The Dropout Drops In 

Kanye West visits Oakland to tell high school kids about talent and commitment.

When you're Kanye West, and your name is ringing like a bell anytime the present (and future) of urban music is mentioned, you almost don't need Jesus to move a heavenly muscle on your behalf. You can practically walk on water by your bad self (or is that good self?), considering that you're lending your considerable street cred to one of the biggest tours of the year (opening up for R&B sensation Usher), your singles (from your debut CD, The College Dropout) are burning up the radio waves, and you can hold your head alongside Jay-Z, Lil' Jon, Twista, or anyone else moving major units these days.

Now, not only is The College Dropout selling like Google shares, but other artists are paying dearly for the honor of featuring your beats or guest-raps -- Kanye is so exposed these days, it's more of a surprise when a mainstream artist doesn't have a cameo from him. Plain and simple, you're the man, and you know it. And you could be up in your lavish hotel room, getting brains, sipping cognac, and smoking mad trees the afternoon before your performance later that night opening for Usher at the 20,000-seat Oakland Arena, bound to be packed to the rafters with screaming teenagers who either want to be you or be with you. But instead, there you are at the Oakland Box Theater, spending more than an hour with about thirty or forty high schoolers you've never met before.

Sure, it's easy to be skeptical when a celebrity du jour makes a Meaningful Social Statement. After all, who doesn't "luh the kids"? They're the ones who buy the records, whodi. We've all seen enough completely fake public outreach gestures -- perhaps the most egregious being Nelly's "P.I.M.P." college scholarship fund -- to become so totally jaded, we scoff at the very notion of "giving back to the community." But if Kanye simply wanted to parlay his "social responsibility" efforts for PR purposes, why not hold the event at a larger-capacity auditorium and invite radio and TV outlets to cover it?

To be sure, Kanye was no Nelly at the Box last month. He was cocky, perhaps, yet he seemed sincere without being overly so. He didn't promise the kids record deals or gift-laden visits by Santa. Instead, he talked to them for a little while, shared some of his experiences, and made them feel like they were important.

"If you've got something to offer, it will be heard," West said to the kids -- many of whom were representing Oakland's young-artist-run label Youth Movement Records. The aspiring artists seemed stunned to be within shouting distance of the man behind "Jesus Walks," "Selfish," "All Falls Down," and "Through the Wire." Wearing a watermelon-colored Polo pique knit, shorts, and limited-edition Nikes, West (whose mother is an English teacher) calmly and articulately talked about how he made it in the rap game, his every word serving as inspirational fodder for YMR's up-and-coming rappers, DJs, and producers.

The event was part of the ongoing Grammy in the Schools program, an educational series presented by the National Association of Arts and Recording Sciences' local chapter. For his part, West seemed pleased to be hanging out with the kids --many of whom came from troubled inner-city backgrounds -- even for a short time.

There was no shame in Kanye's game as he discussed his decidedly non-hardcore influences -- soul singers like Anita Baker and Luther Vandross, as well as pop rappers like MC Hammer and Kid 'N' Play. It was a little refreshing to find someone who didn't list NWA and the flick Scarface as the basis for his artistic persona.

"Everything is a stepping stone until you're at the top of the dome," West rhymed, offering anecdotes about doing (uncredited) work for D-Dot Angelettie of P. Diddy's Hitmen production team, and working his way up to making hits for Jay-Z and, ultimately, rapping on his own records. When he was on the come-up, West said, "I had to play my role and my position." In the course of paying dues, he sometimes had to let others take the credit -- it's all part of the game, he reckoned.

And although West has been saddled with a reputation in the industry for being arrogant, he insisted that he wouldn't have made it this far if he was really a head case who couldn't work with people. His often-blunt honesty and directness were on display -- he revealed he sometimes calls magazines to personally discuss his reviews -- but so were his charm and intelligence. As the YMR kids lined up for a Q&A session, West stayed on point even though some of the questions weren't really questions, as some of the youngsters just wanted to bask in his celebrity.

He likes the way his own music sounds, in case you were wondering.

One of West's more interesting responses came when he was asked about being a Christian while surrounded by all the temptations of the rap game. "God doesn't have anything against money, cars, or women -- well, maybe just one of the last one," he said. "I'm not perfect. I sin. I'm human. A lot of people think, since I made "Jesus Walks,' that I'm a saint. I'm not. I was asking for direction." Some people appear pious, he explained, but beat their children after they're done praying. "The thing is, God knows your heart."

It's important, West told the crowd, to have ambitious goals if you plan on achieving them. "Are you trying to be the best in Oakland, or are you trying to be the best in the world?" he asked. Sometimes, he added, you can get to be the best just by the force of sheer will. "I used to be delusional, and then I became talented," he said with a smile. "I was never talented at anything but my ability to learn."

As the event wound down, C2tE brushed past West's handlers and asked him a quick final question: Why did he come here today, when he didn't have to? After all, youth counselor or motivational speaker is not listed on most rappers' job descriptions. West's succinct response, while clichéd and possibly even corny, nevertheless rang true: "Knowledge is power."

Jesus would probably approve.


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