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Kanye West's VMA Speech Exposed A Heartbreaking Truth About Black Artists

Kanye West is a complicated man, and last night he made what is perhaps his most complicated speech to date. A true Gemini, West is a study in contradictions. At one moment he’s throwing up a middle finger to the world, and in the next he’s revealing that he needs the world (the industry, the fans, the haters) in order to live.

On the 2015 VMA stage, Kanye West finally admitted that he wants us to like him, and in doing so exposed the toll that the 2009 VMAs ( where he rushed the stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech) have taken on him as an artist and as a person. Last night, Kanye West was forced to remind us that he’s only human, subject to the same racial biases and double standards that us laypeople are.

West’s candid, 12-minute acceptance speech for the VMA Video Vangaurd Award last night has so far been met with varying forms of confusion and enthusiastic praise. It’s been described by several outlets as “bizarre,” ridiculous,” “incredible,” and “poignant.”

At several points, it was all of those things: When 38-year-old West called himself a millennial, when he said “bro” after every other sentence, when he admitted that he smoked a joint before coming on stage, when he joked about his decision to wear a leather shirt at the 2009 VMAs and then abruptly shifted over to solemnly meditate on whether he would have interrupted Swift’s acceptance speech if he had the chance to “do it all over again.”

In 2009, West already had a reputation as one of the best rappers in the game. He also had a possibly even bigger reputation for being an arrogant loudmouth with no filter. But it was the instant that he snatched the microphone from Swift’s hands and declared “I’mma let you finish…” that West went from being a mere character to an outright villain. Six years later, that moment has become an ongoing pop cultural joke referenced whenever Swift and West are in the same room. Last night was the culmination of that joke, a final, definitive punchline that may have ultimately been at Kanye West’s expense, despite the fact that he was the one delivering it.

What happened on the VMAs stage last night was funny, moving and almost uncomfortably real. We saw the contradictions that make Kanye the fascinating figure he is play out in real time. The consensus on the Kanye West narrative is that he’s an egomaniac who is also deeply insecure. He’ll stand on the VMA stage to accept his award and drink in the applause for as long as necessary, and then he’ll question why artists seek out these accolades to begin with. He’ll call out capitalism and big business, then aggressively court deals with juggernauts like Adidas.

West may have ended on a triumphant, altogether shocking note by announcing his future presidential bid, but the entire speech wasn’t so much an acceptance speech as an apology, a public act of humbling himself. The most talked-about line might have been “I have decided in 2020 to run for president,” but the most important, the most telling, was when he finally admitted what we already knew: “I just wanted people to like me more.”

But that’s the beauty of Kanye West, right? The contradiction is part of what supposedly makes him such a genius. In an age where we want everything from our celebrities, he chose a pivotal moment to be incredibly raw, laying his internal struggle bare even through all the rambling.

It seems that West ultimately wants to do good — and, to be fair, he already has at times.

There have been missteps, of course — the misogyny against black women in songs like “Mercy,” his declaration that racism is an outdated concept, his acceptance of Tyga’s relationship with underaged (now 18) Kylie Jenner. But there’s also been the creation of the Donda’s House organization, his gospel of radical self-love, his public support of Caitlyn Jenner, and even the infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” moment when he said what many black people were thinking. West, at the very least, has tried to use his platform to speak on bigger issues. But he’s also realized that in order to make a change, his name must no longer be synonymous with the time he was mean to Taylor Swift.

There was something really beautiful about the earnestness and naivety of West’s speech, but also something a little sad. Part of what has made West a hero is his unwillingness to give in, to apologize, to comprise. Last night’s speech was one, big, tortured compromise. It was bravely admitting that he needs to be liked, but also somehow conceding that the fallout from one drunken, ridiculous mistake — the hate, the vitriol, the stereotyping — was somehow justified. It wasn’t.

But therein lies the dilemma of the black celebrity. In order to humanize himself, Kanye has to humble himself in a way that few white artists would be expected to. It looks like the backlash is finally lifting. The only question is at what cost?

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