Why millennials resist giving up on Kanye West
‘His music gave us greater permission to believe in ourselves, and I think that’s the thing we’re grappling with’
Kanye West released his debut album, The College Dropout, in 2004. Those 21 tracks put lyrics to the feelings I had about life at 19. I’d spent my first semester in college sitting in an 8 a.m. microeconomics class questioning the value of higher education. I’d clocked in to be the underpaid token Black at multiple mall jobs. Like West, I felt as if I were on the brink of something greater. I knew to see myself as Black and brilliant was to flagrantly break an unwritten law of this land.
And West taught us millennials – anyone currently in their 30s – how to be unapologetic with it. If you felt your flyest in a pink polo – wear that. If college was stealing time from what mattered to you – forget that. If you believed the president doesn’t care about Black people – say that. West used provocative messaging for millennials overburdened with societal expectations.
Many millennials viewed West as an older brother — losing hope in him can feel like losing hope in ourselves, like we’re looking at what’s waiting for us after a few more successes, after we find out that white validation is gold-plated and something green and corrosive waits for us beneath it. If West can’t be Black and brilliant in America, then someone like me can’t survive it either. So, we’re resistant to giving up on him.
Over the years, West’s provocations have lost their allure. At 35, I’m not so young anymore and neither is he. He’s 43. That’s eight years older than me. That’s a Barack Obama presidency. I’m not sure what I have left to learn from him or even how to feel about him. And yet I can’t turn away from him. This man who is essentially a stranger to me gave me something intimate and personal: the soundtrack to my 20s.
Two years ago, West spoke publicly about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2016. Even as my instinct was to have sympathy for someone publicly struggling with mental health, I still found myself at a loss for how to do that for someone who spent so much of his time outside of crisis validating the rhetoric of white supremacists that makes it harder for me to be Black and well in America.
“His music gave us greater permission to believe in ourselves, and I think that’s the thing we’re grappling with,” said Steven Kniffley Jr., an assistant professor at Spalding University and a 35-year-old millennial who has conflicting feelings about West. “If he’s struggling to be his authentic self, what does that mean for my permission to be my authentic self?”
So, are millennials trapped in the cycle of wondering if every click or view they give him is promoting his downfall? Can we log off and opt out of the spectacle, or are his fans obligated to keep watching and keep hoping he can return to being or appearing like he’s OK?
According to Kniffley, those of us feeling conflicted should give West space and time. “Kanye had a very public grieving when his mother passed and there was no space given,” Kniffley said. “When we think about the narrative that exists in the Black community around mental health and seeking out help, normally you’re given a period of time and anything outside of that is a testament to weakness or there’s something wrong with you. So, imagine having to battle that socialization but in the public sphere.”
After the loss of his mother in 2007, West gave an emotional apology on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for mic-jacking Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards by referencing how he’d refused to slow down. “Obviously, I deal with hurt, and so many celebrities, they never take the time off, and I never took the time off,” West said. “It’s been music after music and tour after tour.”
Viewers at home can’t force West to take space and time. We don’t know him like that. But what we can do is normalize artists releasing work on their own timelines and not pressing for even greater access to their lives beyond what they are already giving us. This means not contributing to fandoms flooding artists mentions with demands for new music. It means not filling the space after a celebrity experiences trauma with fictional narratives and memes, like we’ve seen happen with Megan Thee Stallion, who was recently shot. She tweeted shortly after the incident that what happened to her was traumatic and not a joke. Then, later, in a video where she was frequently on the verge of tears, she explained it wasn’t that she’s protecting anyone, she just needed space and time. We should be respectful of the boundaries between celebrities’ lives and ours.
By forcing ourselves to reconsider our relationship to celebrities, it puts us in a better place to define the actual relationships in our lives. How do we treat the people in our lives when they’re struggling? Are we giving them our compassion or our commentary? Kniffley asserts that the deeper the understanding we have of those around us, the more compassion we can show to those we don’t know.
Ebonie Ware, a social worker who also runs a mental health company, said, “We owe it to ourselves to become more educated about what’s going on. That will help heal Kanye and help heal us as well.” Due to social media, mental health issues are in our faces now. Ware observes that we’ve now begun to humanize these issues. “A lot of us can look at Kanye and see ourselves in him or have family members and friends who are suffering,” she said. “So, it helps us to stop looking at mental illness like it’s taboo.”
Ware is pushing for our collective healing through these ongoing conversations around compassion and mental wellness.
The year 2018, when West revealed his diagnosis, was also the year he told TMZ, “Slavery was a choice.” And it’s the year music instructor Dave Christopher Jr. decided he was done with West.
For Christopher, who also produces and performs as Dave.Will.Chris, West made a lane in hip-hop for Black guys from a middle-class background. “I remember listening to The College Dropout and Kanye had this line, ‘I woke up early this morning with a new state of mind, a creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s so dope.’ ” Christopher hasn’t listened to any of his albums that came after The Life of Pablo.
This doesn’t mean Christopher lacks empathy for West. He thinks about the trajectory of a star in our culture, how your career can rocket upward only to find yourself in a place where you’re under immense pressure, “and now I don’t have the support system I once had and I feel really alone, but I have everything I always dreamed of. How do you win?”
This is a country that tells Black people we can escape our oppression by being a singular talent like Michael Jackson. Only we arrive at the pinnacle and discover that overcoming poverty is not the same as escaping white supremacy. Our sanity is often the price we’re expected to pay to be validated as brilliant by white America. West, as a visible Black male celebrity, functions as the United States’ guilty conscience over unfulfilled promises.
At a specific moment in our nation’s history, West served as the moral center. Syreeta Neal, a blues singer, was in Louisiana in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, then returned to Toronto for a fundraising event. A designer friend made her a dress for the occasion. “It had a newspaper front cover that had a picture of Kanye and Mike Myers and it said, ‘George Bush does not care about Black people.’ That was one of my most prized clothing items because that was such a huge moment of Kanye using his lack of filter for good and speaking to something so many people didn’t have the voice or the platform to speak to.”
Neal continues to listen to his music, but finds that the joy the music brings is followed by disappointment over who West has become. “It seems as though his core values have shifted in a significant way,” she said. “I think that is beyond his mental illness and just who he’s evolved into as a human being.”
She knows she’ll continue to carry “Early Aughts Kanye” in her heart and have sympathy for 2020 West, but believes that while some of his behavior can be attributed to his mental health, that his problematic thoughts are separate. Neal, like so many others I’ve spoken to, refuses to devalue West based on mental health, shares in the nostalgia his music brings us, but refuses to co-sign any of his toxic views by supporting his political ambitions or remain silent when he berates Black women. Neal encouraged me to watch West’s interview with David Letterman on the Netflix series, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman, to witness how consistent his views are regardless of his presumed mental state.
In his episode, West is lucid, but espouses many of the same thoughts driving his most recent round of concerning tweets. He doubles down on defending supporters of President Donald Trump. He is also charismatic while speaking about music; it’s as if he’s explaining with utmost clarity how constellations are Morse code to understanding the universe.
At one point, West says to Letterman, “If you guys want these crazy ideas and these crazy stages and this crazy music and this crazy way of thinking, there’s a chance it might come from a crazy person.” West grins and the audience laughs — in the studio and in millennials’ homes. With him. At him. Uncertain.