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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Column: When are we going to talk about Kanye West and mental illness?

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Can we finally have that conversation about Ye, fame and mental illness?

As innovative as the rapper born Kanye West has been in the worlds of music and fashion, I doubt that there’s a rapper alive relevant enough to successfully pull off being a Black white supremacist.

After a month of outrageous rants, West’s race to the bottom reached a new low when news broke that the rapper, wearing a full face mask, spoke fondly of Adolf Hitler during an interview with Infowars host Alex Jones.

“I see good things about Hitler,” said the South Side native, who legally changed his name to Ye, in one of the strangest sentences ever spoken by a Black man. For an encore, his Twitter account was suspended later in the day after posting an image of a swastika combined with the Star of David, because West adores subtlety.

His support of Hitler and his ideals are a direct betrayal of the Black American experience and all of its hard-fought gains, but that is his own affair to reconcile. Surely, the biggest casualty in all of this has been his bank account. West himself said he lost $2 billion after companies like Adidas, Gap and fashion house Balenciaga cut ties with him, and several retailers dropped his Yeezy products. West is still worth around $400 million, according to Forbes magazine. “The money is not who I am. The people is who I am,” he said in a post on Instagram in October.

Some have sought to separate West’s antisemitism from mental illness, though I really have a hard time believing that a person of sound mind would purposely take a flamethrower to his own career and billion-dollar business dealings.

West famously suffers from bipolar disorder, a mental health disorder known to cause severe emotional swings that can affect sleep, judgment, behavior and the ability to think clearly, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Some mental health professionals suggest that West’s mental health issues are separate from his offensive comments.

“We want to recognize that this person may have their own very strong beliefs on religion or politics, and we want to call that out as being separate from the mental health diagnosis,” clinical psychologist and “Joy from Fear” author Carla Manly recently told USA Today.

“There are many people who don’t have mental health issues who are racist and bigoted. And there are people with mental health issues who are not racist or bigoted. We want to see those as two very different issues,” she said.

It is certainly possible that West held these deplorable viewpoints prior to his stardom, but can anyone say definitively that the destruction of his marriage and personal brand is also totally unconnected with his mental illness?

Part of me wondered if this monthslong antisemitism tour that began with a big reveal at Paris Fashion Week involving a T-shirt with the slogan “White Lives Matter” was really some over-the-top live performance piece that was stuffed with more irony and hidden meaning than a Jordan Peele film.

Another part wondered if it was merely a ploy to quickly unburden himself from the weight of his business entanglements so that he could go on a wandering existence like the Buddha.

In truth, West was showing erratic behavior for years before he began peddling Jewish conspiracies.

There was the “Slavery was a choice” and Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves” Kanye. In 2013 he released the track “Black Skinhead,” which now feels more ominous given his recent shift toward Nazism.

There was the “f–k the youth of Chicago” Kanye, who allegedly made the utterance in 2018 to former friend and Chicago rap collaborator Che “Rhymefest” Smith, who alleged West had abandoned the charity named for his mother.

Then there’s the seemingly unlikely friendship with reality star turned President Donald Trump. But it was the MAGA hat-wearing rapper bro-hugging Trump inside the Oval Office that made it clear to me that the pairing wasn’t so odd.

In all the ways that matter, Trump and West are the same guy. They both owe their starts in the political arena to public insults from former President Barack Obama. Neither read books, but both men like to brag about their fortunes, be seen with beautiful women and show spite for their enemies. Now they both speak fondly of murderous dictators and each runs the risk of sliding into obscurity.

West’s plummet to rock bottom is hard to watch when you consider that not that long ago, he was the homegrown golden child of Chicago, the newest member of its pantheon of Black Chicago products who’d become international sensations, like “Soul Train,” Oprah, Michael Jordan and Obama. I still get misty watching his deeply personal 2005 Grammy acceptance speech for best rap album.

Back then, Mayor Richard M. Daley saw West’s rising star and made him an ambassador of the local arts. West held free concerts for Chicago Public Schools students, guiding them toward performing and visual arts.

Fast forward 17 years, and West’s legacy has grown so toxic that the School of the Art Institute rescinded the honorary doctorate it awarded him in 2015 following an online petition.

West is now the black sheep only discussed in hushed tones in public settings. Bring up Kanye in any barbershop, hair salon or family dinner and you’ll instantly get an eye roll and an exasperated sigh and long mournful laments about his inexplicable tumble to infamy.

Is he chasing clout or is he subconsciously crying out for help? Among local fans, there’s a prevailing thought that West may have lost his way after the 2007 death of his mother, Donda, a former faculty member at Chicago State University.

I wasn’t surprised when I found few folks, particularly Black folks, in the worlds of entertainment, media or activism willing to discuss West’s comments on the record for an article I wrote in October, when his barrage of hate speech began.

It’s like a comedy bit that Dave Chappelle performed about actor Jussie Smollett — many of us would rather shrink back in the background and watch events unfold silently rather than publicly denounce a revered Black figure.

West’s literal embrace of Trump didn’t stop hundreds of young hip folks from crowding into Northerly Island for one of his public “Sunday Service” performances in 2019. If any local activists had problems with his shifting political stance, it was nowhere to be seen in June 2020 when West briefly joined a protest march with hundreds of young people trailing him in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Wearing a face mask and black hoodie, West said nothing and kept his head down during the march, but later pledged to donate $2 million to support the families of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, according to news reports.

A harsh reality is that we as fans can find ourselves falling deaf to allegations against celebrities we adore. Many of us are guilty of this.

Once home to a splendid, dazzling nightlife and some of the brightest stars in the Black world, Chicago’s South Side is now starved for role models as the exodus of Black residents continues. Shamefully, many of the city’s recent success stories, like R. Kelly, rapper King Von and Jennifer Hudson are tinged with tragedy.

Turning a blind eye is a familiar problem here in Chicago, where for decades fans ignored singer Kelly’s dalliances with young girls because of his often-praised “musical genius” and the way his music made us feel. The result has been a string of emotionally shattered young women who unmasked themselves publicly to call for retribution for his crimes.

I’ve heard people dismissively say West’s rants were just “Kanye being Kanye,” or in other words, the understood eccentricity that comes with mining the brain of such a gifted artist.

West may be an artist of undeniable talent, but fans, young and old, should take a hard pass on lavishing excessive praise on young performing artists, permanently warping their reality and sense of self — particularly when that star subjects others to his rants but flees whenever his questioner pushes back in the slightest, as West has done.

It’s not only West. It’s Aaron Carter. It’s Ezra Miller. It’s Britney Spears. It’s Will Smith. It’s the asphyxiating pressure of the public spotlight and the inability to adjust in the social media age. Not everyone can comfortably adjust to being a household name who is secretly watched and recorded by strangers whenever leaving home.

In a perfect world, we could calmly tell our favorite stars that we love their art and how it’s affected our lives without subjecting them to the unwanted creeping voyeurism that accompanies modern celebrity.

West should leave the public eye as he did briefly earlier this year following bullying accusations against Pete Davidson. But for real this time. Travel the world without an entourage or trappings of your wealth and success and truly consider the effect your words have. It goes without saying that working to better your mental health and lower stress is a top priority.

For now, I choose to remember West during his shining moment on that Grammy stage as vulnerable and humble as we would ever see him. As fans, we’ll never truly know the enormous pressure stars and their mental health face until we put them on a shaky pedestal and put a microphone in their hand.

[email protected]

Twitter @Midnoircowboy





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