When will the cult of Ye stop absolving the troubled genius?

OPINION: Writer and anti-domestic violence activist Sil Lai Abrams on the dangers of giving passes to gifted men.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Depending on who you ask, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, now simply “Ye,” could be considered abusive or a genius. Or, as he says, a “jeen-yuhs.

With regard to the former characterization, it’s a simple statement that, at first glance, comes off as accusatory or inflammatory. Yet, in light of what we have recently seen play out in the public arena, what had been whispered about in entertainment industry circles has emerged with a roar. It is impossible to ignore Ye’s torrential digital, verbal, emotional, and psychological harassment of his estranged wife, Kim Kardashian, and, by extension, the effect it may have on their four children. 

After years of gawking and gleefully reporting, the media machine has finally begun to acknowledge that Ye’s response to Kim’s divorce petition is more than fodder for laughs—or an opportunity to engage in schadenfreude due to the love/hate relationship society has had with Kim. His use of Instagram to inundate her and her new boyfriend, Pete Davidson (or as Ye calls him, “Skete”) with all-caps rants and memes have ranged from pitiful and cringeworthy to out-and-out psychological warfare.

A narrative has arisen around Ye that heralds him as a wounded puer aeternus—or eternal child. He is alternatively and simultaneously a creative genius and the enfant terrible of hip hop. His erratic and even allegedly physically aggressive behavior was initially attributed to his grief over the 2007 death of his beloved mother, Donda. In 2018, he disclosed he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years prior when he was involuntarily hospitalized in November of 2016. His transparency opened the doors for sympathy and empathy from a public that had been castigating him for his increasingly frequent public meltdowns.   

Nearly half a decade later, Ye’s behavior continues to spiral, and public online conversations have shifted from discussing his mental health to armchair analyses of his escalating antics. Whatever goodwill he garnered from the initial disclosure of his mental health challenges has begun to evaporate since Kim went public with her new romance. In the song and video for “Eazy,” the single he released last Wednesday, Ye not only fulfills his murderous fantasies about “Skete,” he even goes so far as to say in his lyrics that he refuses professional psychological intervention. “Mr. Narcissist, tell me ’bout my arrogance,” he rhymes. “No more counselin’, I don’t negotiate with therapists.” 

Accordingly, Ye’s well-documented struggles with bipolar disorder can no longer elide his treatment of others. His actions towards Kim, their children, Davidson, and everyone else in his orbit are no longer seen as anomalies but the norm of his oeuvre. 

His current actions are just the latest in a long list of alleged and reported conduct that has spanned over a decade. Ex-girlfriend Amber Rose has detailed his ten-year “bullying” campaign against her following their 2010 split. Accounts of abusive behavior aren’t limited to the internet; this January he was named as a suspect of a criminal investigation for an alleged attack of an autograph seeker.  

In the maelstrom that is the World of Ye, widespread condemnation of his arguably abusive exploits can shift to fawning and sympathetic in a matter of hours, as evidenced during the premiere of the Netflix documentary on his life. Once again, the focus is on Ye’s wounds. Ye’s dreams. Ye’s trials. Ye’s heartbreaks. And once again, a distracted public averts its eyes from the seemingly daily trauma inflicted on the wife he won’t let go—and potentially their young brood, as well.

Both past and present, the reports and allegations are damning. Digital bullying. Messy breakups. Public meltdowns. Accusations of unpaid wages. Instagram wars. Slander. Emotional intimidation. A less talented person would have lost all credibility long ago, never mind if they were a woman, particularly a Black woman—one need only look at the public perceptions of Azealia Banks, who has also called out Ye’s actions in recent months. Ye, however, is not just a self-proclaimed creative genius and “greatest artist that God ever created,” but a man widely considered one of the most prolific musical artists of his generation.

In “The Critique of Judgement,” Immanuel Kant, himself a brilliant yet sexist and racist man, defined genius as “…the exemplary originality of the natural endowments of an individual of his cognitive faculties.” Much of the mythos surrounding them lies in their ability to work outside of the boundaries of social convention. Whenever a genius is critiqued for their interpersonal conduct, we are not only challenging the mythos of the individual in question but a core tenet of aesthetic freedom. Genius and a tendency towards abhorrent behavior in men deemed to possess this rare quality are wedded in the collective psyche. 

Thus, when geniuses terrorize their former partners, friends, or family members, their actions are seen as an ethical lapse rather than antisocial abuses of power. A genius cannot be constrained and, in fact, is someone to be indulged, lest things as banal as ethics or morals clip their brilliant wings. 

Miles Davis, Pablo Picasso and writer Norman Mailer are men who, like Ye, were considered geniuses, and who, like Ye, had a God complex combined with a conflicted relationship with women. Mailer’s wives. Picasso’s many muses. Davis’ ex-wives Betty Davis and Cicely Tyson. All are women who strained to survive the many forms of documented harms inflicted upon them by the male geniuses with whom they were partnered. If one were to ask a fan of these men about their transgressions, it would likely be met with denial, an eye roll, or a swarm of online abuse. We shield ourselves from any critical analyses of the genius artiste by invoking the sacredness of their art. The sacred exists beyond the corporeal realm. Perhaps this is why geniuses are not held to the same standards as mere mortals.

It is a logical fallacy to insist that the personal life of a genius has no bearing on their creative pursuits. The appreciation of art is invariably tied up in our perception of the artist. Ye is a genius. He is a father and a son. He is a man struggling with his mental health. He is a control freak with a God complex. He is a person who will utilize every resource at his disposal to try and get the people in his life to fall in line. All of these identities coexist, and all can be acknowledged at the same time. Ye doesn’t need additional acolytes worshiping at the altar of his genius at his Sunday Services. Instead, we need an honest conversation about the role the genius archetype plays in the cult of celebrity, and how it inures us from acknowledging the damage being done before our very eyes.

Updated: Monday, 3/7/22 at 11:55 am ET: An earlier version of this op-ed included a report alleging an incident in which West abused ex-fiancée Alexis Phifer. That allegation could not be fully substantiated and the article has accordingly been amended. In his 2012 single “Don’t Like,” West seemingly addressed abuse allegations in the lyric, “A girl will run her mouth only out of spite/ But I never hit a woman, never in my life,” as reported by the Atlanta Black Star. In an interview with People magazine, Phifer asserted the two had remained friends following the couple’s 2008 split.

Sil Lai Abrams, theGrio.com

Sil Lai Abrams is a NABJ award-winning writer, gender violence activist, and Senior DEI Consultant at Jennifer Brown Consulting. You can follow her musings on Twitter at @Sil_Lai.

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