A mother's love is something that no one can describe solely off the strength of words alone. Such a powerful force, by nature, is not intended to ever efficiently be defined or explained, but as Kanye West knows all too well, such a mystical and impactful blessing is meant to be cherished in all lifetimes.
While the late Donda West did her best to fully capture what it was like raising the man who gradually grew into one of the greatest rappers in the world by pouring her soul into the pages of her book, Raising Kanye: Life Lessons From the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar, she very well could have exceeded the confines of the 228 pages she filled along with co-author Karen Hunter with ease. As the book, along with the anniversary of her tragic passing, both arrive at the decade-old milestone, it is only fitting to revisit the ink she once passionately spilled in tribute to her son, carving each word from the heart and without apology in hopes to not only honor their mutually coveted relationship, but graciously share some of the stories that came along with their truly unbreakable bond.
While we all know that without Donda, there would be no Kanye (because that's just how being human works), that also can be said regarding his particular brand of artistry, his unwillingness to compromise who he is, and his dedication to consistently evolve as a brilliant polymath. Donda raised Kanye in a way uniquely her own, and in an influential manner that didn't come without critique from the outside world; an incessant phenomena all too familiar for present day ‘Ye.
The last 10 years without his mother physically by his side have challenged the beloved rapper-turned-entrepreneur in ways we can only begin to attempt to comprehend, with a laundry list of hardships further exemplifying how, at the very least, he inherited his mother’s fighting spirit, even as he is still learning how to best walk through the fire himself. Late 2016 proved to be a whirlwind of life happening all at once, with media reports suggesting that in addition to experiencing the overwhelming pressure that comes with simply being Kanye West, he also was triggered by the anniversary of his mother’s funeral, with the month of November notably being a difficult time for the rapper.
As Yeezy’s unpredictable antics threatened the wellbeing of his career and simultaneously pulled at the heartstrings of his supporters and haters alike, one can’t help but wonder how the distressing absence of his mother is still intensely felt with each passing day. As fans held onto every media report cataloging his alarming on-stage rants, the abrupt cancellation of the remaining dates of his Saint Pablo tour, his cryptic social media usage, his worrying hospitalization and, of course, his infamous meeting with President Trump — the notion of Kanye simply missing his mother makes a hell of a lot of sense, especially in retrospect.
As we revisit the wise words Donda West left behind, such intelligible gems bring us a tiny step closer to understanding her only pride and joy both as a man, a father and an enigmatic artistic genius, as well as if his legacy is doing justice to hers.
Dr. Donda C. West was an extraordinary woman. As exemplified through her spirited actions and told in her own words, she lived a life that put the utmost trust into the unknown, fearlessly adapting her father's mantra as her own to put God first, family second and work third. From marrying the photographer and former Black Panther Ray West (who would soon become Kanye's birth father, conceived three months after their whimsical "but very real" first date), to uprooting from Atlanta as a single mother to pursue a teaching job at Chicago State University, Donda embraced each one of life's unexpected challenges with faith, determination and a wisdom well beyond her years, even when the going got rough.
Prior to becoming pregnant with Kanye, Donda admitted she never wanted to have children, saying she made such a decision in her head, while her spirit and body had other plans. She later became quick to accept that her "maternal instinct kicked in and went into overdrive," with her and her then-husband making the proper accommodations to welcome this next stage of their life together, despite not knowing that 11 months after their son was born, the two would be fated to split ways. Interestingly enough, the 27-year-old expectant mother knew that Kanye would be their only child, going on to choose an Ethiopian name meaning "the only one," with his middle name, Omari, meaning "wise man."
From the very beginning, Donda knew her child was different and therefore would require a different version of herself to be his mother. While an old saying goes that a woman isn't born until her first child is, Donda was reborn several times, even noting her divorce from Ray as a happier occasion, leaving her free to rediscover herself again. She also shared her belief that "our children are not our children — they are souls that come through us to fulfill their purpose," explaining that this new chapter of her life as a mother was meant to teach the lessons God would have them learn: "listening is the only we can be effective in our new teaching."
Donda's parenting style was as unique as her son turned out to be as an adult.
"One of the biggest challenges for me early on was how to discipline without killing his spirit," she wrote. "How to support who he was and at the same time give him boundaries that would keep him within the parameters of what is appropriate... It was not always an easy thing to draw the line between what warranted polite behavior and agreement and what did not."
She also explained that she did everything she could to make sure Kanye had everything he wanted, adding, "Another challenge was how to provide for him without totally spoiling him. I had to balance the extent to which I would allow him to have things and when I would tell him no. Rarely did I tell Kanye no. I gave him everything he asked for — at least what I could afford. I would figure out a way to borrow from Peter to pay Paul so that ultimately, he could have it. Why? Because Kanye earned it. He had to."
This level of sacrifice and understanding was a consistent element in her relationship with her son, and she also was very conscious of how her relationships with other men came into play as well.
"I'm glad I went through those loves and exposed Kanye to all of it — the good, the bad, and the ugly," she explained. "There were some lessons there for him too. One of them was that love doesn't come easy. When you know the truth, perhaps you're more apt to treasure it when you find it and you're less likely to jump into a relationship without thought and care."
As Kanye grew older, Donda made sure to teach him to love himself; something that she felt she must consciously do as a parent, explaining that her son would not be strong if he didn't love himself, and elaborating that self-hate is easy to develop unless combated. In addition to this approach to her parenting, she also made several sacrifices to ensure she could make her vision for their life together happen, such as accepting a teaching job overseas and living in China when Kanye was 10.
"I would give Kanye the world if I could," Donda wrote. "But I guess I did the next best thing — I exposed him to the world. I knew that more than money, clothes and things, exposure to new things, exposure to different things, is perhaps the best gift you can give your child. My goal was to show Kanye the world so that he could make up his own mind how things were — but he would do it from experience."
Kanye's unique childhood taking him from Chi-town to Shanghai further exposed his creative talents, with the creation of his first song, "Green Eggs and Ham," changing his passion forever at the age of 12. In fact, his mom even paid for the $25 per hour studio sessions to have it recorded, later referring to her son's first song as "akin to Picasso."
When Kanye was preparing to drop out of college at age 20, he did so in a way in which his mother — who always thought he'd get at least one degree to fall back on (she herself had three) — would approve, using flattery with conviction and building the argument that college wasn't in his path by saying, "After all, I've had the professor in the house my entire life."
Her blessing meant the world to him, and it wasn't easy, especially coming from a family like so many African-American families, "Where getting your education was right next to believing in God." Just as difficult as it was for Kanye to ask for the blessing to pursue music over a degree, it was difficult for Donda to kick him out of the house and send him on his way to pursue his dreams. Even Donda knew that he claimed his vision at a young age, reminiscing on the fact that when he was a pre-teen she caught her son primping himself in the mirror, saying, "Mom, look at me! I could be a teenage sex symbol!"
"You have to be able to see yourself; you have to be able to see it when no one else can see it," Donda wrote. "You have to visualize where you want to be and claim it. Kanye claimed it a long time ago. But it didn’t just come because he said so. Those countless hours in his room, the years of preparation and grooming for that moment, the work he put in, and the perseverance through all of the rejection, prepared him for when his vision finally came to fruition."
Such a vision, after all, was part of Kanye's destiny and subsequently, part of Donda's as well. It was written this way from the beginning.
"He was about 7 months old when I first noticed it," Donda wrote, describing the first moment she realized her son was inarguably special. "Actually, I didn't notice it; someone else pointed it out to me. Kanye was sitting in his stroller in a vegetarian restaurant in Atlanta with his middle and index fingers in his mouth (he sucked those two fingers until he was 8). This lady came into the restaurant and stopped in her tracks.
"‘Look at that face!’ she said.
"I looked and she was staring at Kanye, almost mesmerized. I thought to myself, ‘Yes, he is cute, isn't he?’ But then he looked up at me and I saw it, too. I saw what she was talking about. He looked at me with eyes that spoke. And I knew, like the old folks sometimes know when they see certain babies, ‘He was an old soul.’”
"Who knew that Kanye West would become Kanye West? Apparently, he did," Donda wrote, as her son was beginning the stage that many would later refer to as his College Dropout-era.
From the beginning of his career and as far as everyone who knew him can remember, Kanye was outspoken. Donda used Raising Kanye as a way to lend insight into where that aspect of his distinctive personality came from. While defending her son, she added that she was never embarrassed by him utilizing his platform to say whatever is on his mind.
"His fiery statements never anger or embarrass me," Donda stated. "I know they come from not only the situation at hand but also his legacy. I’m the wrong person to ask for comments when it comes to Kanye’s so-called outbursts. It’s been said that I may even be partially to blame. Maybe there’s some truth to that. I’m not certain. But I’ve always been a rebel. And right or wrong, I have always spoken my mind. I have always preached standing up for what you believe to be the truth. And that’s what Kanye does.”
When Kanye was 19, he had his first major label meeting with Sony, something he, at the time, thought would be his big break. As Donda explained, she didn't realize his "big break" would be synonymous with not finishing his higher education, something she first had difficulty accepting in the beginning.
"I could see the driver standing outside of LaGuardia Airport with a sign that read: Kanye West," Donda recalled. "I just knew this would be it for him and I think Kanye felt the same way."
While that meeting didn't change Kanye's life the way he thought it would, it did teach him resilience. After he insulted the head of Sony's urban department, Michael Mauldin, by saying that he would be bigger than Jermaine Dupri (not knowing that Mauldin was Dupri's father), Kanye left that office both without a deal and without a limo ride back to the airport. From there, as Donda pointed out, Kanye (much like his grandfather would have) embraced a "find a way or make one" mentality.
"The rejection that I did get to see him go through actually made me support him more," Donda said, reflecting on how Kanye wouldn't tell her all of the details because it would give her more ammunition to get him to finish school. "Seeing him work so hard and keep at it made me want it for him just as much. I saw his vision and I wanted it all for him — even if it meant dropping out."
After Kanye spent a year of being "rejected, dissed and blocked," he got his first record deal with Roc-A-Fella, and later opened for Usher at Madison Square Garden after being shunned from that same stage. He used his advance to first take care of business and get out of a bad management deal, and second, to buy Donda a Rolex that Christmas. More importantly, as Donda pointed out, he had finally become a major voice in hip-hop.
Though the events destined to unfold weren't always easy following this, Kanye consistently made his mother proud, all while remaining true to her lessons in relation to his vision.
"I didn't sit down and tell him, 'You have to be the best,'" Donda explained. "I just always thought he was. I saw him when at 7 months old, he was determined to get out of his crib and be free, even if he split his head in the process — which he did. That never stopped him. And he has been fighting to do exactly what he wants to do ever since. I suspect he always will."
With Donda not only recognizing early on that her son was going to change the world, at times solely just by being himself, she also recognized the influence she had on him, appreciating that their close relationship wasn’t the norm for rappers to boast publicly.
"The first time I actually saw the term 'mama's boy' connected to Kanye was in a Chicago newspaper in 2005," Donda wrote. "It was in a headline of a cover story for the entertainment section. The headline read: 'Kanye: a Mama's Boy After All.' I didn't like the reference at first, but the actual story was quite glowing. I was very proud of it and so was Kanye. When he was asked about me in an interview he said, 'My mama's my best friend. I talk to her every day.'"
Donda's support was and always will be an integral component fueling Kanye's career, with his very first album a phenomenon that further solidified that he was "destined for greatness," something that Donda had witnessed "since he was old enough to talk."
"I sat in the parking lot of Best Buy, popped in one of the 10 copies of the College Dropout CD I had just purchased and listened to all of it," Donda wrote. "I had heard snippets of the CD, even a few songs. But I had not heard the finished product. I had counted the days until February 10, 2004, to buy my son’s very first CD — just like everyone else. When I’d gotten to the checkout at Best Buy, the cashier said, 'Wow, you bought 10!' 'Yeah, this is my son’s,' I told him. 'No, it’s not!' he said. 'If Kanye West was your son, you wouldn’t have to buy it.' I didn’t have to buy it. I wanted to buy it."
"What Kanye is is passionate — passionate about everything he cares about," Donda wrote. "And it is that passion that has brought fame, fortune, better and best. Admittedly, his passion can lead to what some may see as trouble. But that passion is his lifeblood. Therefore, I encourage it, applaud it and learn from it. Whatever mistakes he makes, I am certain that he learns from them. And learning from mistakes means growth."
From his major car accident in 2002 to forming the Kanye West Foundation in 2003 to feeling robbed for Best New Artist at the 2004 VMAs to infamously criticizing George Bush in 2005 and making his now-iconic ego-heavy Grammy speech that same year to covering Rolling Stone a year later and boycotting the 2006 MTV Video Awards, Donda was by his side for every major milestone, every frustrating setback and every little victory along the way, right up until her passing on November 10, 2007.
Woven into his ever-growing catalog is a ballad titled “Hey Mama,” dedicated to Donda, that was written years prior to its release as a way for Kanye to express his gratitude for the way he was raised, what his mother taught him and everything she represents for him.
After Donda died due to complications from a cosmetic surgery, Kanye came forward to admit that the tragedy is one he has felt responsible for, stating blankly to Q Magazine that he feels he sacrificed his mom for his success.
“If I had never moved to LA she'd be alive,” he told the publication. “I don't want to go far into it because it will bring me to tears.”
Following the passing of Donda, his tribute song took on new meaning; he even ended every show during his “Glow in the Dark” tour with the a tear-jerkingly beautiful tribute, later breaking down in tears while attempting to perform the song during his first public performance following her passing.
"I've known my mom since I was zero years old," Kanye wrote during the forward of his mother's book. "She is quite dope. What stands out most about her is not only how she taught me but her willingness to learn new things and that she listens to me. When some people become parents, they are so busy teaching, they sometimes close off to learning. A lot of parents are so stuck in their ways they can't adjust to new things. You have to be in touch with what your kids are doing. You have to be a part of them."
Now that Kanye is a father himself, he is applying a similar parenting approach with him and his wife Kim Kardashian's children, North and Saint. From scheduling his meetings around his time with his kids — as opposed to the other way around — he is setting a precedent to preserve his own mother's legacy, and staying true to himself, something that Donda instilled in him from the beginning.
Much like Donda, Kanye previously had an idea of his life as a father that is already much different from what he envisioned for himself.
The song, "New Day," from his collaborative 2011 Watch the Throne album with Jay Z, focuses on what each envisions for their unborn sons respectively. Kanye focuses on his own wishes ("I'll never let my son have an ego / He'll be nice to everyone, wherever we go / I mean I might even make him be Republican / So everybody know he love white people"), how he won't let his mom move to LA ("Knowin' she couldn't take the pressure now we all pray") and how he wants a different path for his son than the one he traveled ("See, I just want him to have an easy life / Not like Yeezy life, just want him to be someone people like").
Interestingly enough, Donda has never thought of her son's arrogance as characteristic, explaining that Kanye was "raised to speak the truth as he sees it," something that, throughout almost two decades in the spotlight, he has never strayed far from.
"If 100 people who didn’t know him personally were asked to describe Kanye, 90 of them might say that he is arrogant," Donda wrote. "In fact, that’s the very first term that may come to their minds. Like the word association game: Kanye West? Arrogant! Not confident, not brave, not sure or certain. Not talented, witty, clever or just willing to call it like he sees it. Just plain old arrogant. Some would say so with great adoration, others with outright disdain. But for those who really know him, Kanye is anything but arrogant. He is mild-mannered, kind, gentle, sensitive, and always looking to improve himself and help others. That’s how I would describe him."
As evidenced countless times through his music, his on-stage "rants" and through his at-times erratic tweets, his outspoken nature is directly related to his passions. If Donda were alive today, she likely would not have raised concern regarding his meeting with Donald Trump, but rather would trust that such a strange circumstance was part of a bigger plan of his.
"Kanye pours that same passion, truth and vision into everything he does," Donda wrote. "I would no more suppress his passion, which sometimes leads to the so-called outbursts, than I would suppress his ability to make music. To stifle the former is to threaten the latter. He is always expressing the truth as he sees it and as he understands it in that moment. He has been raised to look through his own eyes, his own lens, considering the world and others in it but not mirroring their realities, not even mirroring [hers] or his dad’s."
Additionally, Donda also understood the power Kanye's words can hold, much like he himself also understood he was blessed with the opportunity to be heard and inspire tangible change.
"When you have a platform and millions of people listening to you — not just hearing some words you utter because you happen to be on TV or in front of an interviewer for a widely circulated magazine — it’s important to speak the truth as you see it," Donda continued. "Crazy or not, it makes a lot of sense. If I could count the words Kanye has spoken that some people have found inappropriate, controversial, in poor taste, or just downright crazy, I would still be counting. But I’d bet you a year’s salary that most of those words would be right on the money."
From being arrested for vandalism after allegedly breaking a paparazzi's camera in 2008 to crashing Taylor Swift's acceptance speech in 2009, from saying he's going to run for president in 2020 to not voting but questionably endorsing Donald Trump in 2016, Kanye has tested his own boundaries and, at times, arguably lost his footing while trying to navigate the madness that comes with being such an influential artist. Does meeting with Trump mean Kanye has lost sight of his original intentions? While it is hard to know for certain, as Kanye balances being a father, a husband, a designer, a touring artist, a producer and more, Donda's words still reign as true in 2007 as they do today, even when the rest of the world (and perhaps Kanye himself) is still trying to make sense of it all.
"When I think about it, it is evident to me that Kanye was born to make a difference," Donda wrote. "And that requires stepping out of the little circles that the world might draw for him. That means coloring outside of the lines. Ultimately, if you yourself speak truthfully, rather than politically correctly, you may on occasion find yourself agreeing with Kanye. You may even spew out some of the same feelings with as much passion. [With Kanye], the more important the issue, the more passionate he will be about it."
As exemplified throughout the pages of Raising Kanye and in her 30+ years of teaching, Donda was very forward-thinking, smart, caring and perhaps most notably, didn’t lose sight of her own individuality in motherhood. While it’s easy to get lost in her words as she speaks so fervently about her son and the way she raised him, it’s hard not to wonder if Kanye has lost sight of some of those original teachings at times, particularly during the darker, more complicated stages in his life. However, while 2016 was a year that did few favors for Kanye’s most die-hard fans, it's all part of his story — and one that his mother believed in from the very beginning, especially when no one else did.
As 2017 unfolds and Kanye looks back at what he’s accomplished in the 10 years he’s faced without Donda standing by his side and singing his praises, we can only hope he knows deep down he’s making her as proud as ever and that his work as the artist he spent his whole life evolving into is far from finished.
“‘Wake up, Mr. West. Wake up, Mr. West,’ says the teacher on Kanye's Late Registration album,” Donda wrote. “This teacher is insistent that Kanye, asleep in class, must wake up and pay attention. I'm here to inform that teacher, and everyone else, that Mr. West is awake. He's not only awake, but he's also aware."