Went through, deep depression when my momma passed/
Suicide, what kinda talk is that?/
But I been talking to God for so long/
And if you look at my life I guess he’s talking back- Kanye West, “Clique,” Cruel Summer
As often as Kanye West talks about the state of his mental health, one would think that we’d be having a national conversation on mental health–kind of like the way we had a wave of conversations about domestic violence in the wake of the Chris Brown-Rihanna incident. Yet, in the four years since Kanye began talking openly about the depression related to the death of his mother and the dissolution of his romantic relationship with longtime paramour Alexis Phifer, the conversations have continued to be one-sided.
A search for “Kanye West and Depression” brings up surprisingly few articles and discussions. There’s a sterile AP article describing his initial comments, Cord Jefferson advising Kanye to go to a therapist on The Root, an MTV news article on his path to recovery, and Tom Breihan in the Village Voice distilling 808′s and Heartbreak down to “emo bellyaching” and a “album-length tantrum at his ex.” While Bassey Ikpi later argued to have some compassion for Kanye, it was one small plea in a sea of indifference and condemnation.
After four years of being open about pain and vulnerability, I’m starting to wonder if society will ever really hear him.
Back in 2010, Renina Jarmon did some great analysis around 808′s and Heartbreak, trying to understand the backlash to the work. She wrote:
The more I listened to the album, the more I realized that this cat was in a lot of pain, and trying to articulate it.
To say that he “sounds like” T-Pain misses the point by looking at just the sound, but ignoring the content. T- Pain ain’t never said anything that made me think about nothing. Whereas, 808′s and Heartbreak, helped me with being in reflection mode last week. [...]
Listening to the album and hearing him describe those post-break up slug penetrate moments, I came to realize that he was being both vulnerable and in pain and in our culture that is a no-no for men and antithetical to Black manhood. That is if you believed what you saw in hip-hop.
It was then that I realized that the only acceptable emotion for Black men to publicly express and still retain their masculinity is rage.
Kill a hundred fools? Cool.
Murder, stab, rape? Fine.
Sad over losing our ex? Blasphemy.
It’s this same disinterested attitude toward mental health that leads us to swallow our tongues when comes to connecting the painful dots. As Joan Morgan wrote in When Chickenheads Come Home To Roost:
As a black woman and a feminist I listen to the music with a willingness to see past the machismo in order to be clear about what I’m really dealing with. What I hear frightens me. On booming track after booming track, I hear brothers talking about spending each day high as hell on malt liquor and chronic. Don’t sleep. What passes for “40 and a blunt” good times in most of hip-hop is really alcoholism, substance abuse, and chemical dependency. When brothers can talk so cavalierly about killing each other and then reveal that they have no expectation to see their twenty-first birthday, that is straight-up depression masquerading as machismo.
So what stops us from having the conversation?
Do you think I sacrificed real life/ For all the fame of flashing lights?/ Do you think I sacrifice a real life/ For all the fame of flashing lights?
There is no Gucci I can buy/ There is no Louis Vuitton to put on /There is no YSL that they could sell
To get my heart out of this hell/ And my mind out of this jail
There is no clothes that I could buy/ That could turn back the time /There is no vacation spot I could fly/ That could bring back a piece of real life/ Real life, what does it feel like?
I ask you tonight, I ask you tonight/ What does it feel like, I ask you tonight/ To live a real life
I just want to be a real boy
They always say Kanye, he keeps it real boy/
Pinocchio story is, I just want to be a real boy/
Pinocchio story is to be a real boy
– Kanye West, “Pinocchio Story,” 808′s and Heartbreak