Brian Blessed and Kanye West
I recently saw Kanye West at Wireless festival in London. Due to the midcity location his set had to end far earlier than I would have liked, and he spent about 10 minutes of it ranting. This caused disdain in much of the audience, who were enduring a cocktail of skimpy festival gladrags and British summertime rain. After a 4 hour journey home and a 4 hour sleep, I was woken to attend my more intelligent brother’s speech day. It involved a 1 hour speech from a 77 year old British actor named Brian Blessed, one which eschewed any notions of structure or narrative. Many aspects of the long, often confusing speech were also met by disdain from much of the audience, enduring a cocktail of formal attire and a tropically humid tent.
Let’s cut to the obvious twist: both West’s gig and Blessed’s speech were – to use a term frequently endorsed by both – fucking awesome. What drove me to try and document these two men’s exhausting performances in the same article, is that I felt that their simultaneous combination of awesomeness and capacity to inspire disdain (inconvenient weather notwithstanding) spouted from the same reasons. The 37 year old rapper and 77 year old actor may not look like obvious bedfellows, but the more I put these two men next to each other the more obvious their similarity becomes, and the more I want to follow their example. Both performances had pretty much the same theme: I’ve done awesome stuff with my life, despite people telling me not to bother, and all of you lot should follow suit. I probably lost some of my most cynical readers with that last sentence as that’s hardly an interesting common ground; it’s not hard to find an inspirational speaker who follows that theme. But wait, there’s more! Burrito Orgasm Hashtag! Now that those attention-grabbing words have got you back on track, I’ll take you to what makes West and Blessed so uniquely special.
Both men began their careers in areas of unquestioned expertise; Blessed’s acting (his career has ricocheted between Black Adder, Flash Gordon, Shakespeare and Star Wars), and West’s hip hop production (his instrumentals were crucial in setting up Jay-Z’s career, particularly on 2001’s The Blueprint, long before West himself started rapping). The most logical, respectable and attractive thing to do would be to stay in these safe, profitable careers, but neither were satisfied. Brian Blessed’s dream was to be an arctic adventurer, and Kanye West wanted to release hip hop that was both commercially enormous and musically pioneering. They ignored logic and ‘the doubters’, fueling themselves exclusively on pure determination at the notion of following their – quite ridiculous – dreams. As Mr Blessed said in his gorgeous, explosive voice: ‘I will not be held down! I write my own scripts!’ Or in Kanye West’s words ‘What have I ever done that was so wrong, other than believe myself?’
But come on Will, loads of people have done that, what makes these dreams so ridiculous that their following and achievement deserves reading in an amateur blog post? WELL. In the Blue Corner, we see Brian Blessed in 1991, a 53 year old man weighing in at a staggering 16 stone… he wished to make a documentary in which he would climb Mount Everest. A feat that has defeated – nay killed – men at their physical peak, and as of yet the oldest man to climb it without oxygen – as Blessed wished to – had been 37. During his aforementioned speech he recounted shouting ‘I’ll kill you, you lying bugger!’ at a bbc representative who had promised him funding, and then gone back on this after telling Blessed that he shouldn’t take the risk. A funny anecdote delivered with great comedic rigor, but if you actually imagine this scene, it suddenly becomes clear that this was not some foolish old joker trying to pull off a silly feat, this was a very serious, passionate man desperate to achieve his dreams, and bruised by those who would deny him them. And yet he did climb Everest, three fucking times. As he moved through his 50s and 60s, he became the oldest man to reach the north pole on foot, surmounted Mount Kilimanjaro, and at one point he punched a polar bear in the face. Google it, it’s true. And just in case you feel this is all getting a bit too credible, he’s now received full cosmonaut training, making him ready for space travel
, PLUS he once discussed the word ‘fuck’ with Queen Elizabeth II (nothing to do with adventuring, but I could hardly leave it out, could I?) All of this after reaching an age at which most men settle into complacency.
In the Red corner, we see Kanye West in 2002, a bizarre, passionate young man desperate to become a world famous rapper. He would reportedly leave record label meetings in tears, as execs refused him a signing due to fears that he couldn’t fit what Wikipedia calls ‘gangsta image prominent in mainstream hip hop at the time’; unlike his mentor Jay-Z, he could not claim to have sold drugs, handled weapons or belonged to gangs. Damon Dash, then Roc-A-Fella CEO summed up Kanye’s inappropriateness when he said “It was obvious we were not from the same place or cut from the same cloth.” Their fears were correct; he didn’t fit the ‘gangsta’ hip hop mold, he created an entirely new one. After finally getting signed on the strength of his demo-material, he went on to sell over 21 million albums and 66 million digital downloads in the United
States alone, whilst generating consistent critical acclaim; he’s the NME’s third most influential artist of the century, the first artist to get a perfect 10 rating for a new album from Pitchfork since 2002 (they review 25 albums per week), and features three times in Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, despite having released only 5 albums when it was published. I know reviews and critics only count for so much, but to get all of that praise after being denied a record deal because he wasn’t ‘right’ for the career of a rapper, and after being mocked as a ‘dumb celebrity’ by the majority of the Western Press? Come on. And again, if you feel this is too credible, he has also got Elton John to provide uncredited backing vocals for one of his hits, and recieved a personal phonecall of congratulation from his all time idol, Michael Jackson.
When I moved to England aged 11, my excessive oddness and lack of a filter made it pretty hard to be socially accepted. I spent 2 years in a small private school with about 35 people per year-group, and the kids just didn’t like me saying the strange, flamboyant things that came into my head as a result of growing up in a large international school in Holland, obsessing over Marvel comics and fantasy novels. I would often know that what I was about to say would probably alienate me, but I just felt a necessary energy behind sharing my thoughts; I was just desperate to broadcast the bizarre ideas in my head, even if I could add nothing to discussions about the xFactor or football. That kind of irrepressible desperation to broadcast your ideas is evident to the extreme with men who have gone off script at festivals to rant for 10 minutes and on national television to call the President racist, or sworn repeatedly – okay it was only a few ‘bugger’s, but still – at a speech day, so as to underline their point.