Compassion for Kanye
Kanye West seems to need help. During a "full-fledged meltdown" on Twitter on Monday night, the rapper claimed that his wife, Kim Kardashian, was trying to get him "locked up like Mandela," after she apparently flew out to see him at their Wyoming ranch with a doctor in tow. Largely, though, West's rant was disjointed and hard to parse, oddly spaced and punctuated, missing bits of information in places and oversharing in others. He ping-ponged between threatening his mother-in-law Kris Jenner, mocking Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and attacking actor Shia LaBeouf. "On God," read the entirety of one tweet. "Kriss [sic] and Kim call me now," demanded another.
Watching it unfold in real time was like trying to keep up with the whirl of slot machine reels: retweets and likes skyrocketed into the thousands within seconds of each tweet being posted. While previous eras of celebrity meltdowns played out at the pace of a tabloid's print cycle, we can now watch and react to a celebrity's lowest points in simultaneously, in the form of cellphone videos or their ill-advised tweets. Still, while it is easier than ever to peer voyeuristically into celebrity's lives, we tend also to be a more compassionate audience these days than we once were; the response to Kanye's rant hasn't so much been mockery as widespread concern. But short of being able to actually do anything about it, are our murmurs of worry really enough?
This is not the first time West has had a concerning, and very public, outburst. Things reached a breaking point in 2016 during the rapper's promotion of his album, Life of Pablo, when his erratic rants at concerts ultimately led to the cancelation of more than 20 tour dates and West's hospitalization "for his own health and safety." He confirmed a bipolar diagnosis in 2017, but in 2018 he said he didn't take his medicine for the sake of his creativity: "I cannot be on meds and make Watch the Throne level or Dark Fantasy level music," he claimed. Also in 2018, West delivered another strange rant in the TMZ newsroom wearing a Make America Great Again hat, alarmingly suggesting that centuries of slavery was a "choice" by Black people. A few months later he told President Trump, during an October meeting, that his bipolar disorder was a misdiagnosis. In the past several weeks, West seemed to be struggling again, launching a doomed presidential campaign that culminated with a "beyond uncomfortable" rally over the weekend where he bashed abolitionist Harriet Tubman and grew emotional discussing how he and Kim apparently considered abortion when she was pregnant with their first child, North.
Thankfully, we've come a long way since Britney Spears shaved her head and celebrity meltdowns were viewed as guilt-free entertainment. It's common knowledge at this point that constant headlines and invasive speculation contribute to the erosion of a person's mental health, and we've tragically seen how it can play out.
Responses to Kanye's latest episode are mostly devoid of the mockery you might have expected five or 10 years ago, ranging instead from pity to concern to blame directed at those in his immediate circle. "We're watching an unwell man, a husband and father, unravel. I wish someone could reach him to help him," tweeted political commentator and writer S.E. Cupp. "Patients with bipolar disorder need compassion, not judgment. Even rich celebrities are human beings with families," a doctor added. "Where are his friends and family at?" jumped in rapper Mike Baggz. But hand-wringing can quickly morph into judgement about a situation we, as armchair observers, know nothing about: Kim Kardashian has been slammed for supposedly enabling or encouraging Kanye, although Kanye himself suggested in his rant that she has been trying to help her husband get better behind the scenes. While there's always been some glee around the prospect of their divorce, the two have four children together; a separation would be nothing aside from deeply sad.
Compassion is the best response to Kanye at this point. As Halsey, who also has bipolar disorder, explained, "a manic episode isn't a joke. If you can't offer understanding or sympathy, offer your silence." That doesn't mean Kanye isn't above criticism, she continued, but "you can hate someone's actions or opinions without contributing to stigma that damages an entire community of sometimes vulnerable people all for a couple of laughs."
Where things start to get tricky is conflating Kanye's condition with his talent, a trap that Kanye himself has fallen into and dangerously perpetuates: "That's my bipolar s--t, n---a what? That's my superpower, n---a ain't no disability," he rapped on 2018's Ye. And on Life of Pablo before it: "Name one genius that ain't crazy." But the misconception that "medication's aim is to obscure your truest self or make you a zombie can ... encourage people who are on medication to quit altogether instead of seeking needed adjustments to their prescriptions," The Atlantic has explained. (The equivalency of mental health with genius is particularly true for male artists; I do not think the conversation would be quite so generous if Kanye was a woman).
Kanye himself has already told his fans what he needs. "I feel a heightened connection with the universe when I'm ramping up," he said of his bipolar disorder during an interview with David Letterman last year. "It is a health issue. This — it's like a sprained brain, like having a sprained ankle. If someone has a sprained ankle, you're not going to push on him more. With us, once our brain gets to the point of spraining, people do everything to make it worse." Egging Kanye on — say, as Elon Musk did, tweeting that Kanye's candidacy has his "support" — is asking that sprained brain to run a marathon.
The nature of celebrity has changed since the days of mocking Britney Spears and Charlie Sheen; we're only all the more aware now of the fact that stars are real people. We see their homes in Instagram Stories interspersed between the Stories of our own friends; we follow updates on their kids on Twitter. We see their messy parts, their ungraceful parts, their human parts. For fans today, Kanye West is not an abstract; he's a real person. I hope that he gets whatever help he needs.