Kanye or Shakespeare: Who is more relevant?

Liam Beyerle,

Kanye Omari West is a larger than life global figure in pop culture. West has won 21 Grammys, released seven platinum solo albums and designed shoes for Louis Vuitton, Nike and Adidas. He made Taylor Swift famous and is the head of the GOOD Music record label. He also works on his YEEZY fashion line. West has an endless resume that will continue to grow as he is just starting to hit his creative prime.

So where does Kanye West stack up against other great creators in history? In a recent debate, the Oxford Union Society endeavored to explore Kanye West’s relevance against that of William Shakespeare.

Oxford University is arguably one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Courses at the university date back to 1096. Some of the world’s most intelligent people are Oxford alumni: Stephen Hawking, John Locke and Dr. Seuss. The university boasts over 30 international leaders and 50 Nobel prize winners.

On May 4, the Oxford Union Society, a debating organization within Oxford, hosted a debate and began with this statement: Kanye West is more relevant than William Shakespeare. The debate went public via YouTube on May 23. The event was described as a competitive debate where the “Proposition” presents a motion and argues their case against the Opposition. There are four members on each team and they each present a 10-minute argument for or against the motion. The video included a disclaimer, which read, “The speaker in this video is a competitive debater, and therefore, the views expressed may not necessarily represent his or her beliefs.”

The debate sparked great discussion, but ultimately the motion was defeated and it was determined that Shakespeare was more relevant than Kanye. For many people this conclusion was an obvious result.

I am an avid fan of Kanye. I think that the debate even taking place, is an affirmation of  his relevance and his influence on modern society. Especially, since he is relatively young and his career is far from over.

The chair of the department of music at Cal State East Bay, Buddy James, said, “Very often we cannot tell the impact of someone until time history gives us perspective. Kanye West is relevant to the millions of primarily young people today who hear his music, listen to his words, and imitate his style. He certainly is provocative, but is he a role model? Do people change their thoughts based on his actions?

“Shakespeare, on the other hand, cannot offer new sound bites or new words and whose was never helped by reality TV. Yet he remains a household name 500 years later and many of his turns of phrases have become part of our culture with many people not realizing the origins of these words.

“It is hard to believe that Kanye West will remain pertinent after he is gone. Because the areas where he excels, such as music and fashion, change so rapidly. Shakespeare remains, and will remain, an inspiration for artists, composers and painters for years.”

I would argue that Kanye is a pivotal role model for many contemporary artists. His 2008 album 808’s and Heartbreaks is believed to be a major influence on the modern sound of contemporary artists like Drake and The Weeknd, according to Oxford Union Society’s debate.

In the first year of Kanye West signing with Adidas, the company sold $2 billion more product than the year prior.  On Sep. 18, sports industry analyst Matt Powell announced that Adidas had surpassed Jordan brand shoes and became the number two brand in US sportswear. Powell said in his announcement, “This is an achievement I never thought I would see in my lifetime.”

William Shakespeare is often considered to be one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language. He invented over 1,700 words that we still use today, according to the debate. He wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets, many of which are still performed today. Shakespeare’s work has sold 2-4 billion copies worldwide. Shakespeare’s influence on society is undeniable. However, his impact on modern society is what makes this debate interesting.

When was the last time you read anything by Shakespeare? Why are there so many modern revisions of Shakespeare’s works that try to make it seem more interesting to the contemporary student? Does being the first to do something automatically make you the most relevant person in that field? For example, are the Wright brothers more relevant to flight than Boeing?

Shakespeare may be one of the best to analyze the human condition. And explore themes like love, guilt, evil, order and disorder. While all all these themes are still relevant to the human condition, Kanye explores all of them in addition to modern problems such as race, consumerism and the fight against the system.

Kanye West has released seven solo studio albums, all have gone platinum, two live albums, three video albums, four mixtapes, 126 singles and 93 music videos. According to Statistic Brain, a research institute with offices across the country, Kanye West has sold around 33 million albums worldwide.

This figure does not include his most recent album, “The Life of Pablo,” which never saw a proper physical release and was the first album to ever go platinum purely off streaming. The figure leaves out “Watch the Throne,” Kanye’s joint project with Jay-Z and the GOOD Music Compilation Album, “Cruel Summer,” not to mention all of the illegal downloads of West’s music and total streaming figures.

What makes this comparison difficult: Kanye is currently working on his legacy and Shakespeare has been dead since 1616.

Kanye West is the musical leader of his generation, and much like Shakespeare his work will be looked at and referenced for years to come. There are already college campuses across the US that explore the life and work of West, including Duke University and Cal Berkeley. These courses explore Kanye’s music as well as his impact on pop culture. This further proves Kanye’s relevance to our modern society.

As they say, the beat goes on, and Kanye has more time to make more of a mark on the music industry, young people and the culture they and he are creating.