On June 1 Splendour in the Grass announced that there would be a 10 metre high inflatable Sad Kanye installation at this year’s festival. The creators of the installation, Hungry Castle, accompanied the announcement with the following statement:
“Why you got that resting bitch face, dog? Sometimes you crazy but you’re a dope ass producer and writer.”
A statement as obtuse as it is offensive. It was an attack on mental health but even more so an attack on black mental health issues.
The company responded by strangely apologising for “accidentally” bringing awareness to mental health and insisting they were pioneering artistry beyond laymen comprehension, “as you know more than anybody, great art can often be divisive.” Despite a piss-poor apology and conflating Kanye’s very public struggles with “meme culture”, Hungry Castle rejigged the piece as Happy Kanye rather than scrap it entirely.
Over the weekend, thousands of people attended Splendour in the Grass and a brief look at the #happykanye hashtag will show Hungry Castle profiting off the mockery of black mental health. The worst of the 750 tagged posts is a video of the inside of the installation, where West’s ‘Jesus Walks’ plays. A song that opens with the line “we at war with terrorism, racism/but most of all we at war with ourselves.”
Discussion around mental health has seemingly progressed but the white gaze has not. Notions of the ‘angry black man’ or the ‘angry black woman’ are drenched in racism and white audiences perpetuate these ideas turning people into caricatures of themselves. Kanye West has famously become the poster-child for the ‘angry black man’. On the flipside, Azalea Banks is often denoted as the ‘angry black woman’ in the media. These two celebrities are often mocked for their ‘outrageous’ behaviours despite, being held to a standard their white counterparts are not. Take Amanda Bynes, whose very public breakdown is described as “tragic” and “the flame-out of a promising child star,” which it is. Kanye’s breakdown was described as “bizarre”. Hungry Castle went as fair as qualifying Kanye as “meme culture” essentially equating his outbursts, public struggles and even hospitalisation as a joke.
The trauma of slavery and racism are passed down through culture and genetic manifestations and these factors all amount to higher risk for poor mental health. Black and brown communities are more likely to experience serious mental health problems yet they are affected by more mental health stigma and are less likely to seek help. The need to appear strong and survive in the face of institutionalised racism is cemented in survival but this propagates silence. The media ridiculing behaviours akin to mental health in black communities puts further pressure on sufferers to stay silent. This isn’t what we want and this isn’t what they need.
As a brown woman and an outside observer of black mental health I don’t have the ability to tell you what those experiences are like. What is worrying is that the conversation in Australia at large doesn’t acknowledge these stigmas. Media outlets, festivals, and writers that so often celebrate black culture, whether that be hip hop, R&B, or fashion, shied away from the conversations that serve to protect black communities. This is performative allyship. This is performative wokeness. Where were all the white hip-hop writers when this was happening? Where were all the people who swear they’re appreciating and not appropriating culture when that very culture was being attacked?
This year’s Splendour in the Grass line-up featured many black artists, including Lil Yachty, Stormzy, Schoolboy Q, and A.B. Original. The festival’s support of Hungry Castle sent a clear message; while they are happy to profit off black culture and the fans these acts attract and performances they bring, when it comes to protecting the black community they are dangerously mute. It’s even more unsettling when you remember that Kanye West performed at Splendour In The Grass back in 2011.
The Happy Kanye installation isn’t a reflection of a lesson learned but a striking reminder of the dismissal of black issues. Festivals like Splendour have to do better and being race-conscious is a part of that progression. It isn’t enough to book black artists if you hire a company that perpetuates anti-blackness. It isn’t progressive to ban Indian headdresses if the trade-off is mocking a black person’s mental health. Teaching audiences anti-black behaviours on this scale is a frightening show of ignorance on a good day, and violent on a bad one. If the take away is anything, even the biggest companies need educating in basic human decency. Instead of just using black artists to sell tickets to a festival, it is necessary to have black people working in decision-making positions so they can put a stop to racist effigies before they even begin.
Protect the communities you promote, instead of just profiting from them.