Kanye West recently gave a brief talk at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), having been invited to do so by the GSD’s African American Student Union. The group had noted West’s increasing interest in design that he referenced in interviews, and his “very public frustration with the limits experienced by Black designers and artists.”
In a statement released after the appearance, the GSD AASU wrote that West “shares in our group’s optimism that transdisciplinary design practice can – as he stated Sunday – impact the world in positive ways. One of these ways is by encouraging the development and legitimacy of African American designers in their professional and academic practices.”
His presence there was meant “to catalyze a more inclusive design culture,” the group stated — a noble goal given that only 1 percent of licensed architects in the U.S. identify as African-American.
Yet writing for ArchDaily, Lian Chikako Chang, a GSD alum and director of Research and Information at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, lamented the controversy that followed:
When Kanye West spoke with students at my alma mater on Sunday evening, he said “I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be ‘architected.’” In the social media frenzy that followed, a recurring response that I saw on architecture-centric sites was to snicker at West’s use of the word “architect” as a verb. For many, this was symbolic of West’s ignorance and hubris as he presumed to talk about something without knowing anything.
Except, of course, that “architect” is well recognized as a verb. Dictionaries say so, architects say so, and academics say so.
If you are an academic and you use the word at a talk, Chang says, “people will nod and applaud.” But if you are a black man outside of the ivory tower, it will be assumed you don’t know how to use language. (Phillip Glass also visited GSD recently. If he’d used the word “architect” as a verb, would there have been snickering on Twitter? I’m going to say no.)
Chang says the reaction suggests that West — who’s actually trying to shape change — isn’t substantial enough to talk about these issues: “When we acknowledge that some people have the right to use certain words and others do not, we are keeping people in their place. We are pre-judging who has the right to use language to shape ideas.”
And why shouldn’t West know how to use language? Chang quotes architectural theorist Timothy Hyde:
“Kanye is not just a black musician, but a rapper—someone who does things with words for a living. So shouldn’t our immediate response to a rapper’s appropriation of a word not be that he got it wrong, but instead to wonder whether we have been using it wrong all along?”