On a Sunday morning in 2017, I sat at the kitchen counter, drinking tea with my mom, as we listened to College Dropout. She had asked me why people “love Kanye so much.” I gave her answers in the music. We danced through the kitchen to the chorus of “We Don’t Care.” I was celebrating myself when I sang, “Wasn’t s’posed to make it past 25. Jokes on you; we still alive.” That morning, I was 26, and despite the darkness of the days prior, I was full of light. My mother, my music and myself, in an interchange of energy that I wished I could forever loop.
I skipped tracks, landing on “Hey Mama,” a song that Kanye wrote in celebration of his own mother. “Mommy, I’ma love you ‘til you don’t hurt no more. And when I’m older, you won’t have to work no more. I’ma buy you that mansion that we couldn’t afford,” I rapped to my mom, in our newly purchased home. With tears in her eyes, she asked me to turn the music off because of everything that I do for her and everything that she can no longer do for her own mother.
I’d say my mom is magic, but I find myself describing her through Kanye’s words. (“Mommy, can’t you see? You’re like a book of poetry”)
Despite considering the use of words to be my superpower, putting my feelings of admiration for my mom into words isn’t the only time that I find myself speaking through Kanye - or that I’ve found Kanye speaking to me. Convinced that few other artists are so adept at parsing the nuances of ego and culture, for years I relied on his music to help me make sense of society (“We can’t cop cars without seeing cop cars”), of my emotions (“Everything I’m not made me everything I am”), and of the self assurance (“This generation’s closest thing to Einstein, so don’t worry about me. I’m fine”) that others regard as “too much,” but that has pushed me through days on which I would have otherwise resigned. For me, a sufferer of chronic depression and anxiety, my connection to Kanye’s music has been centered around zoning out of my chaotic brain and out of my world, into an artistic and sometimes spiritual state that transcends whatever I feel at the moment. In that space, I’m not alone and I’m not broken. I’m relatable.
I first learned the concept of Heterotopia in an African-American literature class. We studied Michel Foucault, as we discussed spaces -- physical and mental. The Heterotopia is a temporary space that transports you from some here to some there and that is only accessible in the moments in which it exists. Before I learned that philosophy, I realized that musical experiences have the power to carry me from any headspace into an intangible exemption -- a free space, where it’s all good.
Kanye’s Glow in the Dark tour stopped in New Jersey, on May 17, 2008. Ten years later, I still feel the levitation. I screamed the lyrics of my favorite songs with thousands of other voices, coming from thousands of other bodies, beliefs, struggles -- for that moment -- one. It was not just a concert, but the art of experience. He created an atmosphere through music, and energy that, for an hour and 45 minutes, allowed me to escape my reality.
This tour happened at a pivotal moment in the public’s perception of Kanye West. It followed the release of the albums that have come to define “the old Kanye.” And, the stop in Camden was 6 months after his mother’s death. The crowd silenced, in collective reverence, as he began to perform “Hey Mama.” He sang an added lyric, “Last night I saw you in my dreams. Now, I can’t wait to go to sleep. And, this life is all a dream. My real life starts when I go to sleep.”
That lyric became one of the first public signs that Kanye West was trying to evade pain.
November 10th is a tough day for Kanye and I. It is the day that my mother brought me into this world and the day that his mother died. Each year, on this day, we are confronted with the fragility of mortality and the simplicity of either being alive or not. We are reminded of what we have or don’t have, like strength, control, a mother.
In 2016, as that day approached, Kanye was admitted into the hospital for mental exhaustion, after a series of public breakdowns and I was falling into one of the longest and deepest depressive episodes that I’ve experienced. My 25th birthday triggered immense dissatisfaction with where I was in life and with myself. I had my mother to navigate with me and I don’t know what I would have said, did or survived if I didn’t. (“Hello, my only one. Just like the morning sun, you’ll keep on rising ‘til the sun knows your name.”)
I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for as far back as I can remember. Negative thoughts and worst case scenario assumptions about my interactions, relationships, image and ability to continuously meet elevated expectations, including my own, followed me through childhood. They followed me through graduating with honors from an Ivy League university, through being a creative black woman excelling in the tech industry, through being employed by Google, through giving my mother what she couldn’t afford.
With each year and each accomplishment, is another indiscriminate episode that doesn’t acknowledge wins nor opportunity and only tallies time past and when I could have been better, faster and stronger. Through every episode, I have music.
The artists that help to deliver me from pain become my doctors, my superheroes, and extensions of myself that are capable of doing what I can’t do. I develop a relationship so dependent on the pieces of life that they’ve decoded, that I hold the artists, themselves, close enough that they can also hurt me. What if the genius that empowered Kanye West to gift the world College Dropout loses the battle to mental health and spirals into toxicity? What do I do when the music begins to pale in comparison to actions?
Until this year, there was nothing that Kanye said or did that I didn’t feel like I understood enough to rationalize. Allowing the parallels in our lives and the dots of mine that I’ve connected to his to lead me into blind defensiveness. I tried focusing only on the parts when he reveals pieces of information related to his lack of mental healthiness -- the opioid addiction, the fear of being called “fat,” the prescription medicine that he does or doesn’t take, the irrational back and forth of an unstable mind. I wanted those pieces to outweigh the egregious behavior that disrespects the culture for which he used to advocate -- my culture. I’ve reasoned that because I know that he is hurting and because I know what it’s like to hurt, then it is incidental that he, in turn, hurts.
To grow up depressed, in a family of those who also battle depression and to have a brain that both leads to my success and, on any given day, betrays me, is to learn to normalize pain, as a survival tactic. What do you do to deal with a mind that is hellbent on destroying itself from the inside? Power is in the realization that your normal can be your toxic.
I’m learning that on days when myself and my loved ones feel like they have no happiness in themselves, they have none to give to me. I’m learning that to deeply understand is not to excuse. The emotional casualties left by those who suffer from mental health issues cannot be met with dismissal -- be it a parent affecting a child or a cultural icon affecting the culture. I’m learning that my regard for art does not require an infallible artist. This recognition is the creation of a boundary. I’ve learned that the days that I owe to Kanye’s music do not equal a debt to his demons.
It is not my right to use my knowledge of mental health issues to excuse the harm that Kanye West is perpetuating. My therapeutic experience as a black teenager at the Glow in the Dark tour is equal in power to a black teenager who regards Kanye West as a Hip Hop pillar and who cannot process what it means for slavery to be a “choice,” when they know that they’ve been born into a society that systematically opposes their very right to exist.
Both collective harm and collective healing can be present in the same force. Part of what I know about suffering from mental health issues is that your own lack of healthiness affects those who love and depend on you in fatal ways. On days when my mother woke up expecting to have morning tea and I couldn’t get out of the bed. On days when I can’t bring myself to talk to her. On days when I snap because of my inner aggravation and nothing to do with her, I know that I am robbing her of pieces of her magic.
As difficult as it is to define, the Oxford English Dictionary defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination... producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” The power dynamic between art and receiver of that art can be so fraught with emotion that boundaries blur. Kanye West has produced work that is strong enough to soothe gaps in my emotional strength. Kanye West, himself, is fighting his own battle that knows nothing of me. To recognize that I’ve felt “like Pablo” is distinctly different from contorting to accept dangerous behavior just because it comes from a mind that I respect, as doing so would perpetuate the very patterns of my own brain that his music has helped me to escape.