Getty Images for Clear Channel
'Ye has been wearing full-on Roman gladiator ensembles since last year's "Watch the Throne" tour, and is infamous for his fashion choices, which don't always fall in line with the traditional demands of either hip-hop or popular culture. Last night however, as over 2 billion people watched the 12-12-12 concert, a general public outcry broke out over the rapper's black leather kilt or "skirt." Quickly turning into a meme, the Twitter account "Kanye's Skirt" was even formed.
The sad truth of our culture is that even in a time of sorrow and loss, an effort to give to charity is somehow twisted into a critique of artists and their choices. While it's apparent that a great number of people were watching the concert who wouldn't regularly attend a Kanye show, it's still disconcerting that mockery became a central point of a concert that was about helping others.
So why did Kanye wear a Givenchy leather skirt for his performance at a concert that was guaranteed to expose him to such a large and varied audience? The audience was certain to have Kanye fans, but equally certain to have those watching for the rock bands, possibly even people who have never seen Kanye perform or heard his music. Some think Kanye wanted to stand out -- to fan the flame of his signature ego amidst a sea of equally large egos.
But, it could also be that Kanye wanted to project a posture of openness on behalf of hip-hop to an audience that may not always encounter the genre. A traditionally rigid and closed paradigm, the boundaries of hip-hop and rap world are blurring at the edges. West has spoken out in the past on his struggles with accepting his own gay cousin and how this issue is addressed in the culture of hip-hop.
The original concept for the "skirt" look came from his Gladiator-esque Watch the Throne tour outfit, and the clothing item could be properly labeled a "kilt" in that case. However, within American culture and greater Western culture, any man who's not Irish or Scottish wearing a skirt or kilt is usually still subjected to intense scrutiny.
Rap mogul Cam'ron, also known for his lavish ensembles, blatantly mocked the "Jesus Walks" rapper on Twitter that night over his "skirt." This points, of course, to the roiling waves of sexuality and gender norms that continue to rage. As Kanye violates the gender norm for a "man" in hip-hop by adopting this feminine symbol, the question still remains as to why this choice stole the spotlight?
Clearly the problem lies partially with the media choosing to focus on a subject like Mr. West's outfit -- there was similar talk about the "dad jeans" worn by older rockers. But the spotlight on 'Ye's fashion was strikingly bright.
This concert was about charity and Kanye showed up to support New York City. His set was superb and there were no Yeezy-like emotional outbursts aside from a lyrical ode to love and holding onto loved ones over the instrumentals of "Runaway." He hasn't even tweeted a "f--- the haters" response to the backlash.
It isn't like Kanye, a man with an extensive interest in fashion, is unaware of the relationship between clothing and sexuality. His choices have drawn homophobic insults from his self-proclaimed idol 50 Cent in the past as well, and similarly to now, he refused to take the bait and gave no response.
When Kanye West wore a skit in front of a large portion of the American public he incited something in our culture. Is it homophobia? Confusing gender norms? Was it just weird? Why is it so weird for Kanye to wear a skirt? Because only gay men do? Because women usually do? But, a skirt is just a symbol -- a socialized norm -- not an actual indication of sexuality.
This year specifically seems to be focused on confronting these deep-seated concerns, as Frank Ocean's coming out letter opened some sort of floodgate within cultural awareness of bisexual and gay performers -- not just in R&B or rap but in all genres. New York rappers Mykki Blanco and Le1f have both drawn critical acclaim for their music this year, not because of their sexuality, but because of their talent. In past years though, their sexual behavior probably would've stopped them from reaching even the level they've achieved.
Kanye's choice to wear a skirt is by no means unimportant, and it certainly reveals an underlying current of change within our culture that is coming to a new understanding of gender behavior.
Even so, Kanye's subversion of this feminine symbol, on one of the largest stages of 2012, has brought the conversation on sexuality in hip-hop to an interesting crux. The media's obsession with the accoutrement of one performer may have detracted from the initial aim of the concert, but if it can further the discussion of sexuality in American culture, perhaps it served a higher purpose.
If no one else could focus on the real issues at hand, Kanye stayed focused, delivering a great 20-minute set composed of both classics and brand new hits -- and he did it all in a skirt.