Understanding Kanye West: Present Pains Wrought by an Absent Father
February 13, 2022
The roiling drama surrounding Kanye West, his messy divorce from Kim Kardashian and the ways their children are being used as pawns to score cheap points is truly sad to witness. Many are taking sides as they line up behind either Team Kim or Team Ye as they turn a tragic story into soap operas. Like Romans cheering on gladiators, millions of people are vilifying one side or the other not realizing that they are projecting their childhood pains on media personalities they will never meet in real life.
What is being left out of the conversation is that Kim and Kanye are real-life people with real-life pains who are playing out their unresolved traumas on the public stage. Because all art that moves us are the ones that speak to our pains, I am going to focus on Kanye for the sake of this article and hope to one day revisit this topic and write about this interminable beef between these two cultural icons from Kim’s perspective.
I’ve written about Kanye in the past, I knew a long time ago that the avatar he projects and who he really is are not the same thing. Many judge him without knowing his personal struggles because that is what we do best in the 21st century. Always quick to diagnose others, bearing uninformed witness while pointing out the splinters in people’s eyes have become America’s favorite pastimes. Yet even the time I invested researching Kanye’s past and looking at his life from multiple angles could not prepare me for the revelation that hit me last week thanks to a most serendipitous meeting.
What is evident to many following Kanye’s story is that he has never been the same ever since his mother Donda West tragically passed away as a result of cosmetic surgery that went wrong. Kanye never made a secret of his undying love for his mother, she was his rock and the source of his greatest inspiration. Like a child who cleaves to his mom as a source of life and sustenance, Kanye’s closeness to Donda was as deep as Lake Baikal. Her death was thus a defining moment in his life, one that spiraled him into the abyss of unrelenting sorrow.
Four years after his mom’s sudden passing, Kanye revealed that he was battling severe depression and suicidal ideations. His erratic actions and unwise decisions were nothing more than manifestations of a hurting soul who never grieved properly. Emotions that are repressed emerge to the surface when we least expect them, that is exactly what has been happening to Kanye for the past decade. Men are especially susceptible to this predicament, we are taught from childhood to bottle everything into the bottom of our hearts only to turn to bottles and bottoms to self-medicate as adults.
Kanye became fodder for television and a ripe target for ridicule by legions of people who saw it fit to bash him with half-information—almost all of whom were battling their demons. The state of media being what it is, he became a caricature as only his abnormal behaviors were broadcast while all his other qualities—including the parts that cried alone because that is what men have perfected—were kept in the dark.
Those who cared enough to be empathetic saw a hurting child inside an adult who was seeking a destructive path driven by despair. But even that segment of society that hoped the best for Kanye never realized that there might be another source of his pain besides his mother’s death. I didn’t realize it myself until a random conversation four days ago changed everything. It started in the morning while I was driving Uber; a conversation with a young “black” man from Oxon Hill, Maryland opened my eyes to Kanye’s wounds, my own struggles and the unrecognized crisis that is gashing our society.
As I was making my way to Target to drop off my passenger, he shared with me a tragic story of a young lady in his neighborhood who lost her daughter to gun violence. He told me how she was struggling her whole life as she tried to escape the streets only to become a victim of the very same blocks she was drawn to even after she had children. He told me how he never understood how she had children yet insisted on roaming the streets after sundown with her children tagging along.
Without a second thought, I asked him if her father was absent while she was growing up. He immediately responded, “you know he was” and conveyed how she grew up without really knowing her dad. At that exact moment, the gravity of the moment hit me like a thousand lightning bolts! All my life I thought that my mom was the source of my biggest pains only to realize that my deepest traumas could be traced back to the fact that my father was rarely at home while I was growing up.
To be sure, my story and that of the young lady who lost her daughter to gun violence have almost nothing in common. Though my dad was a blue-collar worker and my mom was a stay-at-home mom, we had a life of privilege compared to the young lady from South East, DC who came of age in “the projects”. While she barely knew her dad, my dad was an amazing provider who worked multiple jobs to shelter us and put food on the table for his family. Far from feeling aggrieved at my dad, I looked to him as a superhero who sacrificed himself to nurture my dreams with unrelenting sweat and sacrificial labor.
What I did not realize until my chance meeting with the brother who works at Target is that the mythicizing of my dad was masking a profound wound that resided deep in the recesses of my mind. The sorrows came rushing out like Lawrence Taylor chasing quarterbacks only to amass and flow out as tears shortly after I dropped off my passenger at Target. I used to suffer deep separation anxiety in Ethiopia when I was a young child whenever my father flew out of the country and was gone for an extended period. These memories that I suppressed a long time ago surfaced and bobbed in the open oceans of my mind
My happiest moments in Addis Abeba occurred the minute I heard my dad was coming back home, I would run out to the gate and wait for my dad to return only to run and be embraced in his hands the as soon he jumped out of the Jetta Van that had the Ethiopian Airlines logo on it. As much as I loved my mom, I wanted nothing more than to be with my dad. Sadly, he was never able to fill that vacuum as his propensity to work all the time robbed me of father and son moments and replaced them with paternal regrets.
As I thought about the sorrows caused by the lack of time with my dad, I started to think about Kanye and how his relationship was with his dad. I never even bothered to look at that aspect when I wrote the first article about Kanye five years ago, true to my struggles at the time, I only inspected Kanye’s relationship with his mom. I spent the last 24 hours looking at Kanye’s father and if he was absent in his son’s life the same way that my dad was barely around when I was growing up.
“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” ~ Sigmund Freud
Come to find out Kanye’s father was MIA during his son’s formative years. After Kanye’s dad Ray divorced Donda, Kanye moved in with his mom to Chicago and had sparse interaction with his dad. The separation from his father widened from a gulf into a chasm when Kanye and his mom moved to China. He went from being absent of a father to being present with unfamiliar faces; surrounded by people who shared his complexion and his outlook to a foreigner with a foreign look, he turned into an invisible sojourner in the Old Kingdom.
This sudden change drew him closer to his mom while forcing him to forget his dad. The bond between father and son shattered, he heightened his artistic skills thanks to his mom while forgoing the structure and discipline that fathers provide. This gaping hole in his heart informed Kanye’s art as much as his closeness with his mom, he wrote as such in his song “Follow God” where he uses hidden words and clandestine language to describe the tortured relationship he had with his father as a child.
“Somebody only close to you could get you like, off your… I will be on my… I woke up this morning, I said my prayers, I’m all doing good, I tried to talk to my dad, get him some advice. He started spazzing on me, I started spazzing back. He said, ‘That ain’t Christ-like.’ I said, ‘Ahh!’”
Art is the practice of hiding pains in codes that can only be deciphered by those who know the anguish that once inspired creation. The minute I listened to those lyrics, I heard a little boy who desperately wanted his dad’s approval only to be met with tropes and lectures sans emotional connection. Seeking his dad’s attention turned Kanye into an attention-seeker as an adult as he lashed out and cried to gain his father’s approval.
I know these things because Kanye’s music has always spoken to my pains. The profound connection that he had with his mom only to be replaced by an unabating melancholy once she was gone was my soundtrack except I said goodbye to my mom long before she took her last breath two years ago. What I did not realize is that Kanye had another source of sorrow; that of his dad’s vacancy which was filled by partying too much, womanizing and living life on the edge. I know…because I know.
“My dad came to visit me at one of our ranches in Cody, Wyoming,” the rapper wrote. “He talked about his love for fishing, and how he could come here in the summers. It took me 42 years to realize that my dad was my best friend,” Kanye continued. “He asked me, ‘How many acres is this?’ I told him 4,000. He replied with these three words: ‘A Black man?'” ~ Kanye West [source The List]
The only difference between Kanye and the rest of us who struggle with these traumas that have haunted us from childhood is that he is truthful in his advertising and he is living out his mess right out in the open. Some of his harshest critics are ten times as destructive as they lead lives curated for the public while they cry muted tears of anguish away from social media. It’s tragic, we have become a society of projectors who bash anyone who reminds us of our struggles while we elevate those who pretend to have it all figured out.
The key to healing ourselves and humanity writ large is to stop judging and diagnosing each other; reading self-help books, citing writers like Dr. Shefali Tsabary or listening to Tony Robbins does not a mental health expert make. Let us instead look in the mirror and take the journey inward so that we stop conjuring our issues upon others. Only when we make the courageous decision to face our past and slay the dragons that reside in our hearts can we liberate ourselves from the shackles of childhood.
We will know that we are nearing the destination that is mending when our first reaction to witnessing people that seem to be going through a crisis is to act with empathy instead of bludgeoning them through malice or indifference. Sadly, instead of lending hands, the posture of too many is to rent fists as we pummel people whom we disagree with or who dare transgress on our egos. This pathos of denunciation has infiltrated every aspect of American culture; the advent of social media has turned us into a society of stone casters.
On a broader point, we need to revisit our assumptions about fatherhood and the role dads play in the development of healthy and vibrant children. For too long, we have diminished fathers while elevating mothers as if the former is optional and the latter is instrumental in rearing children. The truth is that both are equally important; fathers are every bit as critical in raising boys and girls as mothers are. A society that does not recognize this fact is one that is condemned to decay from the inside out.
For at least the past 50 years, ever since LBJ implemented the “Great Society”, there has been a concerted effort to marginalize fatherhood and push dads to the sidelines. An opening salvo by one side turned into a bipartisan campaign to weaken families as inequalities wrought by malicious economic policies turned parents into peons of the state. Poor and working -class parents were incentivized by the welfare state to break apart as the middle-class were stretched to breaking points by inflation and diminishing wealth to work at the cost of being present with their children.
The primary target in this quest to demolish families became fathers as our roles were at once minimized and maligned. To be “manly” became a scarlet letter as if our qualities of being protective and nurturing were mocked as being toxic. This covert war on fatherhood has devastated not only men but women and the entire family unit as many vacated the field rather than face the scorn of their peers and wider society.
This is not to excuse some who chose the easy path instead of sticking it out. However, instead of judging absent fathers too harshly, it is better to inspect their past and be empathetic so that the next generation of men don’t repeat the nightmares of their dads. Besides, it’s not like the easy way out led them to nirvana, the fact is that fathers who neglect their offspring die spiritually and end up turning to addictions to numb their pains. When fathers exit the picture, mothers are forced to pick up the pieces as they wear themselves out wearing multiple hats.
Like the devil trying to reverse engineer God, men are being conditioned at a young age to forgo their masculinity while women are convinced to think and act like men while devaluing their feminine qualities. This campaign to sow confusion is being waged against children as their innocence is shattered at an early age in order to push hidden agendas to subvert humanity. Every year we are being indoctrinated to accept more and more labels only to inherit more and more woes and forget the commonalities of our pains.
Saddest of all are the children who are forced to come of age without their dads around. Though many find ways to cope and succeed according to society even as they harbor deep wounds that never truly dissipate, a significant percentage of children end up falling into a cycle of pathologies that robs them of a decent life only to bequeath to their children the very traumas they were given by absent fathers. The end goal is to wreck families which ends up destabilizing society, as long as we are busy fighting one another, we can never hold the people who are pillaging all of us.
We live in a time of never-ending protests as being angry has become our default zeitgeist. There are valid reasons for this rage, the vast majority are being pillaged while a fraction of humanity is leading lives of uber privilege. Hopelessness birthing resentment that eventually transmutes into bitterness, we are demanding redress as we moonwalk into further injustices. Susceptible to emotional manipulation, we empower demagogues to convince us that people who are struggling just like us are foes who need to be conquered.
Like Martin Luther King wisely observed, we cannot hope to overcome hate with hate nor can anger drive out anger, only with love can we emerge from the shadows of iniquity and bathe in the sunlight of justice. If we are to perfect our country and redeem humanity, we must start the journey of healing within, by forgiving our transgressors from childhood and forgiving ourselves, we can free ourselves from the bondage of the past.
A politician once said that change happens block by city block, in truth change occurs heart by individual heart. As we love ourselves and restore the innocence of our youths paired with the wisdom wrought by age, it will be easier to restore families which is the most crucial change we must make. No amount of legislation or hashtag-based movements can replace mothers and fathers who are equally yoked in raising their children.
Parents deliver children through sacrifice but we are reborn with their innocence::
To my son Yohannes, I love you eternally, I pray only this one thing to God when it comes to you, to be fully present with you so that I never look back when you are grown and have regrets like my dad did that he was not around to see me growing up. I love you eternally. You are truly my why.
Teddy Fikre is the founder of Guzo to Healing, formerly the co-founder and editor of the Ghion Journal, he launched Guzo to Healing on his on guzo (journey) of healing from past wounds in order to liberate himself from the prisons of regret and guilt. The greatest journey we take is that which we travel to heal ourselves and by extension help others who struggle.