Since Kanye West’s infamous outburst at NBC’s A Concert For Hurricane Relief in 2005 where he proclaimed: ‘”George Bush doesn't care about black people”, no celebrity has been as polarising as the Chicago native. And on his ‘Life of Pablo’ tour stop in Seattle last weekend, West took a moment to rant about a variety of topics. He spoke of his strained relationship with Beyoncé and Jay Z, but perhaps more disheartening was his apparent endorsement of President-elect Donald Trump.
While the rapper’s antics seem to change as frequently as the seasons, something seemed amiss this time. Inevitably, his recent admittance to hospital – reportedly for a psychiatric evaluation – once again brings forth the conversation regarding mental health.
Kanye West is the product of the United States, where it’s uncontroversial to say that African Americans have to work twice as hard as their Caucasian counterparts. If one were to ask black children the one thing parents always told them, it's that we have to work incessantly just to gain an equal – or even a lesser – footing with our white peers. Growing up in a world that demands this can have dire effects on one’s mental and physical health – constantly having to prove your worth as a person has consequences like that. West is no exception and the release of his album, tour, Yeezy clothing line, the recent birth of his son Saint and the Paris attack on his wife Kim Kardashian will no doubt have additionally taken their toll.
In recent years, discussions regarding mental health among men have been brought forward to the mainstream. No longer do men have to shy away from discussing the issues that ail them – or at least that’s how the modern narrative goes. But for black men in particular, there are further issues which need to be addressed.
On G.O.O.D Music’s ‘Clique’, released in 2012, Kanye West admitted on wax that he suffered with depression after his mother Donda passed away in 2007. ‘808s and Heartbreak’, the album that followed her passing, explored themes of chronic depression, difficult relationships and emotional turmoil. The cries for help were there but few listened.
Following the release of arguably his most contentious album yet, ‘Yeezus’, West also admitted in an interview with Zane Lowe that he had experienced racism within the fashion industry. It’s clear West’s mental health has been suffering – and assaulted – for quite some time. We can’t discount the exacerbating factor of racism.
In the UK, black people are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems than white people, more likely to be detained in a mental health unit in hospital under the Mental Health Act, and more likely to experience a poor outcome from mental health treatment. Figures show that they are more likely to be diagnosed with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia but not necessarily more likely to actually have it – interpretation of their behaviour and entrenched views about “dangerous black men” may be to blame. They are more likely to be medicated than white people rather than to be offered talking therapies like CBT.
On the one hand, since West’s most recent outburst it has become clear he's been afforded a privilege which others – for example, Azealia Banks – haven't been granted. Understandably, Kanye West’s contribution to music over the course of nearly 20 years has elevated him to legendary status – many are happy to refer to him as a genius. Both Banks and West have polarised fans and bystanders alike with their controversial comments. And while black men receive much of society’s scorn, it’s black women who receive it tenfold. Few were willing to forgive Banks her bizarre racist and homophobic comments that led to the suspension of her Twitter account earlier this year, even when she went public with her mental health issues.
The double standards are blinding. If we are able to extend compassion to Kanye despite his past transgressions, some of which have been offensive towards black women, we must do the same for Banks. West should be held accountable for offensive comments and isn't above reproach. Nevertheless, we shouldn't deal in absolutism: we can extend compassion to a person in need while criticising the words we hear.
It’s no secret that white celebrities are usually afforded a lot more room to “act out”, while black men experiencing difficulties are often painted as “dangerously crazy” or laughed at. Scroll through some of the Twitter reactions to Kanye and you’ll see this for yourself. But now more than ever, in a world where Trump is President-elect, it is important to build on our kindness and hold back our judgments. We don’t know exactly what is happening in Kanye’s life, but we know how it is for black men in the US and the UK with mental health issues – that should be enough.