Last week, Kanye West brought his California-based Sunday Service event series to his hometown of Chicago. In a clip that’s been making the rounds on social media, West is seen in the middle of the massive crowd, attempting to move toward the stage to watch his assembled choir perform both standard hymns and gospel interpolations of 2000s pop/R&B songs. When a security guard intervenes to lead the way, Kanye grabs him by the shoulders.
“Step back,” Ye says confidently. “Watch this. This is my city.” He then proceeds to walk through the crowd, parting the sea of people with minimal hand movements. As he passes through, fans call him by his alter-ego, Yeezus, while screaming in a manner reserved for the day you finally meet your hero.
“Somebody said #Kanye thought he was Moses,” The Shade Room posted on Instagram along with the video. Naturally, I migrated to the comment section, where it didn’t take long to find one of the most-liked responses: “This isn’t about God or church and it’s sad to witness.”
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If you’ve paid even the slightest bit of attention over the past two decades, you’d know by now that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about Kanye—once he’s attached himself to a concept, he’s all in. Religion is no exception.
Last month, Kim Kardashian West announced that her husband would be dropping a new album called Jesus Is King, a 12-track project set to be released on September 27. It will contain tracks featuring titles like “God Is,” “Baptized,” and “Sweet Jesus.”
When I first saw the handwritten tracklist, I wasn’t surprised. Kanye has been hosting Sunday Service since before his Coachella/Easter performance, so it’s only natural that his next effort might be linked to gospel. But once I saw the clip of him moving through the crowd, my stomach twisted in knots: Kanye has always thought highly of himself, but his recent actions, and focal points, border on messianic. He’s not going to make this release low-key or easy.
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) August 29, 2019
The past year and change has been challenging for many Kanye West fans, myself included. Look no further than his views on Donald Trump—and, uh, slavery—to understand why a significant portion of his listeners (mostly black) have called it quits. As tempted as I’ve been to follow, my relationship with the rapper is a bit more complex.
We’ve both been diagnosed as bipolar, a mental condition characterized by manic highs and depressive lows. Depending on where you are on the spectrum, mania can either make you feel mildly irritated and erratic, or a deep, yet deceiving, purity that makes you think you’re in touch with God Himself. I fall solidly in the latter group, and my condition began with a grand epiphany that didn’t feel like a mental disability at all.
It came to me as I sat in a Texas church in September 2016, with my arms wrapped around my grandmother at her brother’s funeral. I’ve never heard an unspoken message so loudly, but there it was in my brain: “Your purpose on Earth is to spread the word of God through music.” It was so unmistakable that I looked up at the pulpit with wide eyes, convinced the pastor had spoken directly to me. I was shook, but invigorated by the imaginary prompt, a marked shift from how I felt weeks prior.
Before I flew home to Texas from NYC to be at my grandmother’s side, I was in the darkest depression I’d ever experienced, triggered by a profound disappointment that my life wasn’t panning out the way I had hoped, both professionally and personally. I was jobless and falling out of love, so I spent the majority of my time in bed, curled up in the fetal position and sobbing endlessly.
I felt myself slipping and began to pray nonstop for any kind of change, a thread to hold onto. Seriously: that’s how this all started. When I began my own informal research later, I found that others with bipolar disorder had been set off by the same thing. “What drove me into my first manic episode was me being extremely, unhealthily single-minded in pursuing the Lord more than I ever had,” one YouTube commenter wrote underneath a video titled “A Look at Bipolar Disorder from a Biblical Perspective.”
That’s how focused I was. I surrendered myself to prayer until the tears stopped and I began to experience thoughts and sensations I had never felt before. My depression dissipated, replaced by a divine sense of calm mixed with an insuppressible desire to save the world with my bare hands. As time would tell, I was going through my first bout with mania, but it felt as if my body was crackling with the electricity of a natural-born superpower (albeit one I couldn’t control).
So imagine my surprise last June, when I heard track two of Kanye’s most recent album, ye. “That’s my bipolar shit, ni**a what?” he said braggadociously at the end of “Yikes.” “That’s my superpower, ni**a. Ain’t no disability. I’m a superhero! I’m a superhero!”
It was a hell of a statement—and Kanye’s first admission of his diagnosis. I related so deeply to his revelation that I threw myself into explaining away his distasteful comments and actions. I assumed Kanye would become a poster child for bipolar disorder, and I wanted to protect him at all costs.
Instead, Kanye has rejected the diagnosis (which Kim Kardashian eventually walked back), and given select interviews to people who have no intimate knowledge of living with a mental condition like his. In these conversations, he tip-toes around explaining exactly why being bipolar makes him feel like both a superhero and a warrior for God; the most vocal artist of our generation prefers to instead keep his experiences mysterious and otherworldly.
I want Kanye to open up because not everyone diagnosed with bipolar disorder experiences it in the same way. For many, especially those with bipolar 2, mania manifests on a less intense scale: individuals can feel untethered to the real world, and become irrationally worried and antsy.
As someone with bipolar 1, the extreme iteration of the condition, I mentally skyrocket up to the heavens where I feel one with the universe, and believe I have the ability to connect with anyone through love and spiritual energy. The episodes are intense and disorienting, but those lofty feelings linger indefinitely.
“No matter how many times people told me I was sick, I felt this unshakable knowingness that I had encountered the divine,” Waking Up Bipolar host Chris Cole explained on his podcast in a February episode, “When Depression is Awakening: Attachment, Faith, and God.”
When Kanye first announced he was bipolar, I hoped he would shine a light on the stress of vacillating between grandiose heights and the depths of depression, which Chris Cole broke down on his podcast. “I have an ability as a bipolar person to get really small, and then get really big,” he described. “That can be energetically, that can be my ideas of who I think I am… It could be something like, I don’t need to address anyone—I don’t need to tell my story to anyone—and then all of a sudden, I need to tell my story on the grandest of stages.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, diagnosis of bipolar disorder is “based on symptoms rather than brain imaging or other diagnostic tests.” In other words, uncharacteristic behavior is the determining factor that sends red flags to those around you. For example, my family can hear in my voice when I’m starting to become manic: I talk faster, I’m more charismatic and funny, I have no filter, and I make big plans that are clearly out of my reach. Meanwhile, in my brain, the whole world is shedding its old skin and it’s my job to lead people to “the light.”
In the moment, it feels like a responsibility that I never asked for, but a blessing all the same. This kind of experience is exactly why some bipolar people choose to reject their diagnosis altogether: they’d rather run toward God than an illness.
I wholeheartedly believe in science, doctors and psychiatry, but I’ve yet to find a treatment team that is willing to balance “spiritual encounters” with the clinical. I’m typically told to forget that mumbo jumbo, just take your pills and get back in line with society. (Some doctors are nicer than others, but this is always the underlying message.)
As with any condition, perception is a slippery slope—but to ignore the thoughts and observations that bipolar people feel they legitimately experience is to push them away from medical insights and drive them strictly toward faith and religion.
“I think we have to really be careful thinking about faith as something that can be measured in a biological sense,” Cole advised in his podcast. “Then we get in a lot of trouble because we say, ‘Well, I have so much faith—I’m burning so bright, look at me.’”
In my personal experience, heightened mania feels like you’re the oracle sent to speak to the rest of the world on behalf of the Most High; like you’re the one selected to advance humanity through never-before-seen methods. Sound familiar?
While being manic can make me (and countless others) feel like the Chosen One, it also makes me focus strongly on community, collaboration, love, and kindness. I see all of these qualities in the Sunday Service series.
In an archived live stream of the Chicago Sunday Service, the choir of mostly black millennials swag surfs and milly rocks together while singing God-centered flips of popular songs like the Clipse’s “Grindin’” backed by a drumline and horn section. To keep it a buck, they sound excellent. As many on Twitter have pointed out, though, the approach isn’t exactly new. “Every Black child that grew up in Baptist church has done mashups that sound just like this,” social justice organizer @brownblaze tweeted. “Please don’t call this innovative or creative.”
Halfway through the service, West performs his first attempt at worship music, the 2004 single “Jesus Walks.” To end the song, he changes the repentant line “I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid ‘cause we ain’t spoke in so long” to a defiant “We ain’t afraid to talk to God!” After his proclamation, West surveys the crowd, sunglasses covering his eyes on a rainy day. He takes in the moment he’s created before exiting the stage to continue tinkering with the instruments that got our attention in the first place.
While I don’t have the power to build a viral choir or make an album about Jesus, I do have the power to peek through mania and open the doors to the church in Kanye’s mind, and my mind.
Since the day my religious epiphany was explained to me as a symptom of my condition, I’ve been trying to draw a line from point A to point Z, and drag people from the medical side and others from the spiritual side and have them meet somewhere in the middle for a discussion. As of now, the chasm between the two communities couldn’t be more wide.
So when I see a bipolar person like Kanye, speaking loudly about God and feeling like a superhero, I understand what’s going through his head. But I wonder what his motivation is. I wonder if he will ever make the connection himself and help his listeners understand exactly why he’s releasing an album called Jesus Is King. I wonder about these things constantly because I have a confession: I still believe Kanye West can change the way we talk about mental health.
I just wish he would start a real conversation.