For lack of a better reference, the moment felt like Lauryn Hill circa 2000: Kanye West spitting his characteristically impulsive but nod-worthy truths–my favorite that night was his deft critique of “rap beef” –riddled by the painfully familiar feeling that what we were also witnessing was a beautiful mind unraveling.
Some who watched the Kanye West-Jimmy Kimmel interview this past Thursday, who had been keeping close watch of the many other interviews, tweets, paparazzi attacks, and fashion statements that brought Kanye to Kimmel’s desk that night, and who were perhaps also nostalgic for the pre-kilt, pre-Kim, College Dropout Kanye that used to croon about family dinners and the graveshift of dead-end jobs, observed in Kanye a dangerously heightened mix of mania and megalomania; heard a wired, rambling incoherence; and chronicled those twenty plus minutes as exhibit Z that Kanye West is indeed battling some sort of mental health crises.
Others picked up on a mouth racing to keep up with a mind in constant overdrive; they tuned into Kanye’s fearless, biting critique; and cheered along the self-proclaimed Genius-Underdog sparring with the lovable Everyman type that always seems to win these kinds of debates.
Both interpretations of that night–that Kanye was emitting his last fumes before meltdown or that he is deep beyond reproach–are freighted with their own particular dangers. On one hand, we risk participating in a rich tradition of silencing and managing rightfully angry people of color who dare to speak up by calling them crazy. On the other hand, fawning hero-worship can doom us to pulling up a chair and whipping out the popcorn to shit shows that could very well be prevented; Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston hang heavy in my mind as the parables for how fatal that kind of spectatorship can truly be.
Positioning oneself in the gray is often indicia of cowardice, but here I am in this whack limboland of hedge and no answers: neither hypotheses fully work for me.
That night I saw a man who was wounded. Who never expected his naked struggle for legitimacy would become fodder for late-night mockery or that it would hurt that much–that he, as an adult man with serious indictments against an industry that made and now mangles him, would be infantalized into a whiny, ranting child. I saw a man deeply frustrated by an industry that has smugly siloed bright black and brown men into the white noise of hip-hop so that it can exoticize, imitate, appropriate, and snub them safely from afar. I saw a man who was lonely and misunderstood, who had had been stripped of his support system and now floats about unmoored. I saw a man who thought his creativity and hard word would somehow immunize him from the garden variety isms that topple heroes and unmentionables alike. I saw a man who, like many talented men of color, whether they hide out in Ivy League institutions or behind mics, has never been held accountable for the gaps in his logic and the tangles in his heart strings–for the materialism, misogyny and violence that hobbles his otherwise brave and sophisticated wisdom about race and class in this country. (But that goes for Common, Nas, Tupac and Kendrick Lamar too). I saw a man who wears his vanity like a XXL T-shirt as armor for the much smaller, more vulnerable man underneath. I saw a man who is so transfixed by needing affirmation from White America, so obsessed with his worthiness and seriousness as an artist, an intellectual and a man that he can’t quite calibrate, stake out terms for himself, laugh at the jokes that will surely come, or brave the insults that will never end. And I saw a man who can’t help but still be, many albums and awards later, the creative boy in the back of classrooms, saving up for Gucci loafers, standing up against gangster bullies and inventing those self-survival myths and mechanisms that get you out but never quite set you free.
Black America is mad at Kanye because he didn’t properly learn the lesson that every person of color must learn to remain sane in an insanely racist world–how not to offer your neck to the guillotine. Quite frankly, we’re confused: did Kanye think his art, his name, his stuff, his women-as-props would exempt him from blackness? Did he think his laying out of dreams, the unbridled honesty and that faux Little Engine That Could confidence could be the brave preemptive moves that would keep him safe? Further, we’re exhausted by his lack of groundedness . Kanye cannot seem to locate himself in a long history of great people doing great things while hearing as many–if not more and more serious–no’s than he. Lack of perspective is a male privilege and also the white privilege Kanye will never have and should never fight for.
Terrifyingly, Kanye’s sins for White America are much simpler: he dared to call himself great without their permission. For that, he is an asshole. For that, he is dangerous. For that, he is crazy.
Deciding what Kanye is–”crazy”, genius, or troubled–is important because this is, of course, much bigger than Kanye. He stands next to Lauryn Hill, Dave Chapelle, and others with beautiful minds and broken spirits. I do not think it is coincidence that all three–Kanye, Lauryn, Dave and we can even throw Michael Jackson in–have been accused of “craziness” at the height of critiquing the ugliness and the isms of the industries and audiences that have propelled them to fame. I think we should understand that “crazy” is the Atomic Bomb of the English language, that it’s a no-return obliteration of personhood and credibility. And we should also remember that ”crazy” has been a way of managing female sexual desire, queer eroticism and political ideology; yesterday’s history is today’s wet paint. As Dave once said, “the worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person. So they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit.”
I believe in considering Dave’s follow up to that thought: “These people are not crazy. They’re strong people. Maybe their environment is a little sick.”
And that–the sick environment–is the one thing that never, ever gets enough play: if, as we speculate, all these beautiful, beautiful minds are breaking, undoing themselves, unfurling like tightly wound string, we owe it to ourselves to at least ask if something drives them to it. Certainly, mental illness is complex and at times turns on with no external switch, but we have testimony from artists we respect and admire, that something is rotten in Hollywood.
As Lauryn said after her hiatus from music, “When artists experience danger and crises…everyone easily accepts that there was something either dysfunctional or defective with the artist, rather than look at, and fully examine, the system and its means and its policies of exploiting/’doing business’.”
Over the course of a short decade, so many celebrities have fallen apart before my eyes: shaving their heads, ripping apart cameras, tearing off clothes, eating themselves into bloated existence or not eating themselves into invisible non-existence, drinking and drugging fast lives and slow deaths, basically begging us to listen in the most literal, primal languages possible, and we still keep diagnosing symptoms instead of curing the disease and the whole thing seems wild to me.
If mental illness is a dialectic between the person and the space, then its source is not wholly the artist nor Hollywood, but I know that what Kanye and so many others deserve is the clean slate and the fighting chance Kanye kept quoting Richard Pryor to talk about.
If this past Thursday was only an open-aired breakdown of mental health, then we need better language. Because though we complain mental health in this country and for black folks in particular isn’t talked about, that’s not entirely true: we talk about it all the time; we just talk about it poorly. If finding oneself on the edge deserves a life-sentence of being called “crazy,” of being dismissed, written off, and laughed at, of not being heard, then no wonder the shame and the silence. Particularly for artists, whose whole careers and identities are based on being experienced, interpreted, listened to and gazed upon: mattering. Truth is, there are those who are dying from, but more curiously living with, mental illness in our midst; they are flying our planes, shaking our hands, watching our kids, loving us, and staring back at us from mirrors. And some of the great mindswe most admire produced art, theories, and inventions despite and because of battles with mental illness. Furthermore, achieving mental health is often a lifetime of strenuously and intentionally maintaining the balance; there is not one discrete day you are sick and one discrete day you are well. Given the enormity, pervasiveness, and constantly looming threat of mental illness, we have to figure out a way for people to matter even if they have not sought or successfully phased out of treatment. We can’t just keep calling people “crazy” as the lever we pull to extradite them into irrelevance. The balance is hard but important: how to hear folks when they need help, how to hear folks even if they need help, how to empower them to seek help, how to be the help they seek, and how to know when we can’t be.
If this Thursday was also about something bad happening to a beautiful mind and that something bad is, as Lauryn puts it, “a machine that overlook[s] the need to to take care of the people who produce the sounds that have a lot to do with the health and well-being of society,” then we still need transformation. We not only need to imagine and create a celebrity culture that does not drive the talented, the strong, and the brave into hiding but we also need to collectively figure out how to survive that heartless, breathless machine in the meantime. For Kanye, the machine is the fashion and the music industries, but for any one of us, it could be the university or the office or the political regime. If we become as angry as we deserve to be, then the isms we fight will rob us of our life joy. We have to somehow figure out how to resist and dissent without allowing that enterprise to swallow us whole and turn us stale and I have faith we can win this war without quotable tweets or serving as the one-person congregation of the Church of our own self-proclaimed Godliness. Kanye once said that he, like Dave Chapelle, has to laugh to keep from crying and I suggest that he works harder on that laugh–not for the Kimmels but for Kanye.