When most musicians come to town, they take in Beale Street, hit the Rendezvous, or tour Graceland in their downtime. Others throw down at the Peabody or hole up on the tour bus. Before Kanye West's November 19th concert at the Mid-South Coliseum, he kicked it with a roomful of teenagers.
West spent nearly two hours with 25 students from Memphis' Middle College High School that afternoon. Under the aegis of the Grammy Foundation's Grammy SoundChecks mentoring program, he answered questions about his personal life, his career, and the music biz, amidst many chuckles and a few nervous giggles.
"The odds of someone walking up to Jay-Z and saying, 'Yo, sign me to Roc-a-Fella' are slim to none," West admitted, explaining in the next breath that his first big break came when he provided some beats for Jay-Z's The Blueprint album, released in 2001.
Clad in a cream-colored hooded sweatshirt and a pair of blue jeans, West looked much like the students he was mentoring. Of his own success, he said, "It's like winning a lottery ticket." Instead of trying to catch the attention of a superstar, he urged would-be entertainers to get internships in the music industry or build connections via non-rapping insiders. "Try to holla at the person next to that famous person," he said.
"The key is talent meets work ethic," West said. "Whatever city you're in, whatever school you're in, whatever block you're on, you have to be the best. If you're not, team up with the best. Be realistic."
West touched on practical matters, like selling publishing rights ("Don't"), revealed plans to shoot an extended-length video for the "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" remix, and delivered an impromptu a capella rendition of "Spaceship."
He encouraged students to discover what they like, then figure out a way to build a career on it. He explained his vision for rap school curriculums. And through a series of offhanded references to civil rights movement heroes, he also persuaded them to hit the history books.
Whether talking about personal or professional matters, West's message was continually upbeat.
"Don't spend time on negative energy," he said. "People will say, '50 Cent said this about you,' and I'll say, 'Yeah, that's his opinion.' They'll ask, 'You got a beef with him now?' I'll answer, 'No, that's his opinion.' I don't have a reason to bring someone down."
West said that the media likes to promote negativity between black people, so, he claimed, he hardly ever reads the myriad articles written about him.
"Will his comments at the telethon affect his nomination?" he asked, mimicking reporters discussing his 10 Grammy nods and the flack surrounding his now infamous outburst against President Bush during NBC's Hurricane Katrina fund-raiser.
"I have a responsibility to spread information," he added in a more serious tone. "I like messing with people's sensibilities. The close-minded American is my canvas."
Revisiting his post-Katrina comments and a later tirade about the rampant homophobia in hip-hop music, West noted: "The label publicists say, 'Kanye, don't touch on it.' But when I get the opportunity, I'll open it up again."
Exceedingly polite, West focused all his attention on his audience, pausing once to tell his stage crew -- working in the next room -- to quiet down. At the end of the session, he apologized for taking up everyone's time, then gave Principal Michelle Brantley Patterson enough tickets for the entire student body to attend his concert.
"This meant a lot to my students," said Middle College High School music teacher Gerard Harris. "Kanye's not just hollering on the mic. He's very philosophical, and he has real goals. He exposed them to the inner workings of a rap artist's mind."