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Amid controversies, one college professor says there’s value in teaching students about Kanye West

Jeffrey McCune Jr. taught The Politics of Kanye West in 2017 at Washington University in St. Louis, and now he plans to launch a similar course on the rapper focusing on the relationship between white evangelical Christianity and anti-Blackness.
Kanye West at the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills.
Kanye West.Rich Fury / Getty Images for Vanity Fair

As a Black man from the South Side of Chicago like Ye, the man formerly known as Kanye West, Jeffrey McCune Jr. grew up with an appreciation for the rapper-turned-entrepreneur. Now, amid the recent controversies surrounding the rapper, this college professor sees value in launching another course on Ye.

McCune, an associate professor of African and African American studies at the University of Rochester, hopes to launch his third class on Ye focusing on the rapper’s artistry, influence and political views as a way to teach complex topics to college students. He taught his first two Ye-inspired courses, titled The Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics, at Washington University in St. Louis starting in 2017. Those classes — which covered everything from Black culture to capitalism to mental health — went on hiatus due to the pandemic. McCune now wants to launch another Ye course — but this time at the University of Rochester — which he said will help to counter the rapper’s anti-Black rhetoric.

“As a cultural critic, as a public intellectual, as a steward of my community, I have to believe that it’s important for me as a professor to counter the messages that Kanye is now advancing, using Christianity as the bedrock for it,” McCune, 44, said. “As an educator, as an intellectual, as a scholar, it will be irresponsible for me to just do away with him, knowing the kinds of impacts and effects his work and his weight could have.”

McCune said his new Ye course will have the same structure as his first, delving into the rapper’s political views and his evolution in politics from his dislike of President George Bush to his love of President Donald Trump. But unlike his previous ones, this class will be divided into three parts, “the old Kanye, the new Kanye, and the who Kanye,” and examine Ye’s recent behavior. McCune said his class will not shy away from Ye’s past or recent controversies, which include wearing a “White Lives Matter” shirt during Paris Fashion Week, making antisemetic statements on social media, and ​​falsely suggesting in a since-removed “Drink Champs” interview that George Floyd died of fentanyl use and not at the hands of a Minnesota police officer. Instead, the professor sees Ye’s erratic behavior as an entry point into exploring white evangelical Christianity in Black culture and how it can foster anti-Blackness. 

Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr. on Eastman Quad at the University of Rochester.
Prof. Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr.J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester

“Even though Kanye may not be conscious of how he’s dancing between these two worlds, it is clear in his move to Christianity … that he’s choosing a very ugly strain of white evangelical Christianity that continuously believes that Christ is a policing white man, who does not in fact revere Blackness,” McCune said, citing the evolution of Ye’s music, which began in secular hip-hop and later transitioned into gospel music. 

McCune said his will class pushes back on the anti-Black messaging that Ye has been advancing.

“The course has never, ever been about Kanye,” McCune said. “He is the draw. But I, in this course, draw out the significance of Black celebrity to Black life, and for me, that continues with the person who is driving anti-Blackness into the public. I can’t ignore that.”

McCune said his first two courses were a hit among students, bringing in hundreds from various backgrounds. While he’s confident he can do the same with his new class, he admitted that there’s been negative feedback from critics through hateful emails and social media questioning its purpose and why such a course is needed. McCune said courses on celebrities like Ye, Nicki Minaj and Drake are needed because they help make subjects like political science, history and sociology more relatable to students. 

Following some of the early criticism in 2017, McCune made a video response, explaining why these types of courses were so important. In order to get students to understand the full picture, “we have to use things that the students are listening to and are digesting every day,” he told NBC News, before adding that by teaching this course, he’s going against the narrative that only certain Black figures are worthy of academic courses. 

“We can have a class about Dr. Martin Luther King, right, but we can’t have a class about Malcolm X?” McCune continued. “We can have a class about Jay Z, but we can’t have a class about Kanye West?”

McCune said he also wants his class to understand “the tricky nature of Black celebrity and Black life” and how sometimes the persona one takes on to become powerful and influential can also be harmful to themselves and those who follow them.

The professor said he’s still working on the logistics of his new course, which does not yet have an official name. If the University of Rochester’s college curriculum committee approves the new Ye course, he plans to teach it during the spring or fall semester of 2023. 

“I think that the catalog of Kanye is still an interesting catalog,” McCune said. “It’s an archive, quite frankly, of my life and the lives of so many other young people who have been entangled in the world of Kanye.”