Kanye West and Charlamagne Open Up Space to Talk About Black Men and Mental Health

Illustration for article titled Kanye West and Charlamagne Open Up Space to Talk About Black Men and Mental Health
Screenshot: Kanye West

It is impolite—unethical, even—to armchair-diagnose anyone in the public eye with having a mental illness, mostly because of the stigma attached to being labeled “crazy.” (It has nothing to do with privacy laws, I’m sure.)


But even if Kanye West does not have an official label he wants to share publicly, he is certainly acting as if he’s riding the red dragon of mania. As such, covering his every action is exhausting, as is mania in real life for those who bear witness.

Though so many have gleefully proclaimed Kanye “gone,” “traded” or “sunk,” because of my respect for psychiatric disability, Ye will continue to get a pass until he doesn’t (plus, he’s my favorite living artist).

Regardless of his current mental state, the fact remains that Kanye West was hospitalized in November 2016 for a nervous breakdown.

On Tuesday, coincidentally, the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month, Ye posted a link to a weeks-old video interview with nationally syndicated radio host Charlamagne tha God at this website.

In a very white, sparse Steve Job-esque space (much like the “not sunken place” Kanye recently showed on Twitter), the 40-year-old artist proved he is indeed the same wild, say-anything, “ESP—especially sensitive person” he ever was; as profound, as dumb, as forward thinking, as ignant.


Although the most controversial line in an almost two-hour interview was Kanye saying he didn’t want Harriet Tubman on money because of slavery, Kanye covered beef—from his issues with Nike (which didn’t want to give him a royalty on his shoes but did give them to those stores that carried Yeezys) to his being “hurt” by both Barack Obama and Jay-Z (Obama, for calling him a jackass and a few other things; Jay, for not coming to his wedding and a few other things), to how he lost his confidence, to fashion.

But most profound for me was the way Ye and Charlamagne opened up a real space to talk about the triggers for mental illness and the ways in which black men, in particular, are navigating it.


Kanye spoke openly of how the combination of touring four days a week, his wife being robbed at gunpoint after he left Paris, being “LeBroned” by the fashion industry for starting his show 45 minutes late (if they didn’t know he was black before, they knew then) and his fears of getting old contributed to his breakdown.

From the gate, Charlamagne delved right into Ye’s mental issues, what Kanye prefers to call “a breakthrough.” Charlamagne asked, “Mentally, how are you?” to which “the rapper” (a term Ye thinks white media uses pejoratively) replied:

Ye: I think I’m in a stronger place than I ever was ... after the breakdown, or I like to say the breakthrough.

CTG: What do you think caused the mental breakdown?

Ye: Fear. Stress. Being in control. Manipulation .... Stressing things that create validation, that I didn’t need to worry about as much. You know, just this concept of competition. And being in competition with so many elements at one time. On a race against time, your age, “Oh, yo, you getting old,” a race against popularity on the radio. Khalid got this song, Drake got this song on the radio, playing to death, “Saint Pablo” ain’t playing.


Charlamagne pushed him, saying he has always created the flow, not gone with it. To which Ye replied:

It was weird; I was looking at, you know, we’re doing St. Pablo [The Life of Pablo] and the cultural impact is incredible, but I’m looking for other forms of validation, when there’s other frequencies and other currencies. ... But to put that same amount, if not more work into it ... and being used to it being like Graduation, which was everywhere, it was frustrating.


Charlamagne, who said that he went to therapy every Friday at 3, asked Kanye what he did for therapy, to which the rapper replied that he talks to his “friends for 45 minutes at a time” (he might wanna rethink that one).

He also said he wanted to change the stigma around the word “crazy”:

And then I say something absolutely inspired, but if they put something inspired in the wrong context, it will come off … I don’t want to say “crazy,” because I want to change the stigma of crazy, and I want to change the stigma of mental health, period. And I have done no extra study on it, and we are in the beginning of the conversation, but best believe I’m going to take the stigma off the word “crazy.” But let’s just say for now, people will take something that’s enlightened, put it in a different context and then call it crazy to try to diminish the impact and value of what I’m saying.


He also spoke directly about his hospitalization and how he felt he’d let his “tribe” down when he was sick:

When I was in the hospital, especially the black people that worked in the hospital, and I was on that hospital bed, and I felt like they were my family members. And I looked them in their eyes. And I don’t know, it was like the tribe or something. As much as I want to say we’re one race, one humanity, one living organism, there is an element of the black celebrity in America. And when I was laid out in that hospital bed looking through the window at a black UCLA employee, I felt like I had let them down. I felt that they were looking at me, not just sad; it’s like, “Yo, that’s Ye, bro, that’s our Ye Juice. They can’t break him.”


Charlamagne replied, “That is your tribe, though. One of the big moments is when you met with Donald Trump, and I think that let a lot of people down,” and then he segued into Ye’s meeting with Trump, which Kanye said people close to him warned him not to do for his “brand” integrity.

“First people say racism. Well, ‘What makes George Bush any more racist than Trump?’ is a question my friend asked me. Well, racism isn’t the deal breaker for me. If that was the case, I wouldn’t live in America.”


Kanye added that he’s “happy [the breakdown/hospitalization] happened,” but recalled a “traumatizing” moment when hospital staff separated him from his people, a definite nod to the way that mental health facilities criminalize their patients.


“When you’re in the hospital bed and you’re next to your friend and you tell them, ‘Don’t let this person leave my side,’ and they put you inside an elevator and take all your friends away from you, that was the scariest moment of my life,” he said. “That’s something that has to change.”

I’m not saying Kanye West has a mental illness. Though he has sung about Lexapro, talked about meds and being hospitalized, it’s not for me to say. And I’m not using that to deny, defend or cape for anything he has said out his much-moving mouth (or with his twitchy Twitter fingers).


However, I will say that we have got to calm the fuck down in terms of throwing people away when they are misinformed or wrong. There is a Yoruba proverb that goes, “If you eat well, you must speak well”—especially of those who have given so much to the culture.


I pray that Kanye continues to be the “brave” artist who confronts his fears, evolves, and works his personal value system and philosophy. Perhaps he might not want to do that in real time, before millions, but if that’s the energy he wants, then so be it.

Kanye West is a human being (with a not-so-bright wife who says that he’s not playing a “mental health card.” Quiet, mkay, Kim?)


People, watch the entire interview if you can stomach it ... even with a mindset of grace. Who knows, you might need some one day.

Ms. Bronner Helm is the Senior Editorial Director at Colorlines. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.


Kanye: “I didn’t want ya’ll calling me fat”

Also Kanye: “I would have been like Nat Turner or Harriet Tubman”

You would have rebelled, risked getting killed/get killed, saved people, been a spy, etc., etc., etc... but you’re afraid today of folk calling you fat.

Shut all the way up and read. a. book. or. five.hundred.books.