informed by social equity and the design history of African-Americans was launched by the same group of Harvard students that he spoke to years back. However, Kanye has since moved in the opposite direction, towards gleefully being socially unaware and misreading history. There are consequences to this.
in school we need to learn how magic Johnson built his business not always about the past. Matter fact I've never even heard of a high school class that presents future ideas— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
How a developer sees a city instructs their design plans. Take Chicago. One of Kanye’s recent gripes is with President Barack Obama, under whom “nothing changed in Chicago” during his two terms in the White House, he said. Ye joins Trump in a long list of people who believe they have the answers for how to fix Chicago, when there are developers and designers like Theaster Gates and Brandon Breaux who are already in Chicago communities doing this work. He apparently can’t even see the work of his native colleagues Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper, who gave a million dollars to Chicago public schools last year, and whose parents have worked with both Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Obama.
Kanye told Charlemagne that Chicago, where the rapper was born and raised, was “the murder capital of the world.” While gun violence is a serious policy problem, Chicago is not even the murder capital of Illinois. Not to mention, homicides in Chicago have dropped the past couple of years.
If Kanye is focused primarily on Chicago’s violence problems, then he at least has to have some measure of understanding of how things got this way. Which means he has to understand Chicago’s unique history of redlining, and racial housing covenants, and that time when Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his love and nonviolence movement to the windy city only to be met with a pungent force of racism more putrid than anything he had experienced in Alabama.
That’s a tall order, though, for Kanye when he thinks that slavery was a choice, or that Republicans saved black people, or who rejects the value of Harriet Tubman. To develop a community or a city, you have to know something about the forces that undeveloped it. He told Charlemagne that he’s too invested in the future to think about annoying things like racism and America’s slavery past.
the reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can't be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years. We need free thought now. Even the statement was an example of free thought It was just an idea— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
Which means he’s likely unprepared for the gusts of racism and politics that he’s destined to run smack into should he ever have a chance to realize his community development goals, especially if that were to take place in Chicago. He’s not the first African American with ideas about developing a city. The stories of Soul City, North Carolina; Rosewood, Florida; or Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma would be useful for him right now.
If he can’t see the actual people he’s developing for, then he will fall in with a long history of developers and urban renewers who designed black people right off the map. Which means he’ll be an agent for gentrification at best. That’s cool he worships Howard Backen, but Backen makes homes for wine connoisseurs in Napa Valley, not for working-class families in dense Chicago.
That he thinks he’s above dealing with politics and racism is exactly what makes him ill-suited to get in the community development game. His delusions on this front are perhaps best summarized by this tweet from one fellow artist who knows a little something about “The Chi”:
“I’m not black I’m Kanye...”— Lena Waithe (@LenaWaithe) April 26, 2018
Us: okay 🤷🏾♀️