It was a sleepy Sunday afternoon at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design when Kanye West made his unexpected entrance last weekend. "Nobody knew he was coming," says Tessa Kaneene, a second-year masters student in urban planning. "People were tired — he was the only thing that would have woken everyone up." West climbed up on a desk in the school's common workspace and delivered a five-minute speech about the revolutionary power of design. "People were beyond themselves," says Kaneene. "Absolutely mesmerized."
Contrary to some reports, West's appearance was not an officially sanctioned Harvard event: The rap superstar visited the school at the invitation of the Graduate School of Design's African-American Student Union, where Kaneene and Héctor Tarrido-Picart are co-presidents. The student-run group, which has about 20 members, reached out to West earlier this year through a personal contact after reading an interview where he discussed the challenges faced by people of color in design and other creative fields. "[We sent him] a hand-delivered invitation in the form of a personal letter, written by all the members of our group," says Kaneene. "It was very serious about issues of diversity in design and under-representation. Only one percent of licensed architects are African-American, and we make up 13 percent of the population."
West replied offering to meet with the student group when his Yeezus tour stopped in Boston. On Sunday, he sat down for a private roundtable meeting with a very small group of the group's core leaders, plus his own closest advisors, security personnel, and his fiancée, Kim Kardashian. "It was a very thoughtful discussion, lasting two hours," says Kaneene. "It was spirited; it was professional; often funny; and very collaborative. He treated the meeting with great respect and dignity… He went to art school, so, for him, it was kind of like a coming home."
After the private meeting, West asked to see the rest of Gund Hall, where the design school is located. "At first we weren’t going to go to the students’ spaces, because, of course, both he and Kim are very recognizable," Kaneene says. "[But] our workshop and robotics lab are in the basement and pretty vacant during the weekends, so we started by touring him around those spaces. We showed him architectural models. We showed him lighting studies. We showed him urban planning plans. He was smiling and asking very many questions and laughing. At every point, we thought, 'He probably doesn’t want to stay longer' – but he kept being like, 'No, let’s go this way.'"
West still wasn't done even after he finished touring the student workshop. "We exited and were about to say our goodbyes, and he said, 'I want to go back up,'" Kaneene says. "He was having a moment of inspiration." That's when West climbed up on the desk and delivered his speech to a spontaneous crowd of about 400 students.
He also offered the student body 300 free tickets to his show that night at Boston's TD Garden. "It was incredible," Kaneene says of the concert. "We were talking so much about design that, by the end, we kind of forgot that he was Kanye West, the rapper. To see him in his element was really powerful."
One thing that West didn't get to see on his visit was Harvard's Carpenter Center — the only building in the U.S. designed by European architect Le Corbusier, whose work West cited as a key influence on Yeezus. "His knowledge of architecture really came through in the conversation," Kaneene says. "Corbusier came up a lot. But time flew by, and it was raining, so the Carpenter Center wasn't able to be seen."
Kaneene says she and her classmates were profoundly inspired by their discussion with West. "In a way, our crafts are the same, especially now that he's focusing a lot more on the design side," she says. "We're both African-Americans who have had a lot of successes that we hope others can have; we can be ambassadors for those that might not be able to be sitting at the table right now. We'd love to start a conversation about the fact that we have a school of several hundred people and we have an African-American student union of 20. Why are there fewer than 30 African-Americans in a school of 700? What does that say?"
Adds Kaneene, "Kanye is very expressive in every way – verbally, musically, physically, with his hands, in design. That really came through. He puts his whole heart into what he does, in whatever form it is. And it’s always underscored by this idea of how what you do can be an act of revolution."