Kanye West comes out as bipolar. Here’s why it matters

Originally published on the Amy Walker Writes Medium blog on June 1st, 2018

You would have to go far to find someone who hasn’t heard about Kanye West’s recent antics. A flurry of tweets over the past few months created a furore bigger than any Kanye has experienced in the past.

On previous album rollouts we’ve seen what some people have described as “arrogant” or “attention seeking” behaviour. Some of those people put it down to a marketing strategy, others to Kanye’s uncontrollable self indulgence. But as soon as the music comes, the antipathy gives way to a common agreement: Kanye makes excellent music. He is a genius.

Something different happened this time around. Think pieces were written describing how we have to throw away the notion of genius. Those who had always defended Kanye found it impossible to continue sticking up for him once he took the opposing side in a fierce culture war. As the tweets rained down, Kanye made a manic appearance at TMZ, and came out with infamous lines about slavery and his medicine regime.

I’ve been a huge Kanye West fan since Through the Wire. Listening to his music has given me confidence, strength and political consciousness. As an autistic person, I grew up blurting out things that were socially unacceptable, and found it hard to recognise where I was going wrong. In Kanye I saw a kindred spirit, who had no filter and was unashamed to be himself. Kanye became one of my autistic ‘special interests’, I have heard every single interview and poured over every lyric for hidden insights.

One of the best resources for a Kanye super fan like myself was his mother’s book, Raising Kanye. Donda West was clearly an incredible, smart and inspiring woman. Kanye was lucky to have such an attentive mother, with her non judgement of his usual behaviours whilst growing up. She recounts tales of Kanye being different from a young age: describing him as “talented, bitingly frank, frequently controversial, and surprisingly or arguably humble all at once.” When he enrolled in kindergarten, his teachers told Donda that he was academically gifted, but socially challenged. “They told me Kanye did not work well with others, that he was self-centered and needed another year there to adjust to public school.” This was the exact feedback my mother received, growing up as an undiagnosed autistic girl. Donda was confident that Kanye would get on fine, and ignored their advice. For her, it was important that Kanye go through the normal developmental milestones, and that he would catch up later.

Kanye found it difficult to follow the rules exactly: Donda recounts a tale of Kanye being asked to draw a man as part of a school entrance exam, and he proceeds to draw a football player, which was apparently against the rules. He brought in X-rated magazines to school, and when asked where he got it from he was totally honest. “From my mother’s closet,” he said. Whenever he was questioned on why he had done something perceived as disrespectful or socially abnormal, he would rationally describe why he thought their way was wrong. He was independent and happy to stand out. When asked why he didn’t give eye contact, he assured his mum that doing so would have been rude. Donda was 100% supportive of Kanye’s independent spirit, and unconditional in her love.

“I appreciated that Kanye saw things differently. He never thought inside of the box. He began to draw when he was three years old, and I bought him a huge box of Crayolas. … Even then, his talent stood out. He drew things that kids who were twice his age couldn’t draw. He drew people — real people, not stick people. I was impressed by it. I remember having a conversation with him about colors and how a banana is supposed to be yellow and an orange should be orange. But he rarely made things the “right” color, not unless he wanted to. He would make the banana purple and the orange blue. I didn’t tell him it was wrong. That was the way he wanted to see it. He knew that a banana was actually yellow, but he wanted to make it purple and I didn’t argue with him. When he was six, my sister and brother-in-law took him to a lake. There were ducks there just quacking away. Kanye took exception to the way the ducks were quacking. ‘That’s not the way that’s supposed to sound,” he said, and started quacking the way he thought it should be. Now, these were real ducks quacking and he felt like they were doing it wrong. In his mind it should have sounded a different way. He was adamant that the ducks were quacking wrong. Kanye had a distinct perspective. He always had his own spin on things. I never criticized him for it. I figured I would just nurture the creativity.”

Kanye was totally consumed with drawing, making video games, and finally making music. He would stay in the house producing all night long. Over these past few months, we have discovered that Kanye is producing no less than 5 albums. This is someone with a ferocious work ethic, and a conscientiousness to back it up. The first album to emerge, Pusha T’s DAYTONA, has been hailed the best of Pusha’s solo career. After one of Kanye’s Twitter rants was described in the press as ‘erratic’, Kanye took issue and invited TMZ to the studio. The report from the studio reads:

“… the people claiming he’s erratic or in the middle of a meltdown are off base. … The execs at times struggled to keep up with Kanye, who was spewing ideas for a multi-platform release.”

What commentators in the past have failed to realise, is that this work ethic is a reflection of Kanye’s neurodiversity: he’s manic.

Mania is characterised by elevated arousal: inflated self esteem, decreased need for sleep, highly talkative, racing thought and flurries of ideas, increase in goal directed activities, distractibility and finally impulsivity (which could manifest as overspending, drinking or doing drugs, hypersexuality, or starting improbable commercial ventures). In this state, delusions can take hold, or a full blown psychosis can eventually occur. Perhaps the most famous of the delusions common to conditions such as bipolar is the ‘delusions of grandeur’.

The thing about delusions of grandeur and mania, is that these states can enable an exceptionally productive creative ability. Studies have shown the link between psychotic spectrum conditions and creativity. We also know there is a big crossover between bipolar and autism spectrum conditions, with a significant genetic overlap. It has been theorised that bipolar itself is an expression of two contradictory states of autism and psychosis.

Many geniuses have been posthumously diagnosed as bipolar by some, and autistic by others, including Vincent Van Gogh, Hans Christian Andersen, and Emily Dickinson. The creator of the Imprinted Brain Theory — Christopher Badcock — who contrasts autistic brains against psychotic ones as two opposite sides of a spectrum, commented on the high incidence of bipolar among artists and poets. What he calls the “hyper-mentalism” of bipolar could “enable artists of genius — and perhaps writers and poets in particular — to express their thoughts and feelings with unprecedented power and perceptiveness.” According to this diametric model, genius is a rare co-occurrence of both autistic and psychotic savantism in the same person. We also see a higher level of functioning in those with traits from both sides of the spectrum, effectively cancelling each other out.

On Kanye’s newly released album, YE, he raps:

“That’s my bipolar shit, n***a what

That’s my superpower

N***a ain’t no disability

I’m a superhero, I’m a superhero.”

We need a new discussion about genius: one that doesn’t judge talented people for the downsides of those conditions that make them extraordinary.

2021 edits – removed phrasing of ‘autism spectrum’ and ‘psychotic spectrum’ as disorders, replaced with the word ‘conditions’.

Amy Walker is an autistic advocate and activist, who founded the campaign Neurodiversity Works, to improve neurodiverse people’s access to employment and support for their incredible talents. She is also a Time to Change Young Champion and Scope for Change campaigner.

Published by Amy Walker

Neurodiversity Works blog features news, interviews and creative work relating to neurodiversity at work

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