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Kanye West has made some outlandish statements over the years. Back in 2018, the Grammy award-winning artist described slavery as “a choice.” In 2020, he claimed Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves.” (Yes, Underground Railroad Harriet Tubman.) These fake-deep sentiments are not only hurtful and misinformed, but also deeply irresponsible coming from a man with the platform that Ye possesses. But they were only predictors of his latest attention-seeking shenanigans.
On Monday, Kanye appeared at a fashion show for his YZY brand wearing a shirt with the phrase “White Lives Matter” adorned on the back. Conservative commentator Candace Owens did the same, as did commissioned models for the brand. And with that spectacle of anti-Blackness, the rapper/producer/mogul crossed a point of no return.
If a White person performed the aforementioned antics, we’d easily identify them as racist. But when a Black man is the perpetrator—particularly a rapper and producer widely respected in the Black community—things get complicated for some folks. Especially when said superstar has a well-documented and self-disclosed history with mental illness and a cultish fanbase at his back that refuses to hold him accountable for his dangerous words and actions.
Following the swift backlash to his provocative attire, Ye shot back, seemingly taking aim at an executive at the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation who has been accused of siphoning millions from the organization’s fundraising for personal use. “Everyone knows that Black Lives Matter was a scam,” West wrote in a since-deleted Instagram story. “Now it’s over. You’re welcome.” The thing is, that weak justification just doesn’t hold up.
In a vacuum, the phrase “white lives matter” is simply stating the obvious. Every corner of American culture, politics, and infrastructure reminds us of this every day. But we’re all well aware that the phraseology—along with “blue lives matter”—is a racist rebuttal to the Black Lives Matter movement. The Aryan Renaissance Society, a white supremacist organization, popularized the phrase via flyers and posters back in 2015, creating a rally cry for racists. And social scientists have linked “white lives matter” support to implicit racism. This is all easy enough to understand. So what is Yeezy’s deal?
To attribute Ye’s anti-Black sentiments to bipolar disorder—as some of his defenders have done—is not only wrong, it’s disrespectful to others who share his condition.
It may be hard for some to accept, but the same rapper who once famously said, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” after the government’s botched Hurricane Katrina relief effort is now parroting white supremacist talking points Bush wouldn’t dare utter. (At least not publicly.) This isn’t about disallowing one man from going against the grain. It’s certainly not about suppressing “free thought,” an expression that Kanye has trotted out in the past. The offense that many are taking—this last straw—is about the danger in Mr. West’s descent into white supremacist madness. How could a Black man who claims to love Black people embrace an ideology that endangers us?
Yes, Kanye West has been candid about how bipolar disorder has affected him. Those of us who are fortunate enough to not share his diagnosis can empathize with the struggles that come along with it. But that doesn’t make him infallible. And to attribute his anti-Black sentiments to bipolar disorder—as some of his defenders have done—is not only wrong, it’s disrespectful to others who share his condition.
According to the American Psychological Association, people with bipolar disorder may experience “extremes of happiness, energy, and clarity to sadness, fatigue, and confusion.” However, the illness is not associated with a particular worldview or political affiliation. To attribute these spewings and demonstrations to mental illness contributes to a false stigma about bipolarism.
Mental illness didn’t warp Ye’s mind to make him believe enslaved Black people were “mentally imprisoned.” Truth is, White Americans and their slave patrols maintained the chattel slavery system with the support of the slave codes. Black Americans engaged in more than 250 uprisings in search of freedom, not to mention fighting in the Civil War as well. Mental illness didn’t delude Ye into discrediting Tubman—who also served in the Union army and was often referred to as the Moses of her people—and the heroism of her freeing hundreds of people from physical bondage.
For some, rationalizing Kanye’s white supremacist talking points is easier than accepting that his worldview has shifted over time. This is no longer the same rapper and producer who created The College Dropout, an artist fans have grown to love and admire. Others are speaking out. For instance, Jaden Smith, who was in attendance at the now-infamous fashion show, left abruptly after seeing the shirts bearing racist messaging. He later posted “Black Lives Matter” to his Twitter timeline. Boosie was a bit more direct: “You give no f*cks about how Blacks have died n suffered to the hands of the white man. N u say Bush doesn’t like Black people? Really n*gga.”
For too long, fans have shuttered the conversation about Kanye West’s anti-Black racism by blaming mental illness. But Kanye’s agenda has become clear as day. This man is a Black conservative—the same dude who said wearing Donald Trump’s MAGA hat made him feel like Superman. And he’s a danger to the rest of us. If you can’t see that now, you probably never will.