I've joked that Kanye was hugged too much as a child. It was a tongue-in-cheek observation, given how the same mind that gave us the 30-minute, visually and metaphorically stunning Runaway movie is prone to hissy fits and meltdowns when he doesn't get his way or award.
There were hints of this from the moment "Jesus Walks" exploded into our musical psyches, but after the death of his mother, Donda, it seemed as if Kanye became even more impulsive — all act now, think later. Open book — no filter. Queue up his infamous and inappropriately timed statement "George Bush doesn't care about black people." This is a man who doesn't mince words or hold back his emotions.
In a recent video making the rounds, Kanye discusses his last year and the penalties of being outspoken in a business that is all PR and photo ops: "If you say anything, you lose everything." Honestly? It's a refreshing approach in a society that seems to value politically mute buttons for celebrities. And refreshing, especially, for young black men who would rather stuff the pain until it eats them from the inside than let anyone see even a crumble of emotional dust.
It took me a while to admit to being a Kanye West fan. I loved his music and definitely saw hints of genius in his earlier productions both for other artists and for himself. But I found his arrogance off-putting. I appreciated his talent, but from the second I heard of this "Kanye West, son of college professors, raised to be intellectual and artistic," I expected more from him. At the very least, humility. Where I simply ignored the Soulja Boys and Ying Yang Twins of the world, I was disappointed in Kanye — his swan dive into the hip-hop pitfalls of materialism and braggadocio bored me. I just expected more than the "Louis Vuitton Don" image and ridiculously ostentatious displays of wealth.
Still, as time moved on, so did my opinion of Kanye. I began to admire his ability to own himself, to express his unabashed love of fashion even while demanding that his fans think bigger, smarter. Different. Like when he openly challenged homophobia within the unabashedly homophobic rap community (we'll forgive him for not yet speaking openly about misogyny — baby steps). Or his refusal to advance the gun talk. He's the anti-thug antidote — the representation for the other side of the game.
And finally, I've grown to appreciate Kanye for what he is. A man who loves music, who loved his mama and who loves his "stuff," yes — but also a man who lays bare his shortcomings and raw imperfections and, in living his life and expressing his emotions out loud, gives black men the invitation and permission to do the same.
As a mental health advocate, I've seen people crumble under lesser triggers. Losing your mother and your base and your support is the ultimate trigger. Yes, Kanye brags often about his riches, but I'm willing to bet my own baby boy that he would gladly give that all back just to have his mother for an hour, for a second.
Put aside all your preconceived notions about who Kanye West is and look at him purely as a child who has lost his mother and his way and is struggling to keep himself and his world together. It doesn't matter how old he is; as Taylor Swift so patronizingly noted, hurt is not about maturity or how much money you have. And I think this man is in pain.
I don't know Kanye. What I do know is that his talent is undeniable, but he's more than just an idol to be alternately worshipped and crucified; he's a human being. A lonely, depressed genius struggling to make sense of a world that fails to understand him. Struggling to articulate what happens in his mind and failing miserably in his quest to be understood. His music speaks for him more often than not, but he also won't allow his music to be his only voice. He pushes for more, and when you push too hard, something breaks.
Russell Simmons wrote a touching open letter in support of Kanye, but I challenge Simmons to go one step further. Call him. Reach out to him. Encourage him to finally seek the peace that left when his mother passed. Now, more than he does any iTunes download, Kanye needs that support.
Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian born poet-writer and mental health advocate. She is currently working on a memoir documenting her life living with bipolar II disorder. Follow her on Twitter.