Late one recent mid-October evening, Kanye West walked out on stage in Seattle to kick off his Yeezus tour in a jewel-encrusted Maison Martin Margiela mask reminiscent of artist Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skulls. Death-obsessed Hirst says he created those glittery skulls because he was making art from what was around him, and perhaps one could be pushed towards similar conclusions here: that money is Kanye’s medium. However, the nearly three-hour-long show was not a referendum on narcissistic bedazzled-navel navel-gazing. Instead it was a massive interdisciplinary art, music, and sound event produced on a scale large enough to successfully fill an arena.
Kanye’s elusive and shadowy creative agency DONDA designed the elaborate set—a 50-foot, multi-tiered mountain with an even bigger rotating projection screen behind it, a runway with extensive futuristic laser possibilities, and a moving triangular mountain-extension stage in the middle of the arena. If you look through the hashtag #yeezus or #yeezustour right now on Instagram, you might think to yourself, “Dude, this is hella Wagner,” and you’d be right—the main set designer for Kanye’s tours and concerts is Es Devlin, who has designed sets for dozens of operas, mainly in Europe, including a production of Wagner’s Parsifal. At the time of this writing, I have been unable to confirm that Ms. Devlin worked with DONDA on the Yeezus tour, but her influence and direction is surely present given her extensive history with Kanye in the past. Beyond the physical set itself, the massive projection screen was its own lively being. At times it became the moving and occasionally apocalyptic sky behind the mountain, at other times there was live video processing going on that was projected onto the screen—two different videographers capturing Kanye’s face enshrouded in another of the jeweled masks, then someone manipulating the image and projecting it onto the screen above. And still other times there were video works pointing to themes of racism, institutionalized violence, and the oppression of minorities via imagery such as the human back in a vulnerable position or vicious barking dogs. And, often enough these images and events were peppered with feedback-inflected, noisy drones, recordings of “Indian pow-wows” from old films re-appropriated to make a beat-driven commentary on racism, spoken word interludes over resounding choruses, or sounds of electronically manipulated orchestral instruments that bring to mind Olivia Block’s latest project. Signature Kanye West beats seamlessly strung it all together.
Most reviews of this opening Yeezus show in Seattle, like this one in Rolling Stone, note the cadre of women wearing bodysuits and imply that this is surely an example of just how narcissistic this rich black rapper is. In fact, the body suits seemed not to be designed with hyper-sexuality in mind, but highlighted the human figure, often in zombie-like gray tones. West has collaborated with performance artist Vanessa Beecroft a number of times over the last few years—at listening parties in L.A. and also for his epic 35-minute video for Runaway. And, indeed, Beecroft was not only the choreographer, but also the artistic director for the show. Throughout the performance, the dancers interacted with both the mountain and Kanye, created a series of shifting shapes and textures, and at one point mimed a Catholic-inspired priestly procession. They also appeared to act out other scenes seemingly drawn from the history of performance art such as Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy.
As the show progressed, Kanye moved through a series of other masks and a number of costume changes, and a slightly abstract storyline slowly unfolded. Kanye as a black Jesus (a.k.a. Yeezus), the rise and fall and struggle of this character as he moves through a shamanistic vision-quest and eventually, in a bizarre and hilarious Christian passion play-like event, confronts Jesus, who emerges from the giant mountain in a stream of light and smoke. While there had been costume changes leading up to this moment, the intentionality seemed to shift at this point. There was a huge robe and white face mask that made Kanye appear alternately like a scarecrow and like a depiction of a dying Jesus or disciple in a Raphael painting. When meeting “White Jesus,” Yeezus wore an elaborate, Arab-inspired blue tunic echoing the Nation of Islam’s Tribe of Shabazz and Black Power—a leader with a new vision splitting with the past and pointing to a new way forward.
All in all, this was a massive undertaking, and to imagine the manpower and money that will be required in order for Kanye and DONDA to take this show on tour is mind-boggling. So it would be easy to write this off as being something unattainable for anyone outside of pop royalty. Yet, this is clearly an excellent example of what is possible when it comes to art and the general public. There I was in an arena filled with 15,000 people—people on their feet in awe of experimental performance art, music and highly sophisticated video pieces.
The internet has produced a seemingly endless supply of blog posts heralding the “death” of classical music, while others have suggested that shoveling heaps of violinists into bars to perform might redeem a too-formal concert music in the eyes of the public. There have even been curiously racist musings suggesting that the color of one’s skin dictates how we perceive time, and that this could be the key to getting Mozart and communities of color together in the same room. However, this post is not meant to suggest a new way forward with the same old ideas, but to suggest that the way forward is a full-on bear hug with interesting and challenging new ideas, and that people of all races and ages yearn for this, whether or not they say it in the same way we do.
Perhaps we just need to admit to ourselves that people like to be challenged, that people want to dive into wild and contemporary imagery and messages, but that our success in that mission may not come from our own backyard. I was fortunate enough to experience something intense, interesting, challenging, interdisciplinary, and yet totally accessible. Part of what is so striking about the Yeezus tour is that this is supposedly low art, but it’s woven seamlessly into so-called high art on a massive scale, and it’s actually really difficult to tease apart where one discipline ends and another begins. Things are getting messy, and that’s ok! All different aspects the show are free of their respective dogmas through new combinations with different disciplines and a well-balanced group of collaborators. And, all these collaborations are celebrated and are made interactive because, as Laurie Anderson notes and the 300,000-strong #yeezus hashtag demonstrates, we are the media now, and so even the audience is incorporated into the performance as an analytical and reflective machine—the performance continuing on as people see it from different angles and perspectives in videos and photographs and sharing of content. Success like this is possible for new music, too, but doing that may have to start with us putting down our instruments and seeing what’s happening in the rest of the world.