“This is a story about empathy.”

A couple of days ago I discovered a podcast called Dissect. Its first season is dedicated to dissecting Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. To someone like me who has spent countless hours listening to that particular album, Dissect is a godsend. It has given me a new appreciation for an album I already loved, and pushed me to see parts of it in a different light, which isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience but always a rewarding one.

I’m already past the halfway point of the season. As I went to download the next batch of episodes (One episode is about 30 minutes in length and I usually listen to several episodes in a row.) I noticed that the next episode of the season was about something different. Titled “Ye’s Cry for Help (Bonus Episode)”, the episode turns out to be an audio adaptation of an article in City Scout Magazine by Cole Cuchna, the creator of the Dissect podcast.

The piece is Cuchna’s description of what took place on November 19th 2016 at a Kanye West concert in Sacramento, California.

“Let’s start with the requisite backstory. Here’s what went down last Saturday night at the Golden One Center:
The stadium fills with long tees and skinny jeans.
Kanye’s an hour and a half late.
Kanye takes stage with Kid Cudi. All is forgiven. Crowd erupts.
Kanye drops off Cudi, takes stage alone, performs three songs half-heartedly.
Kanye stops mid-song and rants for 15 minutes. Calls out radio, Google, Facebook, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Hillary Clinton, and pseudo-supports Donald Trump.
Kanye drops mic, calls off show. Crowd goes from confused to stunned to sad to angry in a span of 4 minutes.
The house lights come up. Some cry, most boo, others chant “F*ck, Kanye!” while wearing Kanye shirts.
Everyone leaves, not sure of anything in life.”

More importantly, though, the piece is a discussion of empathy. Cuchna goes on to write:

“More than ever we revel in the failures and downfall of our public figures. Social media gives us all an opportunity to twist the knife. But beneath the designer clothes and photoshop are real people, often with troubled pasts. And more often than not, they’re people that have given us extraordinary gifts.”

This struck a chord with me.

We seem to value public figures only in terms of the value we receive from them. When they give us what we want we proceed to idolize and objectify them, we imagine them as one-dimensional characters, as gods that don’t suffer from the human condition. And then, when they eventually fail to meet our expectations as any human being is bound to do, we continue to imagine them one-dimensionally, only now the illusion is shattered and replaced with a caricature of a broken, worthless creature, deserving of no sympathy or respect.

Idolizing someone is equally as dangerous as vilifying them. To idolize a public figure like Kanye West is not a sign of respect, it’s a sign of one-dimensional imagination.

Empathy, however, is about imagining other people complexly. Empathy fights against putting anyone on a pedestal, because built into the idea of empathy is the understanding that no human is a god or a devil.

Cuchna makes the distinction that “[E]mpathy is not concerned with how something is said, but why. It’s not concerned with specifics, but intent.” This is something I hadn’t thought about before, and I’m thankful to Cuchna for bringing it to my attention. Indeed, there’s an inherent kindness to empathy. A kindness towards the other. Instead of criticizing words or actions, empathy strives to understand where they come from, and why. “It’s able to differentiate symptom from source.”, as Cuchna puts it.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned from my six-month study of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly for my podcast Dissect, it’s that we should root for our leaders and artists to succeed.”

It is easy for me to root for Kanye to succeed. As Cuchna says: “The many gifts Kanye has given the world far outweigh his social blunders.” And yet, to many, discussing Kanye West and empathy in the same sentence seems absurd.

When Kendrick Lamar repeatedly asks the listener in the final song of To Pimp a Butterfly, “Mortal Man”: “When shit hits the fan is you still a fan?”, I’m puzzled. I’m puzzled because it’s specifically a “when” question instead of an “if” question. When shit hits the fan, am I still a fan? Am I prepared to root for Kendrick no matter what happens? The most honest answer I can give to that question is: Probably not. I can instantly think of at least ten different scenarios in which I don’t think I’d be able to give him my full support.

In fact, is there anyone I fully support no matter what? Honestly, I can’t say there is. And if you think that makes me a bad person, go ahead, ask yourself the same question. Pick someone you think you support, place them in the worst situation imaginable, doing the worst things imaginable, and ask yourself if you’d still support them.

What I can promise — and this is no easy promise, mind you — is that I will try to imagine other people, including those who are often idolized and/or vilified, complexly. I will try to live with empathy in my heart. I will root for our leaders to succeed, and when they eventually fail, I will try my best to see the source behind the symptoms, the intent instead of specifics.

When shit hits the fan, I will try to be a fan.