“I almost killed my daughter,” Kanye West said on stage, screaming through tears, at a presidential campaign rally in South Carolina in July. Wearing what appeared to be a bulletproof vest, an American flag flimsy on the stage behind him, West told the crowd about Kim Kardashian’s decision to give birth to their first daughter after she was considering abortion. West’s own mother, he says, continued with her pregnancy with him even when his father wanted her to have an abortion. “My mom saved my life!” he shouted.
It was a troubling speech, one which echoed the stories of “abortion survivors,” a formless term that describes individuals who were “saved” by parents who previously considered abortion. But it wasn’t uncharted territory for West, who has made anti-abortion statements before, like claiming that Democrats force Black people to abort their children. Anti-abortion advocates immediately latched onto the speech; Lila Rose, the founder of anti-abortion organization Live Action, called it “incredible.” And mainstream media outlets were quick to cover the speech and legitimize the rally for a campaign only announced in early July, with little paperwork to actually back up the claim, following several years of talking about a 2020 run. By the time Kim Kardashian released a statement, urging people to consider West’s bipolar disorder, and wrote that “his words some times do not align with his intentions,” it was too late: West’s mental health had once again become a spectacle, a spark of a statement stoked into a wildfire by news outlets and conservatives looking to capitalize on West’s outrageousness.
For his entire career, West has been a controversial celebrity, grabbing headlines with last-minute, post-release album changes and his fervent support (and recent disavowal) of President Trump. This is a man who wasn’t afraid to say that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” or that he believes Bill Cosby is “innocent,” and has claimed firmly that he is “the greatest artist of all time.” While his wife may be derided as “famous for being famous,” West is equal parts rapper, gospel singer and amateur preacher, opera writer, fashion designer, architect, and (apparently) middling presidential hopeful. To some, he is a filterless egomaniac; to others, he is an artist whose genius has been derided by those who celebrate “genius” in white artists but deem the same behavior narcissism in Black artists like West.
No matter what you believe, West has the public’s attention, the media ready to capture all this behavior for a hungry audience. As Craig Jenkins wrote at Vulture about the toxic relationship between West and the media: “The cycle continues: Kanye says a thing, we all go the long way believing it, the idea proves untenable, and his sense that people are out to get him is reinforced, while the belief that he is coolly orchestrating loud drama for financial gain persists... What if we’re wrong, and what we see as promotional stunts is actually something much darker?”
For the past five years, it’s been harder to cover West’s behavior, the erratic tweeting, the hospitalizations, the Trump support, as simply the result of misunderstood artistic brilliance. But it’s also been taboo to speculate about West’s mental health. “What is ‘genius,’ after all, if not societally celebrated madness?” Jayson Greene wrote for Pitchfork in 2018. “To be clear: I am not speculating on Kanye’s mental health, which remains his business.” Jezebel’s editor Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote in a 2016 piece about the problems with diagnosing West while reflecting on his comments about depression: “Armchair diagnoses—the endpoint of mental health talk on Twitter—are always reductive and often actively harmful.”
Yet in 2020, the public now knows that West is bipolar. “That’s my bipolar shit,” West rapped on “Yikes,” from his tossed-off 2018 album ye, the cover of which was scrawled with “I hate being Bi-Polar it’s awesome.” There, he also described his disorder as a “superpower.” He spoke frankly about his diagnosis in a New York Times interview around the same time, but also said that he was learning how to “not be on meds.” West framed his mental health issues, not as a hindrance, but something that fueled his creativity and genius; “name one genius that ain’t crazy,” he rapped on 2016's The Life of Pablo.
“It’s like a sprained brain,” he told David Letterman in 2019. “If someone has a sprained ankle, you’re not going to push on him more. With us, once our brain gets to a point of spraining, people do everything to make it worse.” And though he would later tell Trump that he was “misdiagnosed,” attributing his behavior to “sleep deprivation,” Kardashian’s recent statement reaffirms West’s diagnosis.
All of West’s comments cannot be excused through a bipolar diagnosis, but the longer critics, journalists, and fans treat his behavior as wholly calculated, to ignore the complexities of his mental health in coverage of his behavior, the longer they can capitalize off it as a zany spectacle. Everyone wants a piece of West: right-wing commentators get to wear his endorsements like a badge of honor, politics outlets get to run serious stories about his speeches and tweets for traffic gains. Tabloids and entertainment sites like TMZ and Us Weekly turn every comment and tweet West makes into a wild breaking story, while music outlets approach West as an artist first, fumbling with how to cover his illness in tandem with his art.
Even writing this post is difficult; in writing about the spectacle of Kanye West, this piece, in turn, legitimizes that spectacle. But the ongoing coverage of West’s outbursts also underlines discrepancies regarding which celebrities get to be ill. White celebrities like Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, and Amanda Bynes get to overcome the glare of tabloid scrutiny, their shaky mental health now legitimized by a press that once abused its proximity; they were surveilled harshly by tabloids but given the benefit of the doubt, their struggles with mental illness assumed from the start. Yet West seems suspended in time, his mental health rendered a question mark even though he’s given us his answer.
West tweeted an apology to Kardashian after his speech, writing, “Kim I want to say I know I hurt you. Please forgive me. Thank you for always being there for me.” Shortly after, it was reported that West had visited a Wyoming hospital. As long as he stays in the public eye, outlets will cover his actions and his words no matter how shaky his mental health seems. But it’s irresponsible to conveniently side-step the noted reality of what exactly ails him, as outlets and pundits mold Kanye West into whatever scandalizing news story they need that day.