Kanye West, Crazy Genius
Professor attempts to address the notion of mental illness in final public lecture on Kanye West
When a celebrity has reached the point in their career to deserve a profile story, there might not be anything more disheartening than having the opening anecdote be that of the President of the United States calling them a “jackass.” And yet, in The Atlantic’s “Kanye West, American Mozart” story, writer David Samuels not only shows President Obama calling Kanye a jackass, but also labels the rapper “frequently out of control” and “a national joke” in the subhead alone.
Whereas President Obama’s epithet can be written off as a criticism of Kanye’s antics, most of the labels put on the embattled rapper usually come back to one common theme—Kanye as crazy. It’s this theme, the conflation of “crazy” with “genius,” that Professor Jeffrey McCune seeks to address in the third and final talk of his Kanye West lecture series—“‘Name One Genius That Ain’t Crazy’: Kanye West and the Politics of Self-Diagnosis.”
“We want to keep him contained, we want to keep him in this box. And so when he acts outside of that box, folks say, ‘Oh my god, Kanye is crazy,’” McCune said. “And so, ultimately what I’m getting at in this lecture is not just about Kanye, it’s also about the larger notion of crazy and how we utilize it.”
For McCune, the larger notion of crazy manifests as a highly problematized way to describe other people we don’t understand and as a way to dismiss people’s disabilities. If Kanye is mentally ill, we, as a culture, dismiss that very real medical malady by labeling him with such dismissive language. But if Kanye isn’t mentally ill, we still use the word to dismiss his specific type of genius and innovation. Either Kanye is a crazy genius or just plain crazy, and never receiving the credit he is due for his contributions to hip-hop and American culture.
What Professor McCune hopes to detail in this third lecture is the way in which this dual discourse around the label “crazy” intensifies when it becomes racially coded.
“I think this is why race becomes important,” McCune said. “[Kanye as] a black man with a non-traditional aesthetic and a non-traditional black background, that his narrative does not fit within the container of an American’s imaginary, and so he never can escape that, because ultimately he already comes into the world at odds with the scripted narratives of black men.”
Because Kanye does not embody “gangsta rap” as our cultural imagination dictates black men should, his type of music is seen as abnormal. Kanye exists outside of the stereotypes expected of him and thus his accomplishments must be that of a “crazy genius.”
“I don’t think that Kanye is quote-unquote crazy when he makes these claims about wanting to be the next Steve Jobs and not being able to do so,” McCune said. “I think it makes total sense that he is burdened by the idea that he is stalled. He is stalled by his race. He is stalled by the racialized music that he actually performs. He’s stalled by people’s perceptions of him.”
By discussing this notion of Kanye as crazy genius, McCune hopes to tie together the themes of the first two lectures—black genius and the power of inaudibility—into one cohesive Kanye narrative. While McCune intentionally portrayed Kanye as a musical genius in the first two lectures, this final installment intends to problematize Kanye West and some of his actions over the years.
Ultimately, McCune hopes that students who come to the lecture take away the permission to be crazy, to be unstable, to be broken down sometimes.
“I want to give people permission to be enraged. Give people permission to be upset, to be angry, to be frustrated. Give people permission to have moments where they break. Give people permission to have moments where they experience depression,” McCune said. “I want to give them permission to have those moments without being characterized as being some type of deviant figure in the community.”
“I don’t want to take away that experience and call it crazy,” he added. “It’s reasonable. And it must be addressed with love, compassion, care, generosity.”
“‘Name One Genius that Ain’t Crazy’: Kanye West and the Politics of Self Diagnosis” will be held on Wednesday, April 12 at 6:00 p.m. in Emerson Auditorium. The lecture is free and open to the public.