Some American high school and college seniors sonically associate graduation season with Vitamin C’s 1999 hit song “Graduation (Friends Forever),” but for many Black graduates, Kanye West’s GRAMMY Award-winning 2007 LP Graduation holds greater salience. Graduation completes West’s triad of college-themed full-length projects (The College Dropout in 2004 and 2005’s Late Registration), and is marked by West’s characteristically strong production work as evidenced by songs like “Stronger” and “Homecoming” featuring Chris Martin. But perhaps the most resonant component of Graduation is West’s impressive lyrical ability to conjure images of Black collegiate life while furthering his critiques of the American higher education system’s prosperity narratives—critiques which pool throughout his first three albums.
Before West became the politically controversial figure he is today, it had become a longstanding yet unnamed tradition in my family to play Graduation on our own graduation days. I have vivid, pleasant memories of hearing songs like “Celebration” during my older cousins’ and siblings’ graduation weekends in the early 2010s. These songs helped my family members undergird their days of celebration with Black music that spoke directly to the gravity of Black graduation which is especially noteworthy and revelatory considering the generational disenfranchisement of African Americans within the American education system. Therefore, I had long envisioned that my own college graduation day would be scored by the buzzing whispers of 14,000 ceremony attendees, the joyful hollering of my Nigerian immigrant mother and none other than Kanye West. However, due to the COVID-19 global pandemic and resulting social distancing measures, the long-anticipated celebrations many Black grads like myself have worked and planned for will not occur as imagined.
Alexis Palmer is a black peer of mine at Emory University. When I asked Palmer about any potential affinity she had for the album, she revealed that she too had a “personal connection” to the album because her mother “was a big fan of it.” Palmer, like me, associated Black grad season with West’s album and even planned to decorate her graduation cap with Takashi Murikami’s iconic cover art for the 2007 album.
As our virtual college commencement ceremony came and went on May 11, I found myself unable to listen to West’s symbolic album and fulfill the coveted familial tradition. So the day was filled with different sounds: the moaning of leaf blowers as campus landscapists manicured the evergreen lawn where the Emory University 2020 Commencement ceremony would have occurred; the chattering of thirtyish white fellow graduates who like me, sat scattered across the quad in graduation regalia hoping to half-heartedly simulate the momentous event that was lost to us. While it is true that that event was lost to all of us, I found myself in a supplementary bout of Black mourning. My spirit longed for the slew of Black affinity ceremonies that would have occurred the past few weeks. I even ached for the complaints my Black aunties would have voiced about the spring heat and the number of names that would be read before my own was called. My graduation day was punctuated not only by the absence of West’s music, but also by the absence of my college’s Black traditions, my Black family and our Black forms of jubilant joy.
I first became acquainted with West’s aforementioned albums when I was in elementary school in the mid-2000s. I have pleasant memories of my older siblings reciting “Skit #1,” a comedic track on Late Registration in which members of the fictitious Black fraternity “Broke Phi Broke” discuss their financial woes. The track ends with the fraternity brothers synchronously chanting “we can’t afford no gas!/say it!/we can’t afford no gas!/so we ain’t drivin’.” While I did not have the language for it at the time, I have come to understand that this skit emblematizes the dualistic skepticism and celebratory manner in which West discusses the relationship between many young Black adults and the proverbial college degree. While some use their degree as a point of departure onto some financially secure and/or vocationally fulfilling future, others feel socially cajoled to pursue it to obtain some showcaseable form of legitimacy. The latter behavior, West’s lyrics suggest, is harmful because it implicitly propagates the false notion that Black thoughts and Black existence need institutional credentials to be considered valid.
West further questions the motivation behind pursuing a degree earlier in his discography. In “School Spirit (Skit 2),” a track on West’s first album, an unnamed character defensively bolsters his decision to stockpile degrees saying, “Hate all you want, but I’m smart, so smart…/Cause when I die buddy/You know what’s gonna keep me warm?/ That’s right those degrees.” The comical intonation of this figure further demonstrates West’s qualms with characterizing higher education as the sole substantiator of Black aptitude. By positioning college attendance as the way, one risks impugning the choices of Black people like West, who, for a plethora of reasons, do not pursue or complete their degrees.
These selected skits may cast West as a rapper in opposition to higher education. But I do not believe that West’s first three albums were narrativized to downcast college altogether. They reiterated his ostensible belief that college attendance, like non-attendance, was evidence of Black agency. West’s words resist that simplistic characterization that college alone could help Black folks reclaim or even ascertain that intrinsically present agency. Therefore, Graduation/graduation encapsulates the literal ceremony of Black grads who complete a set of academic requirements. But it also connotes the experience of attaining and new understanding over one’s Black destiny. In “Good Morning,” West states, “…you graduate when you make it up outta the streets/From the moments of pain/Look how far we done came/Haters sayin’ ya changed/Now you doin’ ya thing.” Here, West portrays graduation as an event which applies also to one’s departure from a particular environment or phase of life, to another.
In the days since my commencement, I have found myself thinking about my fellow black grads and returning to Graduation. I thought about how our graduation experiences were behind us, how we were entering an economy on the brink of an impending global recession, and how West’s 2007 politics were no longer congruent with his current Trumpian Black billionaire status.
Boris Niyonzima, another Black peer of mine, shared his lapsed affinity with the album in light of West’s new persona, saying, “It’s also depressing to see how much Kanye has changed since the first time I heard ‘Good Morning’ in middle school.” Niyonzima went on to discuss the way he used to find West’s bravado inspirational, but now finds his preoccupation with showcasing success offputting. Losing long-anticipated Graduation-related commencement traditions and contemplating West’s 2007 lyricism in a new light motivated me to reconfigure the affinity some Black grads have for the album. At first, I thought it was simple: Black grads appreciate the opportunity to have the stakes of their collegiate celebration captured in song. But after talking with my fellow grads and commiserating over our battle to find gratitude on graduation day without forcing ourselves to perform happiness, I realized the affinity was deeper than that.
Graduation has proved to be a resonant album because it communicates that there is no singular Black grad experience. For West, college was a bust and dropping out was his way of focusing on what he cared about most: music. For many Black members of the class of 2020, college was a formative, albeit expensive, way to help us shape our own destinies. Graduation is about Black reckoning with academic institutions, but it’s more broadly about the way Black people define and pursue their own desired success and therein facilitate their own personal educations.
There is a certain uncertainty regarding how long the feeling of non-closure which pervades this Black grad season, and the world, will last. Through writing this article I hoped to find some glaring takeaway about how our relationship to the art and the artists we once loved changes with the times. But the most compelling, puzzling takeaway I have found is that Boris, Alexis and I all shared the same favorite song on Graduation, the album’s fourth track titled “I Wonder.” In it, West uses a heavy sample of Labi Siffre’s “My Song,” a song about possessing the boldness to stand in one’s own truth. In the song’s final lyrics, West questions, “You ever wonder what it all really means/You wonder if you’ll ever find your dreams?”
—Adesola Thomas, Emory University Class of 2020
NMAAM celebrates hip-hop’s power and global influence in our The Message gallery. We can’t wait to welcome the class of 2020 to explore the story never before told about the history of African American music. Congratulations on your achievements, and we hope to see you when the museum opens in September.