Kanye West, rap moguls make moves in the tech world
Get ready for it. Rapper Kanye West is reportedly seeking millions in venture capital funding for a fashion-tech company hybrid called DONDA, presumably after his late mother, Donda West.
According to the Gawker Media blog Valley Wag, West has been courting some of the most prominent investors and executives in the world of high technology.
The new father to months-old daughter North West has been seen lunching with the founder of Instagram, and has asked an audience at one of his performances if Google chairman Eric Schmidt should invest in DONDA.
In another mention of Schmidt West gave some insight into what DONDA is, but wavered into strange territory.
“Now Eric Schmidt is one of the guys that I know has what I need in order to keep creating what I need to make DONDA — the best way I can say it is the post-Internet Disney — but it’s more like Willy Wonka. Like, whatever idea I have, I want to bring it into fruition,” he told media personality Sway during his Sirius radio show. “Willy Wonka didn’t stop making chocolate because he was making other things.”
West: Not attracting investors
So far, sources have stated that West has had little luck drumming up interest, in part because his concept lacks focus.
“While he did not get into the details of how he’ll do it, West says he wants DONDA to become a trillion-dollar company that completely disrupts the fashion industry,” reports Business Insider about West’s vision.
Some say this lack of a plan has turned some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley off, even though West has been ingratiating himself with the tech elite.
“I think he’s getting frustrated. People are enjoying meeting him because he’s Kanye and they want to take him around, but then they’re not actually investing,” one source stated. “If you see his behavior, it’s so erratic, he’s not focused and kind of all over the place.”
Tech and Hip-Hop: A cultural confluence
It didn’t help when West got into a very public debate with the Zappos shoe company founder and investor Tony Hsieh over the quality of the firm’s products — despite its tremendous success as an Internet start-up.
Unlike many of Kanye West’s rap beefs, this dust up brought prominent attention to the star, but not in a way that improved his street cred among tech investors, observers say.
What to make of the “Gold Digger” producer and performer’s attempted foray into tech?
“It was only a matter of time before the worlds of hip hop and tech entrepreneurship — whether it be actual titans and investors, or platforms — began to converge,” stated Lauren deLisa Coleman, an expert on the confluence of social change, popular culture and emerging technology, in an email to theGrio. “The hip hop generation has always been the early adopter, arbiter and out-indexer in terms of creating heat around what’s hot in tech, from being the first to use pagers back in the day, to deploying music videos, to dominating Instagram today.”
Black rappers as technology innovators
While these trends have tended to see blacks on the front lines of the consuming arm of tech, Coleman (who is a frequent contributor to theGrio) hopes that West’s activities are a sign that African-Americans will soon have more success on the creative side.
“There seems to be more of a move, thankfully, from consumer to creator,” she said of this and other events, such as the recent video promoting the photo sharing site Fancy, which was posted to World Star Hip Hop.
The video features music executive Damon Dash and rapper Cam’ron discussing and promoting the $600 million start-up, which differentiates itself from Pinterest through its e-commerce possibilities.
Coleman calls players such as Dash, Cam’ron, and now West, members of the “Digi-Beat Elite.” By her definition these are those rap moguls, “that understand the platforms, have access to capital and come from a world where the wealth was based on beats, rhymes, stealth marketing and promotion, via deep understanding of an influential sub-culture known as hip hop.”
This elite now seeks to create new wealth through tech opportunities that capitalize on their cultural influence.
Rappers face tech culture differences
The digital-cultural analyst theorizes that this subset of rap moguls has the ability to permeate the technology world, offering its unique skills of glamorizing products and making them cool.
At the same time, the language of the Digi-Beat Elite might not converge with that of mainstream Silicon Valley.
Coleman stated that this may make tech leaders “look down upon” or “belittle the approach because it’s not spoken about in the same way with the approved Valley lingo,” but that “doesn’t mean said project couldn’t make a gang of money.”
West may also be facing what some believe is the intrinsic racism and sexism that many say keeps tech entrepreneurs out of the game who do not look — or sound — like the typical young, white male inventor, or older, white male investor.
“Time and time again we’ve seen black entrepreneurs approach mainstream investors, but because their styles are often different — let alone that they don’t look like the usual Tumblr, Facebook-type we think of as a tech power player — they are misunderstood. This is part of the reason why only one percent of black entrepreneurs get funded in the tech space.”
Tech might ignore rap at its own peril
For this black, female tech expert, in the end it will be the loss of this upper echelon if Silicon Alley titans do not invest in the projects brought to their attention by the Digi-Beat Elite.
The mostly white men in tech just don’t seem to want to take these rappers too seriously. They will have people such as Damon Dash front an established firm like Fancy, but will they give them money to create their own companies?
“The situation is only exacerbated when that face happens to also be a well-known recording artist,” Coleman said of entrepreneurs such as West. “Even though the person has a track record of financial success, the success is not on the Valley’s respected terms, but is certainly powerful in its own right! Thus, the combination of these two arenas has the potential of creating mass amounts of money, but it will be missed without a bridge of sorts who gets both sides — particularly once female notables from hip-hop start to enter the fray as well.”
True to Coleman’s predictions, Kanye West is not waiting for Silicon Valley backers to wake up to support DONDA.
Valley Wag states that he has hit up Nike CEO Mark Parker for investment, and is open to any deep-pocketed benefactor to “be the Medici family and let me create more,” as he stated in a recent radio interview.
Rappers need embracing by technologists
Coleman is correct in that tech start-ups have been funded for millions with little more that an idea and the assumed programming prowess of a 22-year-old man as collateral.
Yet, often these young upstarts come with the connections and collegiate pedigree that makes seasoned tech investors eager to take risks on who they see as one of their own.
Only time will tell if West, Dash, Cam’ron, and rapper Nas — who has called Fancy one of his businesses on Twitter — will ever be fully welcomed into this esteemed fold.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter @lexisb.