In a flowery open letter to Kanye West last week, Def Jam founder and media mogul Russell Simmons told the oft-embroiled rapper that "brilliance is not a word that can even begin to describe your ability." Referencing a few of West's most recent musical achievements, as well as the renewed controversy surrounding his infamous assertion that George Bush "doesn't care about black people," Simmons concluded that, ultimately, the kid is all right. "Keep on, Kanye," wrote Simmons. "We love you."
The affectionate note got around the Internet quickly, with thousands of West admirers sharing Simmons' well-wishing on Facebook, and thousands more spreading it around Twitter. "Thank you, Russell, for speaking the truth about Kanye," one commenter wrote beneath the letter. "I love you both."
No doubt Simmons' message was prompted by the fact that West has been in the news a lot lately. After George W. Bush revealed in his new book that West's branding of him as a racist was one of the lowest points of his time in office, the former president then elaborated on the NBC Today show.
In response, West requested his own Today appearance, during which he apologized for his accusations against Dubya but then sparred with Matt Lauer about using embarrassing B-roll footage during the interview. After the taping, West promptly took to his Twitter account and declared that he'd been "set up" by Lauer. He then canceled plans to perform on Today later this month.
Paradoxically, erratic behavior has become a constant for Kanye West. His temper tantrums are the stuff of legend, occasionally prompted by the suspicion that people "won't give a black man a chance." More than once, he's proved that no event is too grand for him to bum-rush the stage and demand to be heard — and when the attention he demands sometimes becomes too much, West has violently attacked paparazzi. He has a tendency to go into hiding in remote locations. And as he exhibited on Today last week, even minor perceived slights can set West on edge. That all in mind, perhaps it's no wonder the rapper's media trainer quit on him this week.
By all accounts, West's mercurial career has been stained by major incidents of suspicion, unpredictability, rudeness, selfishness and violence, and yet here is Russell Simmons, outright telling West to keep on doing what he's doing.
To anyone paying attention to important movements in the black community, Simmons' unvarnished support of West speaks to a much bigger, more important issue: untreated mental health problems. In fact, if West really wants to be a person worthy of the public's adoration, I suggest that he ignore Simmons' letter and focus on a completely different piece of writing from last week: Hill Harper's piece on The Root about the scourge of undiagnosed depression in the African-American community:
Fact is, only one out of three African Americans who need mental health care receives it. Why? Think about it: When we're not feeling well — for instance, if we have a cough or a migraine — we immediately take stock of our condition. We start adding up all of our symptoms and try to match them to an illness. … When it comes to our mental health, we're conditioned to not pay the same kind of attention or to have the same set of responses. We're told by people around us to "cheer up," but rarely do people suggest that we go to a doctor who can help.
If you don't think West might suffer from a serious mental health problem, compare his behavior with some of the symptoms of bipolar disorder, a complex mood disorder characterized by swings between mania and depression: irritability, exaggerated self-esteem, impulsiveness, temper tantrums, irrational outbursts. Some sufferers also complain of paranoia. Does any of this sound familiar?
Worse still is that just last month, West admitted to feeling suicidal, a symptom of both depression and bipolar disorder.
Dr. Rhonda Mattox, a clinical scholar with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, specializes in reducing the stigma of mental illness in the African-American community. While Mattox says she can't diagnose West without speaking with him and learning his history, she does believe that his public behavior at least suggests problems with anger. "He does seem angry," she says. "And because anger is a secondary emotion, he may be using it to hide other emotions."
Mattox says that many men are ashamed of their feelings, which causes them to lash out and hide them with rage. "People don't like to say, 'You embarrassed me' or 'I am disappointed in someone,' " she says, "because people believe those to be signs of weakness. Anger, on the other hand, is an acceptable emotion that doesn't get labeled as weak."
The statistics about mental health in the black community are grimmer than Harper let on in last week's article. In addition to not getting enough treatment, African Americans are 30 percent more likely than whites to have serious psychological distress. And in 2008, suicide was the third leading cause of death (pdf) among African-American young people. The problems are particularly acute when it comes to black men, who are seven times more likely than black women to commit suicide.
Mattox's point can't be overstated: It's impossible to diagnose West with mental health issues unless he has a full examination with a skilled therapist. Nonetheless, it seems irresponsible for black leaders like Simmons to pen saccharine letters to hail West's behavior, which is frequently discourteous at best and perilous at worst.
It is indeed cool to make good music that fans enjoy. It's not cool, however, to publicly berate people when you feel angry. It's not cool to humiliate producers and TV hosts. It's not cool to go on hateful rants when you don't get your way. It's not cool to constantly accuse people of trying to destroy you. Those are actions that would find most people fired or divorced or without any friends at all, but most people don't have millions of dollars to cushion themselves from reality.
"I'm so happy to see Russell Simmons reach out in this way to Kanye," wrote one commenter beneath Simmons' letter last week. "Too often we don't step up and support our people when they need us the most."
I agree, but it's important to remember that sometimes the best support isn't nice letters, but tough talk. Go to a therapist, Kanye.
Cord Jefferson is The Root's Washington reporter. Follow him on Twitter.