Kayne West, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the experience of celebrity in China

By Mitchell Blatt | China

May 17

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a much discussed article for The Atlantic earlier this May about the impact of celebrity and how, he says, it may have led Kayne West to pursue “white freedom.”

That is, “not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom.” Coates can fully explain his point in his own elegant language, and I encourage you to read his essay. I want to focus on just one aspect, that of celebrity, what it can do to a person, and how living in China affected West’s views towards celebrity.

As Coates wrote,

There’s nothing original in this tale and there’s ample evidence, beyond West, that humans were not built to withstand the weight of celebrity.

West spent one year in Nanjing, China, where I have been based for the past few years, and he said the experience affected him greatly. He was, according to one of his classmates, extremely shy, said one of his classmates at the local school he attended, whom I interviewed in 2012.

“I remember in primary school, he was a very shy and introverted kid. He didn’t like to talk a lot,” Hua [Dong] said in an interview with me. “When I just happened to find out a few years ago that he is now Superstar Kanye West, I was extremely surprised and extremely happy for him.”

Hua Dong is also a musician. He’s the frontman for the post-punk band Re-TROS.

West himself has commented on how much attention he received as a black man in China.

“I think being in China got me ready to be a celeb,” he said.

“At that time, a lot of Chinese had never seen a black person. They would always come up to me and also stare at me, fishbowl me and everything. And that’s kind of the way it is for me right now,” West said in an interview with Cris Campion of Sabotage Times in 2011.

I had discovered his interviews on the topic in the course writing an article in 2013 on how Chinese often like to take photos with foreigners and add friends. Even today, the phenomenon of candid photo-taking of foreigners persists in many smaller cities and central cities. It would have been more so when West was living in China and the attention (including negative attention) can be more pronounced for black people than for whites.

Having seen West news fill up the magazines and social, and having read Coates’ piece, I thought back about West on China. I cannot–certainly not in this medium–add anything to the conversation about West and politics and race, but if you want to read a little bit of background about one of the formidable experiences in West’s childhood, take a look: China’s Obsession With Foreigners And The Experience Of Kanye West.

Feature photo by Tyler Curtis (Flickr). Map from Wikimedia. Creative Commons.
















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About the Author

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.

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Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.