The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

Unraveling the cultural dilemma of Kanye West

A boxy beat plays from the oversized early 2000s speakers, bass radiating throughout the Roc-A-Fella record label’s studio walls into rapper Jay-Z’s ears. Taken aback, he removes his backwards cap and bobs his head to the beat, awed by the 24-year-old rapper who would later be known to the world as Ye. 

Jay-Z covers his face, in tears. In “Jeen-Yuhs,” a three-part docuseries about Kanye Omari West’s life released in 2022, Jay-Z said, “That shit just bring me joy, to see all this come from nothing and then, you know, being known as a name… [with] the passion he got for music, I don’t think he gon’ stop.” 

In order to properly understand West, one must not overlook his publicly known mental health struggles alongside his controversies. 

From his first hit single “Through the Wire” to his latest album “Donda,” West’s rap career has been heavily inspired by traumatic events in his life. On October 23 2002, after a long night in a recording studio, West fell asleep behind the steering wheel and crashed his car. The accident almost killed West and left him with a broken jaw. Part of his intense reconstructive surgery required his mouth to be wired shut, which provided the inspiration for “Through the Wire.” 

On November 10 2007, West’s mother, Donda West, tragically passed away at 57 following complications from liposuction and breast-reduction surgery. Kanye has spoken openly about his close relationship with his mother and created his latest album in her memory. 

English Teacher Julian Morris said, “When we think about ‘808’s and Heartbreak,’ the album stands out because it’s this intensely grief-stricken album … You have massive hits, but also just an acute sadness. And that I think it’s kind of the genesis of a lot of Kanye’s problems … the death of his mother kind of triggered a lot of other things that have … unraveled.”

West’s musical creativity and storytelling through his songs have gathered many fans. In its first week of sales, West’s 2008 album “808s & Heartbreak” became number one on the U.S. Billboard 200. 

“I’ve always appreciated the way [West] makes music and who he makes it for and how good it is,” former Associate Director of Admissions Chris Williams said. “All his beats for a long time [had the attitude of] … ‘Oh my gosh, you’re working with Kanye. That’s the man.’”

West is not only well-known for his music; he has also become notorious for his publicly broadcasted manic episodes and controversial public outbursts. On October 3 2022, West was spotted wearing a White Lives Matter shirt, a common white supremacist counter phrase to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Five days later, West posted on X, formerly Twitter, “I’m a bit sleepy tonight but when I wake up I’m going [DEFCON 3] On JEWISH PEOPLE. The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti-Semitic because black people are actually Jew also You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda.” 

West’s controversial views have not only affected his public image, but also people’s willingness to support his musical career. Gabe France ‘24 said, “Seeing [West’s anti-Semitic comments], I’m more saddened than I am attacked … the things that he says directly attack my own people. So I stopped listening to [his music].”

However, West’s transparency about his mental health struggles has opened many doors to further criticism, weaponization and exploitation of his vulnerability as a bipolar Black man. In 2016, West ended up at the Ronald Reagan University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. According to the clinical news site MedPageToday, bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes extreme shifts in mood, energy and behavior. 

School Counselor Amina Samake said, “It’s really hard for me to see folks who are clearly in the midst of a mental health crisis … [and] be[ing] exploited [by the media]. I do think that there’s a part where the music industry makes money off of this … All of that [makes it] … hard for me to really appreciate [his music] when it looks like he’s really struggling and not being helped.”

When Bassey Ikpi, founder of the mental health organization The Siwe Project was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she found it difficult to connect with other people in the Black community who shared similar experiences. Her organization centers Black and Brown people and aims to spread awareness and destigmatize mental illness. Ikpi says that her experience being hospitalized for her bipolar disorder has impacted her views on West. 

“All these people that you do have an impact on are seeing the way that you treat this person [with bipolar disorder],” Ikpi said in an interview with Boston University Radio (WBUR News). “And [people with bipolar disorder are] either going to hide from you, they’re going to dismiss their own feelings or they’re going to feel as though they’re not worthy of empathy and kindness and grace and forgiveness.” In an interview with The Washington Post, she said, “[West is] in an extended manic episode. This doesn’t excuse his behavior. But it does give a reason for it.”

On the talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” West said, “I think it’s important for us to have open conversations about mental health, especially me being Black, because we never had therapists in the Black community. We never approached taking medication.” 

“Each person’s experiences [and] struggles of being Black are different because each person has a different upbringing,” said Anthony Larkin ‘26.

“Growing up … I knew therapy was a thing, but my thinking and the thinking within families I knew was just that if there’s a problem, you leave that within the family system,” Samake said. “Because essentially, it was dangerous, just because of racism and how that stuff [you said] could be weaponized.”

“I think that there’s a major shift that’s happening where we’re starting to see [that] there are problems or things that we’re facing within [the Black] community and just as humans. [We] need to have a space where we can have unbiased conversations and be able to process it,” said Samake. “But also, we have a lot of trauma. Whether it’s community trauma, whether it’s intergenerational trauma … that actually deserves a space to be able to be discussed in …We can reclaim some of this space, where it doesn’t have to be dangerous and actually allows us to be in a place of strength.” 

Morris said, “Is it [West’s] personal psyche, or is it racism at an atomic level in this country that’s driving [him] crazy? … And I think there’s something maddening about that.”

“I think historically, even if you had the means [to afford mental healthcare] like Kanye West [does], going to a therapist wasn’t the first course of action for many folks within the Black community,” said Samake. “So I definitely think that there’s a piece around … accessibility.”

“I think whenever somebody like a celebrity or somebody who has a lot of status, talks about mental health and how it impacts them and the importance of getting care, I think it’s always beneficial,” Samake said. “And I think there will always be someone, whether they’re vocal about it or not, that will read that and be like, ‘Okay, if this can impact him, then I’m not alone and maybe there’s some support that I can get.’”

Morris feels that seeing Black representation in conversations about mental health can have an impact. “We’re all more heightened and aware [that] … mental health and wellness … [is] not just a white thing.”

West is open about experiencing manic episodes as a result of his bipolar disorder. In a 2019 interview with David Letterman, West said, “I ramp up, I go high.” He went on to describe feelings of paranoia and delusion, as well as being handcuffed, drugged and hospitalized.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, a manic episode is a period that lasts at least one week, during which a person with bipolar disorder is extremely high-spirited or irritable. Some also experience disorganized thinking, false beliefs and/or hallucinations, known as psychotic features. Manic episodes often cause dysfunction in work, family or social activities and responsibilities and they commonly require a person to receive hospital care to stay safe. If someone is bombarded or attacked during a manic episode, the symptoms of their episode may only worsen. 

“This is a sprained brain, like having a sprained ankle,” West said to Letterman. “And if someone has a sprained ankle, you’re not gonna push on him more. With us, once our brain gets to a point of spraining, people do everything to make it worse. They do everything possible. They got us to that point and then they do everything to make it worse.”

Later in the interview, West said, “[Bipolar disorder is] a health issue that has a strong stigma on it and people are allowed to say anything about it and discriminate in any way.”

Samake said, “There are things that [West has] said and done that hurt different communities, including the Black community … [which] can then undermine the initial message [that] it’s okay [to] talk about mental health concerns. … [West’s comments are] really impactful for a lot of different communities.”

Morris said, “[West has said] things you can’t come back from. I think he has all these exhibited symptoms that make it worrisome and make it that much more sad. There’s so much personal pain and suffering.”

Supporting his music can be hard while his controversy and mental health problems cannot be easily detached from his image. Many fans of West continue to struggle with separating West’s art from him as a person. “I think it’s possible to separate the art from the artist, but I think that’s dangerous. Because a lot of times, you do the art based on what you believe, not just randomness. So that’s what makes it tough, [because] you never know what’s fully inside someone’s mind,” said Williams.

Williams resonated with West’s experience of losing his mother. “My mom had passed around the same time [as West’s] … and so I grew closer to what he represented [at the time],” he said. To better understand West’s mental health struggles outside his bipolar disorder diagnosis, Williams said, “I think he’s still grieving [his mother]. Because I get it … how much she was everything to him. Williams added that aside from releasing “Donda,” little is known about how West coped with his mother’s death, including whether or not he received professional help. “That’s the side of his life we don’t know,” said Williams. 

“[West is] the most visible person with a bipolar diagnosis in the world right now,” said Ikpi. “So he represents more than just someone that people are projecting onto. He represents all of us.”

About the Contributor
Mia Fessel
Mia Fessel, Arts and Culture Editor