One of the most talked about revelations to come out of Kanye West’s recent Forbes profile has been the rapper’s involvement in building prefabricated, Star Wars–inspired accommodation. On May 6 of last year, West revealed his architectural ambitions with a tweet touting the creation of “Yeezy home,” a new venture for which he sought “architects and industrial designers who want to make the world better.” Somewhere outside of Los Angeles, a team is now working with West on low-income housing influenced by Luke Skywalker’s home of Tatooine, and West brought Forbes’ Zack O’Malley Greenburg to feast his eyes on three prototype units.
There, with the hazy heft of something enormous and far away, stand a trio of structures that look like the skeletons of wooden spaceships. They’re the physical prototypes of his concept, each oblong and dozens of feet tall, and West leads me inside each one.
He tells me they could be used as living spaces for the homeless, perhaps sunk into the ground with light filtering in through the top. We stand there in silence for several minutes considering the structures before walking back down to his lurking Lamborghini and zooming off into the night.
The fact that Kanye West wants to house the homeless in sunken spaceship-shaped structures sounds absurd on its face. But the rapper has long held an interest in radical architecture and design and, of late, has fallen under the sway of Belgian designer Axel Vervoordt’s minimalism. But perhaps an even more obvious impact on West’s aesthetic principles throughout his career has been the Star Wars franchise: George Lucas’ space opera, and the fictional plant of Tatooine in particular, have long influenced the Yeezy brand.
Star Wars references appear repeatedly in West’s music, such as the track “Gone” from 2005’s Late Registration, referring to Anakin Skywalker with the line “I’ma open up a store for aspiring MCs/ Won’t sell ‘em no dream, but the inspiration is free/ But if they ever flip sides like Anakin/ You’ll sell everything including the mannequin.” In 2008, West also appeared on the GLC track, “Big Screen,” to spit, “I’m back in your life/ Return of the Jedi.” Interestingly, the release of that track roughly coincides with the period of time West and his future wife, Kim Kardashian, worked together on a failed hip-hop themed TV puppet show called Alligator Boots, specifically a Star Wars parody sketch for the show in which Kanye appeared in a Stormtrooper costume and Kardashian as Princess Leia.
In a behind-the-scenes clip from the episode, West explains his attachment to the first film of the series. “I love the first Star Wars because of that organic—it made me feel like I was there.” This organicity has come to inform a lot of West’s artistic choices and by 2013’s Yeezus he was explicitly associating it with fashionability and futurism in the song “Guilt Trip” where he raps, “On to the next saga/ Focus on the future and let the crew knock her/ Star Wars fur, yeah I’m rockin’ Chewbacca/ The one Chief Rocka, No. 1 Chief Rocka.”
Consider, then, West’s 2015 fashion line, “Yeezy Season 2,” which sparked criticism from some in the fashion world for its overuse of beiges and browns and the unappealing mixture of baggy formlessness with skin hugging spandex that one critic even likened to Spanx. But for many, the similarity between his clothing line and the costuming in the Star Wars was impossible to unsee.
According to the Washington Post, in 2012 George Lucas had his own plans to address the affordable housing crisis with a proposal to sell large portions of Skywalker Ranch to a development company promising to build affordable housing on the property. In a statement released through his lawyer, Lucas said, “We’ve got enough millionaires here. What we need is some houses for regular working people” and expressed a hope that his sale would help address that imbalance. The project was eventually quashed after residents in the area protested. (“It’s inciting class warfare,” one resident told the New York Times.) Intentional or not, West’s plans to make a series of low-income housing developments modeled after Luke Skywalker’s hometown continues Lucas’ plan by proposing a new kind of “Skywalker Ranch,” from a certain point of view.
Lucas and West are hardly the only celebrities to take on the affordable housing crisis, of course. West also joins the likes of Slim Thug, Queen Latifah, and Jon Bon Jovi, though they have approached affordable housing through a more traditional route. Brad Pitt’s post-Katrina mission to bring hyperstylized, eco-friendly, hurricane-proof housing to the Lower Ninth Ward is a good example of what not to do with housing philanthropy, demonstrating how “innovation” in housing design can create real liability when put to use. Maybe someone should ask West to consider whether housing the homeless in oblong tubes imagined for a fictional community of impoverished desert-dwellers is entirely appropriate.
While West’s investment in low-income housing is admirable, his well-documented dedication to spectacle over substance raises some serious questions. Is Kanye West really interested in helping the homeless or is the project, like the Death Star, another monument to vanity? Could this be his way of telling Disney that he’s still angling for a cameo in one of the upcoming movies? Wealth is an enormously powerful force, and West has the chance to use it—hopefully for good.