Why hasn’t Kanye West been 'cancelled' — and what does that even mean?

Anti-Semitic rants, declarations he is a deity and verbal attacks on his wife — has the rapper gone too far?

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Certain corners of the internet and media would have us believe that famous people are being cancelled on a daily basis. That the relentless march towards “woke” has left so many well-known people shunned that the whole celebrity ecosystem is in danger of collapsing.

This is not true. As Irish comedian and talk show host Graham Norton so succinctly pointed out at the recent Cheltenham Literature Festival: “You read a lot of articles in papers by people complaining about ‘cancel culture'. You think, in what world are you cancelled? I’m reading your name in a newspaper, or you’re doing an interview about how terrible it is to be cancelled.”

Cancellation has proven to be largely a myth, a buzzword, which, as with garnering likes and online support when hashtagged in social media soundbites, is rarely reflected in real life.

Some of this explains why, despite years of making damaging, abusive and threatening public statements and false allegations, Kanye West manages to shake off the fallout of his actions as though he is coated in Teflon.

Over the past few weeks, West, who now goes by the name Ye, has posted anti-Semitic messages on social media; accused his estranged mother-in-law Kris Jenner of having an affair with Canadian rapper Drake; worn a White Lives Matter T-shirt at his Paris Fashion Week show; sat down for an interview with Fox News’s right-wing host Tucker Carlson that later made headlines thanks to outtakes of West floating a series of conspiracy theories; and said George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police officers in May 2020 galvanised the Black Lives Matter movement, actually "died from fentanyl”.

Kanye West, centre, attends the Givenchy spring/summer 2023 fashion show during Paris Fashion Week on October 2, 2022. AFP

Not for the first time, West's outbursts have caused several social media storms and plenty of backlashes. Previous declarations, such as his assertion in 2018 that slavery was a "choice", resulted in a global outcry. This time around, organisations such as Twitter and Instagram have blocked his accounts, while the likes of his estranged wife, Kim Kardashian, singer John Legend and actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Sarah Silverman have spoken out against him.

But then why does the rapper, 45, keep selling albums, fashion lines and tours?

The answer is complicated, drawing together West’s mental health, global fame, wealth and influence and rabidly loyal fans — not to mention America’s complex relationship with race — to create a giant ball of Ye-shaped yarn, where pulling one string, rather than unravelling him, just seems to knot it tighter.

Mental health issues plus a global platform

During The Saint Pablo Tour in late 2016, West started to make statements that would alienate his fanbase, such as declaring he would have voted for Donald Trump and publicly criticising Beyonce and Jay-Z.

The remainder of the tour was scrapped and West was hospitalised for “exhaustion and dehydration”, which actually meant he'd been put on an emergency psychiatric hold that resulted in the rapper receiving a bipolar disorder diagnosis.

In December 2018, West revealed he had stopped taking his medication, tweeting: “I’m loving the new music I’ve been working on. 6 months off meds I can feel me again.” Later tweeting: “I cannot be on meds and make watch the throne level or dark fantasy level music.”

“I ramp up, and I go high,” the Gold Digger singer told David Letterman on his show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction in May 2019. “If you don’t take medication every day to keep you at a certain state, you have the potential to ramp up, and it can even take you to a point where you can even end up in the hospital. And you start acting ‘erratic’, as TMZ would put it.”

TMZ was the online news outlet in whose newsroom in 2018 West declared slavery to be a “choice”.

“As many of you know, Kanye has bipolar disorder,” Kim Kardashian wrote on Instagram in 2020. “Anyone who has this or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand.”

'The ability to not be influenced'

A large part of the rapper’s ongoing public narrative has focused on how external forces and people are trying unsuccessfully to control and manipulate him, a position he took during his support of Donald Trump in 2018, and his own abortive 2020 presidential campaign.

During his Letterman interview, West said he felt “bullied” by liberals and the media, insisting he wasn’t a Republican, but rather a contrarian.

“My power is the ability to not be influenced," he told the talk show host.

Three years later, West’s “me against the world” stance shows no signs of abating as his recent controversial sit-down talk with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson attests.

“They keep on using the: ‘Oh he's crazy, he's crazy,' thing. And it hurts my feelings when people say that,” he told the host on Tucker Carlson Tonight. “Come smack me or come shoot me. I’m the one that got bullied by the entire black celebrity community.”

The curse of the ‘genius’ tag

The word “genius” has been attached to West since the release of his debut album, The College Dropout, in 2004. The album, which contained the tracks Through the Wire and Jesus Walks, went quadruple platinum in the US, and continues to make appearances on lists of the “greatest albums of all time”.

Kardashian herself has described her ex-husband as a “brilliant but complicated person”.

West’s creative talent has taken on an unchecked life of its own over the years as his every album, up until 2018's Ye, went multi-platinum and his fashion collaborations with Gap, Nike, Louis Vuitton, APC and Balmain all sold out. His Yeezy collaboration with adidas has made billions of dollars.

A distressed jacket and jeans from the first drop of the Yeezy Gap Engineered by Balenciaga collection. Photo: Gap

“For me, you know, I’m a creative genius and there's no other way to ... word it,” West once told late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel.

The “genius” line has often veered into Messiah complex territory. “I’m like a vessel, and God has chosen me to be the voice and the connector,” he told The Fader in 2008. A sentiment that evolved into: “I am a god. Now what?” when West explained the title of his track I Am A God from his 2013 album Yeezus to W magazine.

These self-beliefs can be a result of his disorder, says consultant psychiatrist Dr Saman Ahmed, who works at The Lighthouse Arabia.

“During manic or hypomanic episodes, patients would say ‘they never felt better'," says Dr Ahmed. "There is so much going on that there is no time to seek treatment nor do they see the need to. There is overwhelming joy, excitement or happiness, huge energy, a reduced need for sleep, and reduced inhibitions. In the hypomanic states, creative people have produced their best pieces of work.

“They report feeling all-powerful, invincible or destined for greatness.”

The final straw?

While only certain parts of the Carlson interview were aired, leaked footage made its way online, showing West frequently referencing Jewish people. He also claimed fake children had been planted in his house to manipulate his own children, North, 9, Saint, 6, Chicago, 4, and Psalm, 3.

He then wrote anti-Semitic messages on his Twitter account, which was locked soon after, with his Instagram account following suit after he posted a screenshot of a text conversation with Sean “Diddy” Combs, in which he insinuated Combs was being controlled by Jewish people.

In recent weeks US bank JP Morgan Chase severed ties with the rapper and his Yeezy Inc brand, demanding that he "promptly transfer" his business to another financial institution by November 21. In September, a leaked internal memo from Gap brand president and chief executive Mark Breitbard said the company would be winding down their partnership with West as they were no longer aligned on how to work together.

Adidas says it is reviewing its creative relationship with West “after repeated efforts to privately resolve the situation”.

However, for West, as one door closes, another opens and the rapper’s relentless assertion that attempts are being made to limit his freedom of expression are likely to be behind the news that he will now acquire Parler, the right-leaning social media app similar to Twitter that is popular among conservatives.

“In a world where conservative opinions are considered to be controversial, we have to make sure we have the right to freely express ourselves,” West said in a statement about the purchase.

This will, of course, appeal to Republicans and those decrying "cancel culture", at least.

Will a boycott come next?

While great inroads have been made to remove the stigma around mental health, thanks to more people talking publicly about their struggles, society is still a long way from fully understanding and accepting the nuances around the infinite issue.

In bipolar disorder, in particular, the symptoms are vast and wide-ranging. So when West's cancellation is called for, what exactly is being demanded — a societal shunning of the man or his mental health issues?

"With severe bipolar disorder, one can experience hallucinations and start believing in things that others find irrational," says Dr Waleed Ahmed, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Abu Dhabi. "During the manic phase, people may engage in risky behaviours and be reckless, such as going on buying sprees. Episodes of mania and depression often last for weeks or months.

"It is a life-long illness but the symptoms can be effectively managed by following a treatment plan that usually includes medications and psychotherapy.”

Until West enters treatment and a change in behaviour is seen, some will continue to call for him to be boycotted, while others will side with Kardashian’s assertion that “his words sometimes do not align with his intentions”.

Updated: October 19, 2022, 12:40 PM
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