Story by Todd Williams and Terry Shropshire
Story Images by Terry Shropshire and Kahlill Van Zant
Cover Images by Hiltron Bailey for Steed Media Service.
Kanye Omari West always finds fuel for his creativity – whether it’s his own artistic ambitions or the perceived infractions of others. But, on Saturday, November 10, 2007, the talented hip-hop star lost the person who is possibly his biggest inspiration. Dr. Donda West has always been her famous son’s greatest muse. As a college professor, she emphasized the importance of school in young Kanye – so much so that even after leaving college to embark on his burgeoning career as a rapper/producer, his first three albums, (College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation), all referenced higher education as a part of his legacy. The bond between mother and son permeated every facet of Kanye’s career; from delivering heart-wrenching odes like “Hey Mama,” to naming his mother chairperson of the Kanye West Foundation; Kanye’s love for his mother has been front-and-center ever since the dapper rapper burst onto the scene in 2003. Kanye was born in 1977 in Atlanta, but after separating from his father, Donda moved with her son to Chicago. Donda West was a scholar who firmly believed in the power of education. She chaired the Chicago State University English department and was adamant that Kanye pursue a college education.
“Kanye has always known that he was expected to go to college,” Ms West recalled. “My whole family was steeped in the tradition of education. I was kind of taken aback when he [dropped out of school]. He came and said, ‘Mom, I was thinking maybe college isn’t for me.’ At the time, the people at Sony music were calling for interviews. He said, ‘Ma, I’ve had the college professor in my house all of my life.'”
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Having that professor in his house gave Kanye access to experiences that most of the hip-hop community weren’t privileged to experience prior to platinum-plated success – like living in Nanjing, China for almost two years. West’s current worldly, tastemaking persona was undoubtedly birthed in such experiences as a youngster, and after a while, his mother accepted that her son had, had a wealth of life and cultural experiences to draw upon. “I had to realize that you don’t have to go to college to be successful, [but] I’m still a very strong advocate of college,” Ms. West explained. “You can have alternatives in life.”
“We agreed that he would be able to drop out and stay at the house,” she said. “He had one year to demonstrate that he could make it in music.” Ms. West was insistent that Kanye remain productive and focused on his future – wherever he was headed. “I charged him rent because I’m of the mind-set that you understand the responsibility. I was not going to raise the kind of young man who couldn’t raise a family himself. He was working his telemarketing job and also producing for people.”
Not that Kanye’s professional decisions were all that shocking considering his childhood. Donda West knew her son was gifted from the time he was old enough to express himself. “He began to draw when he was 3, and I bought him a huge box of Crayolas,” Donda West wrote in her book, Raising Kanye: Life Lessons From the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar. “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 figures.”
That love for art grew as Kanye grew, and soon, it became his sole focus. “Kanye got to the point where he wanted to do nothing but music and art,” Donda West said earlier this year while on Chicago radio station B-96. “He said, ‘I like music, art, recess and lunch.’ That’s what he liked about high school. I always insisted that he be a good student. But it was really hard, those last three or four years, because he didn’t want to do anything but those few things, and that’s when we had a few difficulties. But he stuck in there. He hung in there. He really had no choice.”
Kanye – “only one” Omari – “wise man”
Much of Kanye’s outspoken nature comes from his mother. That part of his personality often grabs the most headlines; so it makes sense that West would provoke such an intensely divided reaction from the general public. There are no mixed feelings regarding the outspoken Chicago MC: you either think he’s the best thing to happen to hip-hop in years or revile his cocky brashness. But Kanye’s polarizing personality is a big part of what keeps him intriguing, and his penchant for controversy is also a factor in his celebrity. His public outbursts are epic: from storming the stage at the MTV Europe Awards after losing the Best Video Award to Justice vs. Simian, to launching into a rant against President George W. Bush during a televised fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina on NBC. West is unparalleled in creating instant classic sound-bites. As much as he ‘speaks from his soul,’ West also seems to speak unfiltered – which can sometimes be a double-edged sword. “When you are interviewed by the media, you just get to answer the questions that they raise and they get to structure it how they want to,” said Ms. West. “[And] sometimes you’re misquoted.”
West’s outbursts rarely seem fearless; his televised rant against George W. Bush was preceded by an awkward pause and a deer-caught-in-the-headlights glare into the camera. When speaking to MTV about homophobia in hip-hop, he chose his words carefully and thought hard before answering any questions. West understands the significance of what he says – and while that understanding makes him think before he speaks, it never stops him from speaking.
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Ms. West wrote in her book about Kanye’s frankness, indicating that it’s a part of his heritage – his father was a former Black Panther-turned-photojournalist. “Like his Dad, Kanye has little patience for what he thinks is unjust,” she wrote in Raising Kanye. “If he sees a president leave human beings [on] rooftops for days at a time, his passion and compassion will outweigh his patience.”
These are the reasons Donda West was so proud of her son. Kanye not only has compiled a musical career of considerable importance, but he has also altered the way people look at hip-hop. Most importantly, Donda and Kanye West journeyed on this breathtaking ride together, right to the top. “You know . who could have fathomed all of this?” Donda asked rhetorically at the Recording Academy Honors held at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago last October. “But I always knew that he was going to be really, really special, something great. He seemed to be born with that in him. I didn’t know if he was going to be the best surgeon in the world, the best astronaut, or, you know, the No. 1 in hip-hop. I’m really glad it turned out just as it did.”