Kanye West is keeping the legacy of his late mom, Donda West, alive through Loop Dreams, the South Central, Los Angeles-based inaugural program of The Kanye West Foundation, which educates children about hip-hop culture and teaches them studio engineering skills, among other things. On June 11, West will perform at a school benefit in his hometown of Chicago for 3,000 young fans as part of an effort to encourage kids to stay in school. ESSENCE.com talked to the rapper/superproducer about what his mom's death taught him about living, tackling America's alarming high school dropout rates, and his answer to critics who call him an egomaniac.
ESSENCE.COM: We love that, despite your decision to leave college, you continue to encourage young folk to stay the course and get their education. How do you scare them straight?
KANYE WEST: I'm not about fear. America instills enough of that with the cause of the war, the threat of the recession and everything else. I'm about making your own choices but giving inspiration. I went to college for a year and half and I didn't graduate. If I got a bachelor's degree or went to school for another eight years, would that mean I finished? At what point are you really done finishing your education? I believe that anything that you have to pay for is a choice, and high school is mandatory to gain some basic skills. Therefore, it's easy for me to build a foundation that encourages young people to stay in high school.
ESSENCE.COM: Makes sense. Loop Dreams encourages education through music and varying assets of the hip-hop culture, which often gets a bad rap (no pun intended). How does hip-hop influence the youth negatively and positively?
WEST: Hip-hop is a reflection of what's going on. It's a form of entertainment and it's not steering people any differently than a [violent] movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. As a brand, I'm not defined by hip-hop. It's just a tool that I choose to use. I could have been a poet but I chose the tool of hip-hop to get my message across because it was the loudest.
ESSENCE.COM: Congrats on your upcoming book, "Thank You and You're Welcome," which is a tome of your personal philosophies. What is one Kanye-ism that you live and die by?
WEST: "It's not about dying but about living with optimism" and "Get used to getting used, because if you can't be used then you're useless" are two of my favorites. Again, it's just my ideas on life and it's not presented in a traditional format but with graphics. We were working with an author but that person couldn't let go of his traditional training to present it as we saw fit to the point that we could no longer work together. When people can't understand someone who might be presenting new ideas and thoughts because it sounds too different from what they are used to, they see me as an egomaniac, rather than viewing it as a difference of opinion or way of thinking.
ESSENCE.COM: How much of your Kanye-isms were inspired by your mom and what is the one thing you feel you learned from her passing?
WEST: Since my mom died I'm about living to cultivate myself by traveling the world. My mom instilled that in me when she took me to China with her for a year. I was in the fifth grade and I know she prepped me for my many journeys to come. My mom was an educator so she brought that kind of knowledge and instilled it in me. Now, I'm keeping her dream alive through the foundation to take it to the next level.
ESSENCE.COM: We're sure she's proud of your work with the foundation as well as your personal growth. About a month ago you made a declaration on your blog and a vow to show more humility after "South Park" depicted you as an egomaniac fish. How difficult has it been looking at the man in the mirror?
WEST: Well, I'm not more humble but more gracious. If you look up the definitions of the word humble, it's all negative connotations, like one should bow down. I can only be fully me, and be fully appreciative of others, especially my fans. So I show my appreciation. If someone wants to take a picture with me or stop and talk to me because they appreciate my work, then I should absolutely show them that in return. Instead of having someone take a picture of me at 5 A.M. when I'm irritated and tired. I'm glad to say I am finally growing into my manhood at 31. At the end of the day, I hope people will say, "That guy really cares about quality and wants to be an example and have a better life and inspire others to as well."
Kanye West will perform at the 2nd Annual Stay In School Benefit Concert at the Chicago Theater on June 11.