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Washington University starts course on 'cultural icon' Kanye West

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Washington University students can take a deeper dive into the world of Kanye West with a course that began this week: “Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics.”

Seventy-five students are registered for the course on the controversy magnet, and there was a waiting list to get in.

Georgia State University offered a course on West in 2015, and one at the University of Missouri in 2014 focused on West and Jay-Z. Dr. Jeffrey McCune, an associate professor in the African and African-American Studies and the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies departments, helms this course on the rapper, producer and fashion designer.

McCune promises the course isn’t an excuse to fawn over West’s music, nor will it be a weekly exercise in West bashing. Highlights from the artist’s life last year include a lauded album, “The Life of Pablo,” and a public breakdown followed by a stint in rehab.

McCune sees the course as a “good way to get students to connect issues of politics, race, gender, sexuality and culture.”

He’s had the concept in his head for a long time.

“I always wanted to teach a course looking at black genius and the impossibility of black genius for the American public,” he says. “We’re always thought of as maybe being articulate or smart but not really genius.”

McCune says West, via hip-hop, helped give African-Americans platforms on which they could become all sorts of geniuses — literary, musical and more.

“Hip-hop is a way to show our creative genius,” he says. “Kanye really uses hip-hop as a vehicle to display all of his talents, albeit some better than others.”

McCune thought now was the right time to start the course. “Many people spend a lot of time talking about Kanye as a controversial and somewhat hot-headed figure,” he says. “They’re very interested in Kanye West as a source of personality. Throughout his career, he has always interested me — his sense of black excellence, his belief that we have within us the capacity for greatness. I know for Kanye that has translated as narcissism and arrogance.”

But, he adds, there’s also “a healthy dose of confidence and investment in black excellence that translates to so many people, and young people in particular. I knew my students had connections to Kanye. They’re always referencing his music and performances and videos and fashion. What better time than now to take seriously Kanye West as a cultural icon? I’m always interested in how he’s pushing whatever boundaries.”

McCune says West surprises by constantly pushing the bar of what’s expected from a rapper, including reminding the public of hip-hop’s connection to politics. West famously said on national television, in response to Hurricane Katrina, that former President George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people.

“At that point, I realized the dynamics of this performer, how he embodied multiple fears of black life,” McCune says.

Some topics on the syllabus for the 14-week course:

• “Who is Kanye West and Why Is He in the Flashing Lights?”

• “Touch the Sky, When the Aspirant Turns Genius”

• “Father Stretch My Hands, or How Hip-Hop Takes Us to Church”

• “Love Lock Down, or Hip-Hop’s Queer Love Languages”

• “I Love Kanye, or How Critique Slips Into Hate”

McCune promises there will be a full segment on “The Swift Moment,” referring to West’s onstage confrontation with pop singer Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.

Lectures take place on Tuesdays; “critical listening parties” are Thursdays, with guest artists on select Thursdays.

McCune first discovered West when he appeared on TV’s “Def Poetry Jam” in 2004, the same year of his debut album, “The College Dropout.”

McCune, who, like West, is a Chicago native, says they grew up in the same neighborhood. They’re both the same age — 39. He names “Graduation” (2007) as his favorite West album. “It’s quintessentially produced and has its own optimistic personality. ... Every album teaches you something.”

McCune, author of 2014’s “Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing” (University of Chicago Press) is working on a new book, “On Kanye West.” He will give a series of lectures, open to the public, on Feb. 15, March 8 and April 12 at Washington University (exact locations to be announced).

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