By Emma Campbell
The first time rapper Kanye West publicly addressed his political opinions was in 2005, during a live NBC benefit concert following Hurricane Katrina. In what was to become the first of many viral moments for the artist, West went off-script to say, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
In the infamous clip, which has garnered millions of views on YouTube, West lacks the unapologetic bravado that we’ve seen in his more recent tirades. There’s an unmistakable tremor in his voice, and he has trouble catching his breath as he improvises a diatribe he knows will be met with controversy.
The shy, nervous version of West is very different from the one we know now.
West’s next notable political eruption was on Aug. 30, 2015, when during an acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards he announced that he would be running for president of the United States in 2020.
Three days after West’s announcement, then presidential candidate Donald Trump complimented his potential opponent in an interview with Rolling Stone.
“He’s actually a different kind of person than people think,” Trump said. “He’s a nice guy. I hope to run against him someday.”
Perhaps the peak of West’s unpredictable behavior — though the tweet in which he claims that he and Trump share “dragon energy” and his claim during a TMZ appearance that “slavery was a choice” are close runner-ups — was his recorded conversation with President Trump in the White House Oval Office.
The world watched in dazed bewilderment as West, wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat, told Trump the president was “on a hero’s journey,” pitched a stolen plane design made by Apple, and renounced his 2005 statement about Bush not caring about Black people with the excuse that he’d been programmed to “think from a victimized mentality.”
“It was a surreal moment even for a White House accustomed to surreal moments,” NPR reported on their podcast, “All Things Considered.”
West launched his presidential campaign this year on July 19 with a bizarre rally in South Carolina. West’s bizarre, rambling rally speech makes his mental health struggles abundantly evident. Anyone watching West tearfully scream about almost “killing” his oldest daughter must know that this is a man who is not well and hasn’t been so for a while now.
West’s bipolar disorder is often a subject of his art. In “Yikes,” the second track of his 2018 album “Ye,” West sings about a bad drug trip, ending the chaotic, spooky lyric by screaming that being bipolar is his “superpower.”
In a twisted way, it is. The media’s portrayal of West’s public struggle has made him more famous than ever. There’s no doubt that his is a name not soon to be forgotten.
But in the meantime, the public’s gleeful response to his episodes does not bode well for American empathy.
West’s random bouts of instability are eaten up by audiences — something the media circus is well aware of. Headlines announcing West’s most recent act of seeming insanity prompted memes, hashtags, and funny tweets that offer no context to the artist’s true affliction.
“The lack of context regarding his [bipolar] diagnosis…in coverage…which questions the viability of the presidential bid but never entertains the possibility that the man giving all the outlandish pull quotes might not be doing so well right now, illuminate our inability to step back and ponder the ethics of the internet content mill,” Vulture’s Craig Jenkins said in an opinion piece entitled “Kanye West and the Media Are Once Again Playing a Dangerous Game.”
Following West’s much-talked-about campaign rally in South Carolina, his wife, Kim Kardashian West, released a statement. She’s done this in lieu of her husband’s outbursts before, but this is the first time we’ve seen her ask us — or rather, beg us — to show him mercy.
The public discourse surrounding West does well to hold him accountable for his harmful remarks. But this discourse is lacking context, and, perhaps more importantly, kindness. We need a way to address West’s faults without making excuses. Defending him does nothing and mocking him does even less.
There is a middle ground where we can acknowledge West’s mental illness without absolving him of guilt. Perhaps showing a semblance of compassion will help us get there.