In late October 2016, my best friend and I dished out over $150 for Kanye West tickets. I was out of the country at the end of August when he first brought the Saint Pablo tour to Toronto, so I was determined to see him in December. Of course, that never happened, because on November 19 in Sacramento, California, Kanye started his concert an hour and a half late, performed for 15 minutes, and then gave a half-hour rant before running off stage. The tour was immediately cancelled and Kanye was hospitalized and placed on psychiatric hold.
Kanye left the public eye for a while, and from his few appearances, it seemed as though he was getting better, healthier. Then, this spring, Kanye resurfaced, more controversial than ever. He pledged his support for Trump, louder than he had in 2016, sporting that signature garish red hat with the white script.
Those of us who follow Kanye’s social media — and had heard quiet murmurings that a new project was on its way — hoped that this was just a publicity stunt to reemerge into public consciousness. In the age of streaming, when curiosity-clicks on YouTube and Spotify generate legitimate revenue, any form of attention is promotion.
And Kanye knows a thing or two about controversial promotions.
Some of Kanye’s previous albums have been directly preceded by some controversy or petty feud, usually sequestered in the Hollywood-sphere. Before Graduation’s release in 2007, Kanye was in a public rivalry with 50 Cent; he even moved his album’s release date to the same day as 50 Cent’s to heighten the sense of competition. Kanye’s infamous intervention in Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs and the subsequent fallout probably helped in the conception of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, released in 2010. The Life of Pablo was released after three very public re-namings in 2016, and was concurrent with part two of his Taylor Swift drama, in which he and Swift had a falling out over lyrics in his single “Famous.”
Kanye has always used the public’s gaze to his advantage: luring admirers and critics in with whatever drama he has managed to stir up, only to deliver thoughtful, experimental, and groundbreaking music.
Kanye’s Trump love last spring therefore had me crossing my fingers and hoping that this was just his latest approach to promotion. After all, it doesn’t make sense for Kanye to support someone like Trump.
Because if we do as musicians generally expect us to do — take their lyrics as an extension of their thoughts and beliefs — we get a picture of Kanye who, for all intents and purposes, would not be backing Trump. In the first verse of “New Day,” Kanye raps: “I mean I might even make [my son] be a Republican so everybody knows he love white people.” In “Two Words,” he references police racially profiling Black men.
In “Murder to Excellence,” Kanye manages the most jarring lyric on the track: “Three hundred and fourteen soldiers died in Iraq, five hundred and nine died in Chicago.” Violence in Kanye’s hometown of Chicago is a recurrent theme both in his lyricism and public activism. In “New Slaves,” he raps about racism and the prison-industrial complex.
Kanye has always been progressive. In 2009, he criticized the hip hop industry for its attitude toward gay people. In 2005, he shocked millions when, during a relief concert for Hurricane Katrina, he ad-libbed the now famous quip, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
Kanye was contrarian, but more importantly, he was logically sound and presented nuanced ideas and thoughts — granted, usually in less-than-ideal circumstances. So, I, like many of his other fans, had hoped that this unabashed political outspokenness was a new approach to promotion. Alas, it proved to be something much more.
This controversial era is unlike his others — primarily because his statements stand polar opposite to the person Kanye used to be. Nowadays, it seems like Kanye is being contrarian simply for the sake of being contrarian. By his own admission, Kanye admires Trump because Trump is doubted: it is as if Kanye is looking to be ostracized. And it’s left many of us scratching our heads, wondering how and why. We can get into a heated discussion about what fuels Kanye’s Trump endorsement — is it dissonance, ego-fuelled self-promotion, or a genuine personal investment?
And then, just as quickly and suddenly as it had begun, Kanye’s Trump love ended: a few weeks after his White House meeting with the president, Kanye donated over $120,000 USD to Democratic Chicoagan mayoral candidate Amara Enyia. A couple of weeks after that, he tweeted that he felt he was being used: “My eyes are now wide open and now realize that I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in.” For the time being, it seems that Kanye is distancing himself from politics.
My intention is not to condemn or defend Kanye’s recent political outbursts: politics is just one small fragment of Kanye’s unique presence in pop culture. Rather, this is meant to spotlight his slow and bizarre descent into martyring himself as a tortured artist.
Can suffering be inspirational? Motivational? A combination of the two? Our understanding of art history is plagued with figures who are as tortured as they are talented: the starving artist, the poète maudit, the quixotic writer. Drug addiction and substance abuse; sexual repression and frustration; narcissism, self-loathing, and anti-sociality — these are all things we expect to find when we dig into the biographies of auteurs.
It’s been hammered into our heads that creativity stems from adversity. Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear, Sylvia Plath was clinically depressed, Oscar Wilde was jailed for his homosexuality, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was exiled to a labour camp, and historians believe that Edgar Allan Poe suffered from bipolar disorder.
It seems that the message we are pedaling as a society is that to create good art, you must suffer. Take Damien Chazelle’s 2014 film Whiplash, or even this year’s A Star is Born for more contemporary examples. The problem with this belief is that not all dives into addiction and mental illness come with brighter days afterward: all of the aforementioned artists ended with unfortunate deaths.
Our adherence to the mythos that anguish and misery is conducive to creativity is incredibly dangerous, it is alarming, and clashes with today’s overall attitude toward mental illness. To suggest that a writer writes best when manic, or that an artist paints better when depressed, dismisses the importance of their overall health and stability.
This is where we return to Kanye’s diagnosis. On October 1, Kanye sat down with TMZ for an interview in which he mentioned that he was off his medication. Link this to his song “Yikes,” in which he calls his bipolar disorder a “superpower,” and you get a very disturbing picture of Kanye’s mindset right now. Considering that the psychology community has long debated whether or not bipolar disorder has a direct link to creativity, and maybe Kanye’s mindset is not all his doing.
For an individual who takes art and the creative process extremely seriously, it should surprise no one that Kanye puts his ability to create above his health. When we prioritize achievements and success over everything else, what other outcome could there be?
We glorify and romanticize artists who have suffered throughout history, arguing passionately that their success came from strife. In the twenty-first century, the tortured artist is scrutinized by fans, ostracized by the media, and laughed at by society as a whole.
Is Kanye under the impression that channeling his mental illness will help him create better music? Are all these bizarre public outbursts just a side effect? Can we blame him if they are? We love tales of suffering disguised as underdog stories, ones that conveniently leave out tragic and unfortunate endings. Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, but it’s not something to indulge either. “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome,” reads the cover of Ye.
This is not to say that we should give Kanye a free pass. However, we do need to be patient and allow Kanye to return to form, to the Kanye who approache drug-dealing in impoverished neighbourhoods with nuance in “We Don’t Care” and criticized excess in celebrity life in “So Appalled.”
The fact that Kanye paints his disorder as a superpower should ring alarm bells. The fact that there are real communities that believe that not taking medication results in heightened creativity should worry us.
Our perception of mental illness is skewed and harmful, and we have to start a dialogue about what kind of messages we — the readers of newspapers, listeners of Spotify, viewers of cable — retain and promote.
There’s a lot of things to unpack here: both the endurance of the tortured artist trope, and the lack of serious conversations surrounding mental illness, particularly for Black men. We need to reassess our attitude toward art and creativity.
Hopefully, someone lets Kanye know that.