“The system broken, the school is closed, the prison’s open.” — Kanye, “Power”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t doing too hot these days. In leading the Windy City, President Obama’s former chief of staff currently has a dead-man-walking 29 percent approval rating, which is probably because of numerous things, including the black eye the city’s taken over its “Chiraq”-inducing wave of gun violence; massive school closings and the perception that he’s just a Midwestern Bloomberg, oblivious to everything outside the city’s baronial North Side.
But all this wonk talk bores the sh*t out of us; although, we stand by our Great Lakes brethren in desiring the sorts of civic improvement the Second City deserves. Chicago residents can vote for a new mayor next February to run their town, but that prospect looks moot if no one besides Emanuel–who has the backing of the city’s powerful Democratic machine–runs for the position.
So who should rise up and become the mayor’s challenger? One Hyde Park resident thinks he has the answer: South Side native Kanye West.
Twenty-nine-year-old Ben Shepard, a Chicago artist and University of Chicago graduate, thinks Yeezy has not only the cache to attract the donors, but possesses the political and civic-minded yearnings to radically alter the city’s current climate of haves-versus-have nots. Shepard also believes West is the only person with the balls to tell the opposition to go f*ck themselves if they stand in his way.
Shepard started a website, Kanye 4 Mayor, publicly voicing his endorsement for a West 2015 candidacy, so we caught up with him recently when he was visiting New York City to ask about the proposal. Lively and excited about the prospect of a West administration, he broke down for us exactly how this whole thing would work out.
Did we leave fully convinced? No–and picturing a Big Brother-like image of West’s face politicking us from the side of the Sears Tower leaves us terrified–but hey, it’s great food for thought.
TSS: So how did this whole idea come about?
Shepard: Originally I’m from D.C., but I went to school in Chicago for philosophy when I was 18.
If you fly into Midway, there’s a bus that goes along 55th St. to Hyde Park and it first sort of passes through a Mexican neighborhood [West Elsdon] before it goes through these two neighborhoods adjacent to campus. You know, I grew up in D.C., and in the ‘90s at least, there were still seriously impoverished parts of it.
But nothing compared to the South Side of Chicago, especially those two neighborhoods because there’s literally no business–just empty streets and broken houses. It’s very intense. And I was just confused. And I really didn’t know the history of Chicago and I was always confused why there were these neighborhoods here and then you could cross into Hyde Park and it’s this crazy-rich neighborhood.
After I moved back to Chicago from L.A. two years ago, I was worried about it, so I started to learn about its history and trying to understand why it’s such a weird, fucked-up place. Hyde Park where I live now has definitely changed a lot. There’s now two- or three-times more police. The University of Chicago has installed security guards to stand on every corner. And this is all sort of done as a way to buffer the neighborhood from its surrounding environment.
And in the future, the city’s elite want to drive [the South Side] down and it’s extremely dark. I mean, I don’t want to be too negative, but it’s just not too happy of a future for a lot of Chicagoans, especially poor Chicagoans who’ve been pushed out of the city–I think 100,000 people have been pushed out in the last ten years.
So I was thinking what could Chicago do. The first idea was for the South Side of Chicago to just separate itself from the city and become its own city, which I still think would be a good idea, but it’s never going to happen. It just seemed like a good step to create the autonomy from the Emanuel administration the area deserves.
And then I was just getting into the idea of celebrity and I’ve always been a Kanye fan. And I knew he was from Chicago and I was listening to his lyrics, and at the time I was turning my apartment in Hyde Park into an art piece that functioned as a school. One of the things that we do is an art class and one of the little white boys in this art class refused to make art. All he wanted to do was sit there and listen to my laptop and listen to “Power” over and over and over again. It was so intense.
Something about this made me realize the intensity of Kanye’s imagination or genius or whatever it is. And you can see that the politics are very close to the surface. I like that they’re intensely political and they’re not all love songs. They also address issues in the world and it’s like, Oh. He’s also saying things like he can do anything, showing his creative genius. And it’s like, Why not?
TSS: So you believe Kanye West would win if he ran for Chicago mayor?
Shepard: Kanye West would certainly win.
TSS: Well let me offer up this: when I think about Kanye and his politics, within the context of his lyrics and what he does, they seem to be more abstractions than they are at directly highlighting specific issues.
Shepard: Hmm. Well I think there are two things about his politics that play into his overall persona: one is the persistent anti-racism aspect. It’s interesting because since official racist language went out of being okay over the last 20 years, you have a weird situation where racism takes the form of social conditions and where people are at within society. I think “New Slaves” is probably where it’s most intense where he’s just directing very intense rage at the condition and a country we think of as a democracy, but is locking up two million people in prison and systematically treats aspects of its population as a disposable service class.
I think he’s abstract in the sense that he’s now an extremely wealthy artist who’s now a member of the elite. So he’s not an actual victim and he embraces it. There’s also a sense of him trying to express what the situation he and his family encountered. There are the lyrics about the murder rate in Chicago, and especially a specific murder that happened on Ashland [“Everything I Am”]. So there is a local thing to the politics that’s there that cuts against the abstraction.
And then the other thing would be the interest he has in design. He’s giving speeches to Harvard’s graduate school, he’s obsessed with the fashion industry, design, art and contemporary art, and that’s inspiring because one of the worst parts of the way Chicago’s being built now is all the design decisions are being made by conservative, suburban dads. So it’s just turning the city into a very large shopping mall, basically, and it’s very ugly.
TSS: But it’s hard for me to reconcile Kanye West with the city of Chicago anymore. Like LeBron James and Northeast Ohio, those two are not really representative of those regions anymore. They’re “of the world” now.
Shepard: I mean, “Homecoming”’s all about this, and it’s about the, “you can’t go home again/And when did I hear this? When I was back home!”
But it’s really a rough, brutal, corrupt place and I really respect why he doesn’t live there anymore. You know, Bloomberg when he was mayor here didn’t really live [in New York City], either. He was some other place every week. But I think it’s also racialized as well. I was talking to some service workers in the cafeteria at the University–and of course they had dark skin, because that’s the world we live in–and I was talking about Kanye running for mayor and they were like, “first of all, he would be crazy.” But second of all, they would support him because they would think his interests align with the poor people of Chicago. I thought that was interesting.
So there’s a sense that he’s a lunatic and out-of-control, which is what comes with the genius thing, and also sort of that his alliances are with that group of people in the city. I think it’s the same reason I would think that: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” So I think it’s intuition about his interests. The thing is, he doesn’t need to be corrupt because he’s so rich already.
TSS: Hypothetically speaking, going off what you’ve listed on your site about all the things Chicago could do to make itself a more viable city for its citizens, what specific things do you think Kanye would campaign on?
Shepard: So I look at this with the goal of making Chicago one of the best places in the world. And to do this you have to solve these very intractable problems like the schools, the transportation, the violence and the fact that it’s not really a democracy, because the city is controlled by a very corrupt organization.
What you have now is you have police flying around the South Side in cruisers, arresting young black men for drug crimes. And that probably makes the violence, accentuates the violence and potentially even causes it. So I think thinking about a way to resolve that violence is the most pressing issue.
Because unless the gun violence stops, the South Side of Chicago will be viewed as off-limits. And the South Side is amazing: there’s so much history and the architecture in some places is really great. There’s a lot of room for experimentation for development on the South Side. The first step to make that happen is resolving the gun violence.
The one to me that seems to be the most abstract and potentially the most difficult would be transportation because Chicago has this budget crisis. That one to me was just like, “ask the Internet about it because I don’t know sh*t about transportation policy” [Laughs].
TSS: So who do you think would comprise his cabinet?
Shepard: [Laughs] First Lady Kim [Kardashian]! But I think he believes in meritocracy, and he wants to do his design thing and find very creative people, which I think is inspiring. And it’s very different than the organizational structure of the Emanuel administration or the Chicago Machine. The Daley Machine would be tied into the idea of patronage in Chicago and Emanuel’s ties into the elite, Ivy League members of Chicago.
But I think the thing with Kanye it would be more like an openness to talent more than anything else. That’s what made Napoleon so great, don’t forget.
TSS: Which would be the biggest thing since bureaucracy is what kills Chicago from running effectively, correct?
Shepard: Oh yes. This is the big democracy point because to do anything in Chicago is actually impossible [Ed. Note: To be fair, the same could be said of New York City]. You need a permit to do anything and the permits are hard to get and expensive.
TSS: Going from there, what is the dividing line between beautifying the city and driving its residents out?
Shepard: Well the great thing about Chicago is there’s no need [to radically alter the existing landscape]. There’s been a lot of research done about housing trusts, like, there’s a vocabulary of political techniques to pretty much preserve housing. Which is actually what you want to do. The goal is not to turn the South Side into Williamsburg. That would be a nightmare.
The goal is to pioneer a new multi-cultural neighborhood that wants to preserve the structure of the people who’ve been there. But the bad things happen when a neighborhood gets better and people get kicked out because the rents go up. So on one hand you preserve peoples’ rights to housing and on the other hand you open up places for people to move in. And there’s a lot of creative people in this country who are looking for [accessible rent and housing]. It’s about rebuilding the urban core that’s preservative.
The city owns a lot of land, too, which is the other thing. But I think the goal now is gentrification, and the goal of that is to build more private housing so developers can make more money. That’s political, but it doesn’t have to happen that way.
TSS: Which is why Kanye would be perfect because of his eye for design. What do you think that specific design would be?
Shepard: I think what he’s interested in–and what I think is cool–is working collaborations with contemporary artists. So like George Condo, a very famed painter, who did the cover for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and he gets contemporary artists and architects and it’s sort of that nexus, which I think is very interesting in terms of progressive city governments and artists and architects. And, you know, all architects, or a lot of the ones I know, desire to build these projects, but rich people are usually the ones who foot the bill, so they end up only designing stuff for them or big institution buildings.
TSS: I was reading something on City Journal.org the other day about how Chicago, unlike Silicon Valley or New York or Paris, doesn’t necessarily have an industry that it’s known worldwide for. It wants to be this global city, but it really doesn’t have that defining trait like the aforementioned cities and regions have.
For a hypothetical Kanye bid, how should he view Chicago’s place in the world and what its aims should be?
Shepard: The first great city in America. I mean, those are all insanely unequal, stratified, caste societies.
So I think the idea of an American city where everyone in it is participating in it is a radical idea. But it would make it a very special place and it would sort of be a happy ending to a pretty unhappy history. And I think all of those things–maybe with the absence of finance–would be present in a city in a richer way in a city where everyone’s participating. Then you wouldn’t get something where it’s just an elite activity, it would actually be more like broad-scale culture.
TSS: Closing up, how would you pitch this idea to him personally if you had the chance?
Shepard: Just as an idea from one artist to another. I know, he does good for the world whatever he does. I appreciate the art and the levels of braggadocio that he has in his confidence and what it involves. And there’s not going to probably be anyone else. Unless he thinks that there’s someone else who could solve this problem, it’ll probably be Kanye or bust.
TSS: So you don’t think he’d self-combust after a few months on the job if he didn’t get his way?
Shepard: Maybe? I mean, I’m also a very emotional person that’s prone to combustion. It’s not necessarily a bad thing in politics to be emotional. It could be a very good thing.
For more information, visit Kanye 4 Mayor.