The Rhetoric of Kanye West’s VMA Speech

Disclaimer: Many people have contempt for pop culture, claiming it is nothing but vapid and shallow nonsense. But pop culture is human culture, our culture, plain and simple – and what’s considered vapid in one era may be regarded as high art in the next. And even if pop culture truly is nothing but shallow, there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun.

"Kanye 2020" art by McDaniel student Cait Cahalane

“Kanye 2020” art by McDaniel student Cait Cahalane

Before analyzing Kanye West’s VMA speech, let’s have a quick and dirty rundown of rhetoric. Rhetoric is the study of how we use and how we are affected by language. There are three main aspects of rhetoric: logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos is an appeal to logic: the facts and rationale of an argument. Pathos is an appeal to emotion: the words we say that make others laugh, or cry, or tremble in terror, etc. Ethos is an appeal to ethics: what establishes our credibility and our character.

Speeches are a useful text to analyze rhetorically, so let’s turn our attention to Kanye West. He begins with addressing and thanking Taylor Swift, with whom he had a memorable moment at the 2009 VMAs He says, “You know I think about [the 2009 VMA moment] when I’m in the grocery store with my daughter and I have a really great conversation about fresh juice… and at the end they say, ’Oh, you’re not that bad after all!’” West evokes pathos, making the audience feel sad about how people he meets in the grocery store think West is horrible for a six-year-old incident. Mentioning his daughter also reminds us that he is a father, which further increases our empathy for him. He continues, “And like I think about it sometimes. … It crosses my mind a little bit like when I go to a baseball game and 60,000 people boo me.” His pathos makes us imagine what it must be like to have thousands upon thousands of people – over 30 McDaniels worth of people, to put it in perspective – boo him for, again, something that happened the better part of a decade ago.

kanyegifKanye goes on to ponder what would happen if he got the chance to do it all over again. “[W]hat would I have done? […] Would I have drank half a bottle of Hennessy and gave the rest of it to the audience? Y’all know y’all drank that bottle too! If I had a daughter at that time, would I have went on stage and grabbed the mic from someone else’s?” He continues to utilize pathos by reminding us that we, too, might have gotten drunk and thus made similar mistakes. He refers again to his fatherhood and makes us consider how it has changed him.

He further reflects on the commercial aftermath of the incident, saying, “Look at that. You know how many times MTV ran that footage again? ’Cause it got them more ratings? You know how many times they announced Taylor was going to give me the award ’cause it got them more ratings?” Kanye uses logos, making us think about the increased ratings – and profits – MTV gained from the 2009 debacle – at the expense of Kanye.

West does not use much ethos in his speech – his authority as a popular musician and controversial public figure are already well established. He does evoke it somewhat, however, toward the end of his speech, when he refers to himself as a “fellow artist” to all of the attendees to further establish his credibility.

Kanye ends his speech with more pathos, “It’s about ideas, bro. New ideas. People with ideas. People who believe in truth.” His words make us feel confident and hopeful for the future – especially a future that includes a President West.

–Summer, peer tutor

How to Read!

Location, location, location: You have to read 60 pages a night for the literature class you now regret taking. Reading in a quiet, comfortable location – such as your room, or in the library – will help make the experience a little more bearable.



Quietness is most conducive to reading effectively. Music is distracting! Humans cannot multitask (science has proven so). If you must listen to something, try Pandora’s “Classical for Studying” station. The soft, slow instrumentals won’t be as distracting as most other genres.

Reward yourself: after reading for a preset time or chapter number, take a break! Make sure to monitor your time wisely. If you choose to browse Facebook, after your break is up, don’t just close your laptop lid – put your laptop to sleep and keep it far away from you. Do the same with your phone: keep it charging on the other side of the room to avoid the temptation to check it with every little Instagram or email notification.

For the reading itself? Set up a schedule. Count how many pages you can read a night – 30 pages a night for four nights is far easier to handle than 120 pages in one night. Make note of the titles and first and last lines of chapters – these are incredibly important, the author chose to put them there for a reason. What meaning do they add to the text? Don’t be afraid to mark up books you own, either! Highlighters can be your friends.

Now, we all loved to hate active reading in high school, but it is necessary! If you know you will have an essay assignment for a book, and have a general idea of the topic, try collecting relevant quotes as you read. On an index card, sticky note, or word document, make note of the quote itself, page number, context within the story (e.g., “after the protagonist fights with her brother,” “before the library closes down,” etc.), and the importance of the quote itself. Does it reveal a character trait, demonstrate an important motif, etc.? This quote collecting will make essay writing much less painful.

If you find yourself struggling with reading a book you want to read for fun, having set goals can also help. Looking at the prospect of reading an 1100 page long book becomes drastically easier when broken down into tiny segments – the journey of a thousand pages begins with a single chapter!

For more reading and writing tips, don’t forget to come visit us at the Writing Center. Stop by and let us know what you’ve been reading!

-Summer, peer tutor

Tips for Non-Native speakers

English is a language of idiosyncrasies, a Germanic language with Latin grammar rules forced upon it (thanks to its French influence in the early Medieval era.) Even native speakers themselves can only master so much of what is considered Standard English and the various contradictory rules with its use.

As a tutor in the Writing Center, I see some common errors with non-native speakers. Here are some tips for the errors I see:

Subject/verb agreement: the subject of a sentence can be singular or plural, and the verb must match accordingly (this is referred to grammatically as “number.”) For instance:

The dog [singular noun] plays [singular verb] in the yard.
The dogs [plural noun] play [plural verb] in the yard.

If your native language also has nouns and verbs reflect number, try connecting English examples to ones in your mother language. For example, Spanish:

La mujer baila. Mujer is singular, as is baila.
Las mujeres bailan. Because mujeres is plural, so is the verb, bailan.

The best trick for memorizing this is repetition. Practice makes perfect: it’s a cliché for a reason.

Other verb forms: When the verb of a sentence is more than two words, I often see a lack of necessary inflection (inflection in English is a suffix which indicates various grammatical aspects of a verb, from tense [present, future, etc] to mood [indicative or subjunctive], to the as previously mentioned number [singular or plural.]) When using the passive voice, the verb of the sentence will be the conjugated form of to be + the main verb stem + the inflection of the past participle. For regular verbs, this will end in –ed. For instance:

The ball was kicked by me.

I often find non-native speakers drop the inflection and write “The ball is kick by me.”

Incorrect: The film is see by me.
Correct: The film is seen by me. (The verb ‘see’ does not follow the regular convention of –ed endings.)

Incorrect: The speech will be hear by the McDaniel community.
Correct: The speech will be heard by the McDaniel community.

Incorrect: The food from Glar was eat by unhappy students.
Correct: The food from Glar was eaten by unhappy students.

Spelling errors: Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for English spelling. Even the ubiquitous “I before E except after C, or when sounding like A as in neighbor and weigh” has more words that don’t follow the rules than those that do. Weird.

Use a dictionary when writing a word in an essay you are unlikely to use often. With words that you use often, but find yourself consistently tripping up, practice is the key to eventual learning and memorization. Write the word correctly down over and over and over again until it sticks in your head. Say it phonetically in your mind whenever you write it, to help memorize the letters.

Being multilingual is admirable. Languages are so complex and fascinating, I always find myself wanting to learn more. There is no shame in making mistakes in a second or third (or fourth, or fifth, etc.) language – or even a mother tongue. Mistakes happen. Hopefully the Writing Center can help!

Summer, peer tutor