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Kanye West, Celebrity, and Why We Should Be Quiet and Listen

In a year where conversation around mental health has vastly improved, we're stepping backwards if we don't learn from past mistakes.

I rarely keep quiet when Kanye West does something, but when he announced that "If I would have voted, I would've voted on Trump" at a show in California my lips were sealed. Aside from the fact, as a Brit, I felt uncomfortable wading into the discourse of the past, present and future politics of the United States, something about that night felt off. I'm a fan of Kanye West and his outspokenness, but what took place that evening and the initial reaction to it left a bitter taste marinating in the bottom of my stomach.

For the last five or so years, these seemingly off the cuff streams of consciousness from West have permeated through his career, both advancing and challenging our understanding of who he is. He is known for speaking on racism or the mechanics of the fashion industry or the fact he is absolutely not fucking with the cohabitation of Jay Z and Justin Timberlake on "Suit and Tie" as much as he is for winning 21 Grammy Awards. At one point, these remarks were such a staple point of Kanye West's live performance that if he didn't talk for fifteen minutes over the sparse and menacing chords of "Clique" or "Runaway", then you didn't see a Kanye West show.

It's no surprise that West's remarks on Donald Trump shocked and angered so many fans. They opposed the radical politics we know him for and felt like they made light of the xenophobia, homophobia, racism, hate and lies that fuelled his rise to power. But then came his assertions on Jay Z ("Jay Z, call me, bruh. You still ain't calling me. Jay Z, call me"), Beyonce ("Beyoncé, I was hurt. I went down seven years on [your] behalf"), Mark Zuckerberg ("You said you would help and you didn't. Then you went to look for aliens"), and radio ("Radio, fuck you! Radio, fuck you!") – all of which were disjointed, fraught in paranoia and pain and ended in him leaving the stage after playing just four songs. Something about these performances last week felt peculiar and strange, even for him, and suggested these tirades were a signal that something deeper was going on. That's an assumption, but also one that's been given some weight as West has cancelled all remaining dates and been taken to UCLA Medical Center for psychiatric evaluation.

At this point, it's important to take stock. As a fan, as a reader, as a writer – are there any previous experiences we can put into practice? Is there anything we've learnt from or seen that should be influencing the way we approach this situation? The first thing that comes to my mind is Amy Winehouse. West and Winehouse are different artists, with different careers and different lives. Yet their stories also share one similarity: their treatment from both the press and the public. Throughout the film Amy (as Molly Beauchemin notes in her excellent piece for Pitchfork) we were shown countless examples of the way Winehouse was written about, and how it haunted her career: "Someone call and wake her up at 6 PM and let her know" said one announcer when she won a Grammy, finally labelling her "a drunk." "She had the chance to make a big comeback and she totally BLEW it!" said one commentator after Winehouse struggled to perform onstage at a show in Serbia. 

Even the most cursory glance toward the internet showed that the reaction toward West failed to look beyond the surface level of what may be going on, to approach him with empathy, as a human being, rather than a totem of something larger than life. News stories went into frantic overdrive, and Twitter was awash with words like "crazy" and "nuts", with fans suggesting it was time to give up on Kanye West and celebrations that his tour was cancelled. Op-eds suggested it was time to give up on him, pictures were posted of people giving away their Yeezys. Snoop Dogg labelled West "crazy". But perhaps what's even more dangerous is the wider narrative; the seemingly innocent, confused reactions to West's behaviour, as though it's impossible to comprehend that there are people, even famous people, struggling with their life.

Because Kanye West is Kanye West, there's an expectation that everything he does needs to be critiqued within an inch of its life. In some cases, this is fair. He is, after all, an artist - arguably the most important one of our time. But there also has to be a moment when we need to collectively regain focus and think "are we stepping backward and repeating the same mistakes in a different story?" "Do I understand everything that's happening here before I write this headline/tweet?" "Could something else be bubbling over behind the scenes?" "What am I adding to the conversation by calling someone crazy?"

2016 has been a banner year for changing attitudes toward mental health, opening the discourse immeasurably. We've reflected on the role the media can play in the lives of both stars and everyday people with the way it approaches mental health. There have been mass campaigns, including the biggest report of its kind from Help Musician's UK, aimed to raise awareness of mental health, especially in the music industry. It's something most of us tweet, talk or think about on a daily basis. Part and parcel of us using social media is that, in some way, we are all part of the media and we need to be responsible with our platforms. We as a society have come a long way since the days of demonising Britney Spears or humiliating Amy Winehouse. So to not put these lessons into practice feels like a huge step backwards. 

Since West has been admitted to hospital, one poignant video clip from an interview with Dave Chapelle has been floating around. It's mostly centred around the treatment of celebrities by the press and the public, and how there's often a refusal from both groups to open their eyes and be empathetic or understanding to the reality of what it means to be a human going through some very real shit. He talks about his friendship with the actor Martin Lawrence, who, years prior, had been hospitalised after being found brandishing a pistol and shouting "They are trying to kill me." Chapelle reasons: "The worst thing to call someone is crazy, it's dismissive... These people are not crazy. They're strong people. But maybe their environment is a little sick".

In the case of Kanye West, this environment can at the least be boiled down to the fact he's the most paparazzi-targeted man in rap (cast an eye on TMZ in the last 24 hours and find quotes from emergency call tapes and notions that the whole thing is possibly financially motivated), his wife was robbed at gunpoint earlier this year, he's been on tour since August, and his most recent work references anxiety and panic disorders and the antidepressant medication Lexapro. Next time there's an urge to write a news story or headline or even just an itchy Twitter finger to comment on Kanye West or Kid Cudi or Justin Bieber or anyone who seems to be experiencing something deeper than what we see as bystanders, perhaps it's important to remember this video. Not to self diagnose or hypothesise or catastrophise, but to understand there is always a bigger picture. Like us, celebrities don't have free licence to act how they want without some judgement. But like us, they also deserve to be approached with a human level of nuance and understanding. So if anyone really needs to shut up, it's not Kanye West, it's us.

You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.

(Lead photo by Kim Erlandsen, via Flickr)