Debate: Does Kanye West deserve our ridicule or understanding?

Debate: Does Kanye West deserve our ridicule or understanding?

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This week a petition was set up against the controversial booking of Kanye West for a headline slot on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage on the Saturday evening of this year’s festival. Entitled ‘Cancel Kanye West’s headline slot and get a rock band’ it now has over 80,000 signatures to its name, it also spawned some amusingly mocking petitions in return (Replace Kanye with Alan Partridge) !  Quite apart from how ignorant the petition appears to be on the face of it, the reference to ‘rock n roll’ seeming at best passe, at worst stupid; Glastonbury lest we forget started off as the ‘Pilton Pop, Rock and Blues’ festival. What could embody those three phrases more than a Hip Hop Act?!

And in that context, whatever your views on his works (some good, some bad), as one of the biggest and most famous figures in hip hop Kanye’s booking is actually perfectly in keeping with the spirit of Glastonbury. And further to that there are hundreds of other acts of all sizes and sounds, at Glastonbury so why are people so obsessed with the main stages? Jay Z, Metallica (who were deemed too metal) and even Gorillaz have come under fire for performing on the Pyramid stage in Somerset. Maybe it speaks to the fact that on the main stages at least, Glastonbury is now a Global event that can’t afford to fail; it is speaking to an audience beyond those that bought their tickets without knowing who would be headlining the main stages. Thus, figures like Beyoncé, Rolling Stones, U2 all fit this criteria of size. Gone are the days where an act like Pulp could steal the show like they did in 1994 when they replaced the Stone Roses.

Of course Kanye West is a controversial lightning rod figure, who clearly divides opinions, his outbursts at the Grammys, unusual behaviour and egotistical in this age of social media instantaneous ‘outrage’, create greater divisions between those who love and those who hate him. But the wider question was raised on Facebook, should we actually try to understand Kanye? Is his behaviour something deeper seated than mere Hip Hop bravado? So we threw it open to debate here are the results:

Debate: Perhaps Kanye Needs Our understanding? Perhaps he is dealing with mental illness?

John Clay: Kanye ought to just take a long break on one of his mate’s islands and recover. Let’s face it, being under the scrutiny of the world’s press has probably led to a psychotic break. Seriously, from the crying on radio, laying on the floor saying nothing during THAT interview and his continual inane outbursts, perhaps Kanye needs our understanding and support?

Bill Cummings: Following your question John, I just looked up the definition of a ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’ following our previous discussion about Kanye and whether he is displaying as someone with Narcissistic tendencies, someone who is struggling to cope. Apparently it is “is characterized by a long-standing pattern of grandiosity (either in fantasy or actual behaviour), an overwhelming need for admiration, and usually a complete lack of empathy toward others. People with this disorder often believe they are of primary importance in everybody’s life or to anyone they meet.

As part of a hip hop culture that already celebrates the grandiose and displays of wealth and power. I think Kayne has perhaps become SO famous and his ego and personality exists in such a rarefied air, where his every action has been condoned for years, every release, his collaborations and utterance poured over. His relationships dissected with a fine tooth comb. From his strange performances and egotistical babblings on screen and stage, to his most bombastic outbursts has fed into his inflated sense of self. Clearly a talent, he has reached the level of.

Which leads me to the point in question: whether the outrage directed at his clearly egotistical in part outbursts against Beck at the Grammys, the insinuation was that Beck is not a proper artist and his friend Beyoncé deserved the prize more. Which is hilarious given Becks’ varied and genre-hopping career, he typifies the idea of an artist. Also the fact that he spoke up for Beyoncé when she is clearly capable of speaking for herself is another display of narcissism and self-aggrandisement. This fits into his sense of entitlement, sense of self and his own opinions are more important than others, and his notions as beyond reproach. But maybe he had a point too, maybe Beck’s album wasn’t the best album of the year? Maybe there is a strand of racism and sexism still residing in the industry, in that way his outburst was brave in an era where pop stars do not challenge for fear of the backlash.

Kanye got a backlash but maybe we should try to understand why Kanye is the way he is, some of his actions, his outbursts and the way he treats paparazzi is perhaps a reflection of both our modern obsession with celebrity culture that is never quenched. And yes his disintegration as a personality, his insecurities and his strange appearances on TV.

Is it because he comes from a minority that this argument has never been made before? Is it as a simple as you are either with Kanye or against him? One thing is for sure his Glasto booking will turn up the heat of controversy on his personalities and persona, can he handle it or is it all a grand ruse?! Or maybe – just maybe – our culture doesn’t allow for the different, the other, the slightly challenging. Maybe we frown upon these notions because it challenges the status quo, when in reality that’s what music used to do.

Is Kanye the kind of person who can step back or is he going to inflate to the point of implosion like Michael Jackson is? One thing is for sure this is a very important area for debate. I might find Kayne’s brand of pos gangster rap quite boorish in the main, but I defend his right to be booked. The avalanche of column inches that will follow from the Daily Mail and NME alike are perhaps more of a reflection of us than of Kanye; maybe Kanye is a persona and not who we think he is. It’s something I have argued about Morrissey before. Who knows?

So let’s not come to bury him but maybe we need to try and understand him more, and if anything I have learnt from the previous discussion, maybe he does have a mental challenge that’s magnified by who he is and the scrutiny he lives with; it’s something we all face day to day but living in the bubble something is bound to crack. Maybe mental illness is the last taboo and maybe the criticism of Kanye comes from a mixture of misunderstanding and a guilt that we made him this way. Will one of the last taboos in a very macho kind of hip hop music be explored?”

John Clay: I’ve begun to feel a little guilty of late in regards to my comments on West’s actions. I don’t think I’m the only one to have wondered if he’s had a break with reality, am I? Did we make him this way? Are we more forgiving of Cobain, Morrison, Moon, etc because of our ability to know West’s every move?

Adam Burrows: Best headliner choice since Beyonce and the most interesting since Radiohead (not that there’s been much competition in recent years). Good work Piltons. Won’t be there this time but definitely watching it on telly.

Damien Sayell: Glastonbury is one of the biggest festivals in the world. Foo Fighters are one of the biggest rock bands in the world. They’re announced. No one bats an eyelid. They announce arguably the biggest hip hop artist in the world and it’s an outrage. It doesn’t make sense to me. I can completely understand that Kanye as a person might not be to everyone’s taste, but his music in the last ten years has been far more interesting and creative than that of Foo Fighters, Kasabian and most of the bands that have headlined Glastonbury in that time. Would they react that way if it were Oasis announced as headliners this year?

John Clay: Probably, but far less and for different reasons. I think we have a world culture in denial about stars who become mentally ill. Unless the media states it and gives us a context to feel bad for them, we’re encouraged to treat such cases with a mob mentality.
Matt Buяn: I think there’s some very shrewd marketing going on behind Kanye, with the time-proven notion that ‘any publicity is good publicity.’ He’s the Katie Hopkins of hip-hop and knows very well that pissing people off by acting like a spoiled simple-minded brat will inevitably get his name to ‘trend’ more. I drift in and out of paying attention to Kanye’s music (some is genius and some is hideous) and have grown to abhor the man he pretends to be… But that doesn’t make him any less fascinating to watch from a distance. The ‘Runaway’ full-length film is one of the most hilarious pieces of ‘art’ I have seen for a long time; I enjoyed it nearly as much as ‘Moonwalker’ and ‘In The Closet’… I don’t think he needs help. I think he’s doing pretty bloody well all by himself.
Damien Sayell: I think the fact we’re discussing in the context of him being mentally ill is part and parcel of what I’m saying. Noel Gallagher – a white English rock songwriter declares himself a genius and he’s being a rockstar or John Lennon for that matter declaring the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Bono says ‘I’m the closest human to being Jesus on the planet’  – he’s seen as a prick but not mentally ill. A black American rapper/producer says he’s a genius and he’s mentally ill. Perhaps it’s because him using samples and what have you is seen as a lesser art form than writing at a piano or on a guitar, and through that his statements about his ability as a creator of music aren’t taken as seriously. I watched an interview where Kanye West said something along the lines of ‘I’m protective of my music, my family and my ideas’. I for one can’t argue with him for feeling that way.

John Clay: You really think he’s turned his life into a play? I don’t know. The same was said of Cyrus and Bowie before her. I think he’s in need of a holiday away from a media which causes him to cry inexplicably on live radio; to lie down and become a mute during an interview, and to constantly, relentlessly make statements which call into question just how far his ego has stretched. Yes, the media has deified a form of music over the other, but many people were calling Lennon mentally ill during the bed period with Yoko. 
Damien Sayell: I believe he starting crying because he was discussing the sudden and recent death of a close friend. A female fashion designer who’d been his mentor.
John Clay: More reason then for a time out. He didn’t just cry, he wept. Surely he’s not the only person to have been in interview whilst mourning a close death? He needs a break. This isn’t an attack, more a refocus of how we might see someone of his status and the actions he’s exhibited. Hope that’s clear.
Damien Sayell: Absolutely clear. He’s probably not the only person to have been interviewed during a time of mourning but, that’s not to say him showing that grief is a sign of mental illness if anything it should have gone some way to humanizing him. Granted the pressure of paparazzi and all the other despicable acts of intrusion he must incur may take their toll. I personally think half the stuff he says is tongue in cheek, the other half he believes and the other half is to build hype around his releases. How can he have three halves I hear you ask? Because he’s Kanye fucking West that’s why! Haha.
John Clay: Funny! Still, he’s done a lot more than cry in public (see past post). West is merely a way of me branching on a bigger issue. If you’ll permit me a speech:
Remember how the media treated Jade Goody before she became a cancer victim? They called her a pig. They bullied her over certain statements which revealed her terrible education. Then, given a different context borne from her illness – they recast her. We all did, or at least history focusses on her bravery in the face of death. I think it’s odd in this day and age to pull away from a consensus regarding a notorious figure, but my aim is to frame Kanye West in this comment thread as a means to discuss wider issues. Separating caricatures from the reality ought to be an instinctive thing, but it’s tough, perhaps impossible, seeing as we get bombarded with ridiculous statements/actions on the hour wherever that celebrity may be, regardless of the possibility that they might need help.
Damien Sayell: I don’t think it’s that hard to differentiate from the person and the artist/celebrity. I think people are just selective with whom they chose to do it to. An example – Chris Brown savagely assaults Rihanna and we should all stop listening to his music because he’s a terrible person, yet the same rule doesn’t apply to James Brown or John Lennon who are both known to have assaulted women. No one talks about that. They’ve all perpetrated the same hideous act but, two of them are seen as seminal artists so it’s not something that clings to the general consensus’ idea of who they are. Same applies to Elvis. Everyone knows how old Priscilla was when he first started trying to court her. 14 I believe it was, but he’s The King so we choose not to be outraged by it.
John Clay: I honestly believe Lennon, Brown and Presley would have been given the same flack as Rihanna’s ex had they existed today, with our social media.
Michael Counsell: It’s not really the role of the public or pundits to diagnose a public figure with a mental illness, and then make the assumption about whether or not they are not receiving treatment for it. It’s down to the individual, those who are closest to them and the relevant medical people. Anything else is just speculation fuelling a spectacle.
Phillip Raymond Goodman: The problem with suggesting he has narcissistic personality disorder is that all performers, artists or anyone who feels the urge to put themselves in any sort of spotlight is almost by definition a narcissist.
Matt Buяn: Not sure I agree with that, I know a heck of a lot of performers and musicians and a LOT of them are extremely introverted and quite the opposite from being narcissistic.  I also don’t think crying, or weeping, about the death of a mentor/loved one is a sign of weakness or mental illness, in public or not, I agree that this humanised him in a way I’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, I work in advertising so I am a constant sceptic. I know how strong the media plots and plans every reaction they get from the public, they channel our opinions without us noticing. Makes it very hard to know what to believe and what not to about celebrities. I wonder what would happen if it emerged that Kanye beat on Kim. Would we treat him any differently? He’s already pretty low in a lot of people’s opinions…
John Clay: Yes, Michael Counsell: interesting point regarding the role of the pundit. At first I did consider that there might be a ghoulish underside to this discussion. However, it can be argued that in starting a discussion with the intention of compassion and understanding about a flamboyant man such as West might, in fact, lead to a bigger question. Mental illness ought to have the taboo taken out of it. Let’s face it, due to the way social media works, we’re all self-appointed pundits now. Let’s use our status updates to do more than the occasional sharing of a meal or a cuddly furry animal.
Bill Cummings: Foo Fighters are boring. Whilst I am not really a fan, I support the Kanye booking because he is the biggest thing in hip hop right now so his booking makes sense. I think the issue with festivals like Glastonbury now is they have become SO huge, so commercial so worldwide, that very few risks are taken with their headliners. You won’t for instance get a surprise(at the time) headliner, like Pulp stealing the show. They want bankers now, world wide bankers. Kanye is a massive name, so in one respect his booking his brave(due to the controversy it will spark) and in others it’s very predictable. Jay Z may be the booking that truly broke the mould at Glastonbury.
Maybe it’s easier to call Kanye a ‘jackass’ because of the hip hop culture he comes from and some of his undoubtedly stupid behaviours, I am not sure but there could partly be an under current of racism about some people’s reactions to him though. Maybe the under current of a possible mental illness is something people wouldn’t accept because of Kanye’s massive ego persona plus it doesn’t fit the rock n roll mould of the tragic/haunted artist like Cobain, Curtis et al…But maybe if he does have a mental issue then it’s something more reflective of modern kind of cracking up that those under the scrutiny of extreme fame suffer in more unusual ways…
Phillip Raymond Goodman: Introversion and narcissism are not incompatible. Many performers are also at heart introverts, especially those with ideas. Narcissism is ultimately about how you think and feel about yourself not about what you do.
Bill Cummings: Very interesting point about social media too, it appears to have changed the discourse between artist and fan. Not just for good in terms of being able to communicate with your favourite artists, but platforms like twitter encourage bandwagons of ‘outrage,’ by their nature that everyone feels they must comment on to be part of the group. Going to the heart of the point  John Clay made, I think the reactions to the likes of Lennon, George Best, whoever would have been markedly different if we hadn’t had the distance between famous person and Joe Blogs that we had back then, indeed twitter, fuelled by the likes of the Daily Mail is designed with its trends and short status updates for those kinds of snap decisions and condemnation without thought.
Matt Buяn: Agreed they’re not incompatible, not my point… I more meant that the fact that someone puts themselves in the spotlight does not necessarily mean they are narcissistic by definition.
Bill Cummings: Yeah I think maybe Kanye displays narcissistic tendencies, and was looking for the definition, I wasn’t necessarily saying he has the disorder. But some of the behaviours such as believing your voice to be more important than others and speaking for other artists in a public platform and to sooth your own ego are quite narcissistic. As has been mentioned an element of that is common in all artists though, so it’s debatable whether he actually has a disorder. Also I agree the introvert also covers up their insecurity with an amour of bravado, I believe that to be common in artists of his level too. It may be the only way to cocoon yourself from the levels of criticism, to create your own suit of psychological amour from the world.
Phillip Raymond Goodman: Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes” so they seek no gratification from admiring other peoples attributes? So they’re masochists?
John Clay: It’s safe to say that should I update my status with ‘Kanye West is a prick,’ no one would take umbrage. If however I suggest the man exhibits symptoms of NPD and thus needs sympathy, people become uncomfortable. We have a long way to go as a culture regarding our approach to the subject at hand, but I’m convinced readers are becoming tired of being unwitting throwers of old produce. This debate is great by the way. It’s good to have strong opinions which challenge my own, as well as have my beliefs and conjectures confirmed.
 Time and time again, pop music has continually asked us to re-evaluate our culture through the sayings and lifestyles of its biggest characters. For me, Kanye West has reaffirmed my suspicion of a media intent on reflecting our deep desire for justice. Of course, West is undeserving of such a potent and relentless assault of his behaviour, but try telling that to the man himself. For whatever the reason, be it ego, be it a crusade to represent those with less of a voice in mainstream culture – or be it the impulsive actions of a man lost in his own caricature – Kanye West has invited us into his personal life. Common sense would suggest his collusion with the press to keep the eye on him via his marriage and his music is a bad move. In fact, many comments have been made in this thread to compare Kanye’s case with contemporaries and historical figures alike. The more I think about it, the more I can’t see such comparisons bearing fruit, mainly due to the unpredictable and knee jerk element of social media. Perhaps we have to be patient with how this story ends? Our attempts to quantify our thoughts may be unconditionally bridled to time.

‘Kanye needs our understanding’ not our ridicule. What do you think?!





God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.