July 12 marked what would have been the 60th birthday of Dr. Donda West, scholar, author and mother of rapper Kanye West. She is remembered by many as the rapper’s adored mama who he memorialized in the song, “Hey Mama.” She’s also remembered by others for her humanitarian acts as well as her efforts to increase literacy and improve education in her hometown Chicago and around the country.
She first caught the public’s attention when Kanye West named her to spearhead the philanthropic efforts of the Kanye West Foundation (now renamed in her honor), and when she authored the autobiographical bestseller "Raising Kanye," helping to inspire single mothers everywhere.
In November of 2007, when she died, West and her publicist Patricia Green were planning a national speaking tour to bring more visibility to the causes that were important to her. Friends since their undergrad years at Virginia Union University, Mrs. Green recalls West as a gentle spirit who brought out the best in everyone she met.
Writer Cinque Muhammad spoke with Green recently about the life, passion and legacy of her friend and colleague.
What was it like to work with Dr. West, helping her realize her vision? What set her apart?
Dr. West and I had known each other since college. It’s not surprising that she turned out to be successful both in her career and as a mother, because she exemplified those qualities when we were young at Virginia Union (University). She was very involved in social issues, was a part of the University Players, a theater group, and was actually at VUU on a music scholarship. So, when I worked with her, it was not like working with her as a client. I was working with someone that I had known since I was 17 years old, and who epitomized the qualities then that would make her become the kind of adult that she was and the kind of mother that she was to Kanye. I witnessed the ease in which she spoke to and inspired cross sections of audiences. That she was a Ph.D. didn't impede her ability to deliver the common touch, a trait of hers that I will long remember.
How did Dr. West influence your work and inspire you to do things differently?
Dr. West reaffirmed for me the value of living a purpose-driven life. I never imagined working with hip-hop artists or being associated with the industry. However, much happened owed to my successful affiliation with Dr. West.
In April 2007, I took a group to London for Adornment where my production, Beyond Image: Emancipation through Self-Discovery, was featured in a panel discussion featuring artists, including Erykah Badu. So, when Dr. West expressed interest in a London book signing, I turned to Margot. She arranged book signings, speaking engagements, and media tours for Dr. West when she traveled to London in late June 2007 to attend Kanye’s performance at the Princess Di Tribute concert. Although her signing, at Waterstone’s Books, was the same week and on the same Tube (subway) stop as the site of the London car bombing, a line snaked out of the huge bookstore onto the street.
How did she and her son, Kanye, respond to the fans?
Dr. West and Kanye posed for throngs of paparazzi then settled into signing books and taking time for some lucky people to be photographed with them.
What are you doing now since Dr. West’s death?
It was the London experience and the work I did as project manager for the August 2007 Kanye West Foundation Chicago fundraiser that galvanized my interest in entertainment PR. Petersburg, Virginia, native Trey Songz agreed to lend his celebrity status to the Virginia Icon, a vocal music competition for high school students that I executive produced for a nonprofit organization, and which occurred in October 2008. Trey gave a free performance and received an award for musical talent and philanthropy. The following day he presented his panel discussion, Songz for Peace, before about 300 Richmond, Virginia high school students. Had it not been for Dr. West, I would not have chosen a path that offers endless opportunities, through the arts and entertainment industry, to make a difference for young people.
How did you deal with Dr. West’s death? What was that situation like for you?
It was overwhelmingly sad. Someone had called me from L.A. very early in the morning to tell me. I was in disbelief, because I had just heard from her a couple of days earlier by e-mail. We were going to be putting together a press packet and working on another book tour for 2008. This was on the heels of the successful UK tour and domestic signings, including the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Weekend Authors Pavilion, the Baltimore Book Festival, and a special signing and talk at Virginia Union University. That this was Dr. West’s first return to the campus since her 1971 graduation made her presence all the more memorable.
"Raising Kanye" was Dr. West’s first book. What was next for her?
I will never forget her last e-mail to me, where she said that she wanted to establish her own brand in her own right. In many ways, what she left is a reminder that she had begun to do that; it is for us who loved and still love her to continue her work.
Since Dr. West passed, the tabloids, the internet and blogosphere have been filled with controversy over the cause of her death. As a media professional, what's your opinion on the apparent mishandling of such matters? When do we say, as a society, that we have gone too far when we scrutinize so harshly such an unfortunate event?
As you know, the media, particularly tabloid press, sensationalizes, and definitely in the case of public figures. I would rather remember Dr. West for who she was, not for how she died. When we give energy to anything else, we keep the toxicity alive.
I would say that she definitely left behind a legacy. What would you say that legacy is?
When we were in the UK, the best part of her experience was a talk she gave at an organization for single mothers. We thought the girls would ask about Kanye, but they started asking her how she did it as a single mother struggling. She told them the challenges other single mothers face were the same for her: struggling to balance finances that were not always available and ensuring her child’s welfare. I believe that was the best part of who she was. (She was) a model for mothers all over the world as to what is possible when you believe in yourself. There is nothing that can’t be overcome when you have a will to survive and provide and when you always, always, put your children first.
What did she leave you with personally?
Celebrity philanthropy is now a significant addition to my agency’s practice, and I owe this direction to Dr. West. There are countless African-American celebrities who are doing their part to make a difference for our communities. Yet, many times, their goodwill stories do not appear in mainstream media. If we do not tell our stories, who will? I am fortified to be that messenger because of Dr. West, and in remembrance of her.
What did she leave the world?
She left the world Kanye …what a gift!
Cinque Muhammad has been a featured writer for The Final Call and N'Digo Magapaper. He lives in Chicago with his wife and five sons.