Washington University professor Jeffrey McCune recently lit the Internet ablaze when word got out that he was using Kanye West as a case study on societal perceptions of mental illness. In conjunction with his class entitled “The Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics,” he delivered three public lectures this semester. The third and final lecture, entitled, “Name One Genius That Ain’t Crazy: Kanye West And The Politics of Self-Diagnosis,” references “Feedback” off Kanye’s most recent album, The Life Of Pablo: “I can’t let these people play me / Name one genius that ain’t crazy!”
As a Kanye West superfan and forever apologist, I flipped out along with the Internet when I read about Professor McCune’s brilliant choice of scholarship. For years I’ve felt that the public is unfairly dismissive of Kanye — less his music, which tends to be critically-acclaimed, but more his persona, which is habitually scorned as obnoxious and, well “crazy.” Just last week I heard someone say, “If I see a headline about Kanye that isn’t about his music, I’m like — don’t care.” Obama put it more bluntly, calling Kanye a “jackass.” Professor McCune told me that black artists, ranging from Kanye to Lauren Hill to Azealia Banks, are often given this kind of treatment. “[We] continue to consume their art and mark their creators as possessors of madness that cannot be controlled; fodder for our own humor or judgement,” he said.
While Kanye isn’t always the most eloquent or polite, I’ve always thought there was a lot of truth behind his words. George Bush did not care about black people! Beyoncé deserved that award! “Suit & Tie” is aural assault! F*ck you and your corporation! I’d rather be a dick than a swallower, too. People should, I’ve felt and as Kanye once tweeted: “Shut the f*ck up and enjoy the greatness.”
This fall, the media reported that Kanye was put in an involuntary psych hold by his personal physician after exhibiting signs of temporary psychosis. Like Professor McCune, I was troubled by the response, which often felt infantilizing. Kanye was now “crazy,” which meant were now justified in failing to take him seriously. As Lady Gaga tweeted: “While I don’t agree with everything he does I hope the public shows compassion and [love] for Kanye West and each other.”
Professor McCune told me he’s “always concerned with popular ascriptions of ‘crazy’ for black folks, as that is often the way in which non-dominant performance are dismissed and treated as insignificant.” He continued: “Because of the dismissal of his heightened performances, often we miss the significance and meaning of some really valuable statements and proclamations made by Mr. West.”
Presently, Professor McCune is expanding his theories into a book entitled, On Kanye. Read our full conversation below. (Spoiler: We disagree on the best Kanye album — Yeezus all the way, baby.)