Kanye West, Train Wrecks and Political Exploitation

I almost titled this blog ‘Kanye West and the Art of Not So Public Speaking,’ but that didn’t cover the nuances of the truly awful televised meeting he had with the President this week. I would not consider myself a sensitive person. I don’t get overly emotional about many topics. The only real triggers I have are my family and race, and even on topics related to race, I, like so many others, have developed a fairly thick skin. Most barbs, even most shots, simply don’t penetrate. But when I saw videos of West in the oval office this week, I almost cried.

My hand covered my mouth, my eyes got wide, and I literally got choked up. I think the only reason I didn’t cry was because I was looking at clips broken up by commentary, and I had to stop and take a break from those.

My reaction to that fiasco went far beyond embarrassment. It was kind of disgusting, but that’s not sufficient. I don’t know if there is a single adjective that could describe how I felt watching that black man do the fool in front of the President of the United States – and the world – and no one stopped him. Not the black people sitting on either side of him, not even the President himself. It was as if everyone had fallen into The Twilight Zone, or was standing on the side of the road transfixed by the carnage following a live train wreck.

It was a textbook case of every single thing not to do when speaking publicly. I shudder envisioning people laughing up their sleeves at West, and even more horrible, attaching his behavior to some kind of representation of the Black race as a whole. Even now I can see some corrupt mind gathering data points on mental illness in the Black community and twisting them and West into some storyline that completely misses any reasonable point.

His speech was erratic, topically unfocused, and he cursed, which even I, who curse regularly, thought was disrespectful given the venue. I thought he was inappropriately dressed – he owns a clothing line and comes to the White House in a cheap, ill-formed snapback that may or may not have superpower abilities, and nondescript black I don’t even know what the rest of it was.

But his clothes are superficial. We should probably be thankful some nontraditional Yeezy concept didn’t add more fuel to this particular fire. Even worse? West was kicking out important issues like the problems with the 13th amendment, the pharmaceutical industry, the prison system and ironically, mental health, but there was no direction. It was like that cartoon The Family Circus. Remember Billy? His mom would tell him to take out the trash, and you could see dotted lines traveling all over the neighborhood but nowhere near the garbage? West bounced all over the place but never settled on one topic long enough to make a substantive message.

I’m not even sure what was the issue that prompted this meeting with the leader of the free world. Did he prepare talking points? I read that he held meetings before hand with community leaders and advisors. But why exactly was he even there? I couldn’t tell from that show he performed, which screams missed opportunity.

To think that this man, who not so long ago had adjectives like genius and talented before or after his name, has come to this. It’s tragic. The media can’t help but report what they see. Sad as it may be, this is news because it involves the President of the United States. Despite the fact that the actual content was virtually worthless, for some this debacle is more interesting than the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, which destroyed homes, property, and lives in the southeastern part of this country.

I hope this minutes-that-felt-like-forever-long debacle didn’t put the nail in the coffin that is West’s credibility. It took roughly a half an hour for him to become a punchline, a PSA for mental health, and an obstacle for any celebrity who dares to make a political comment or visit the White House going forward.

You may think it unfair of me to focus my attention so tightly on West to the exclusion of the President. They share many things: egos, ranting, grandstanding, little to no interest in a straight forward, verifiable narrative that is situationally appropriate. But West is the only one in this particular scenario who seemed visibly out of control. Hopping up from his seat, practically throwing himself at the President to shake his hand. I was surprised Secret Service didn’t pop out from behind a curtain and take his ass to the ground. It was cringeworthy. It made my skin itch, which is a hair away from crawling.

I’m from Chicago. I even interviewed West once many many years ago when I did some music reporting as a side gig. He has changed. This is not solely the change that might come naturally with maturity or a new location, a high profile love affair, children, or marriage and new life experiences or challenges. This is – dare I use the word with no letters before or after my name – manic. And the biggest indicator that he is not himself is that West is not considering his audience.

Whenever you’re making an important public appearance you have to consider who you’re speaking to, why you’re there, and what exactly do you have to offer. That’s key to a successful engagement. Thanks to technology, that audience is two-fold. It’s the audience who will be there with you in the room receiving your words and message, and it’s the external audience who will view the playback later, form an opinion, and add their commentary to the event as a whole.

This is the same man who jumped on stage at an award show to protest what he perceived as a slight to Beyonce’s talent. The same man who boldly proclaimed former President George Bush does not care about Black people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Now, these days he might dismiss those actions as a victim mentality or sleep deprivation. But his music, the diverse models in his fashion shows, before he seemed more conscious of his people. He was outspoken on our behalf. Now he’s like a completely different person.

No, I take that back. He’s not completely different; he’s always been prone to inappropriate outbursts. But this is more. It’s something else. It’s not provocative. It’s troubling. West has always said pretty much what he liked, but before there was at least some sensitivity. He spoke in complete sentences. Now I get the impression there’s no linear thought behind his rants at all.

In the wake of Hurricane Kanye and misadventures in the White House, let’s all take this lesson to heart: When you have an opportunity to speak before others, and you are not in fact suffering from some sort of mental impairment – even if it’s only extreme stress and nervousness – take it seriously. Put your very best foot forward, prepare, and represent. Someone will almost always find something negative to say, but you can at least be proud and know that you tried your very best.

As for West, I think he needs help. The whole lightning fast genius brain/big heart-poor communicator narrative his wife likes to spin doesn’t ring true. I mean, how many geniuses with dicey behavior patterns stuff our history books who were later diagnosed, or at least offered a prescription for Lorazepam?

I’m no doctor. So, I don’t know if the help he needs is medical, spiritual, mineral, emotional, or other, but I believe he needs something, and I sincerely hope he gets it. To see a talented individual unravel before the world, to watch him being exploited, is almost sinister when little bits of truth peek through the rants, and you know he has the resources and enough savvy family members to at least try and keep his train on the right track.

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