On eve of new album ‘Donda,’ Kanye taps late mother’s Chicago State University ties to honor her
Thousands of hip-hop music fans converging here for Lollapalooza this weekend have been awaiting the delayed release of “Donda,” Chicago hip-hop icon Kanye West’s new album dedicated to his mother, the late Chicago State University professor, Donda West.
Disappointed fans burned up social media after West’s 10th studio album failed to materialize as promised in tandem with his sold-out July 22 listening session at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
But at least one fan post that day did not cover the impromptu event or whopping 42,000 fans who bought tickets with two days notice, nor did it critique the highly anticipated album with guest appearances featuring Jay-Z, etc., the $40 hot dogs or the aftermath.
The post by CSU Professor of Educational Policy Studies Garrard McClendon featured a simple photo of him and West, and the words: “Honored to spend time with the Kanye West team, assisting in his philanthropic efforts over the last few weeks to discuss his mother’s educational philosophy + legacy. He is a true follower of the soul’s code. God 1st.”
I called to rib him. “You hanging out with Kanye these days?” McClendon laughed.
Turns out he is, but not in the way I thought. McClendon, author of the 2019 “Donda’s Rules: The Scholarly Works of Dr. Donda West – Mother of Kanye West,” had gotten a call out of the blue earlier this month from Kanye’s people.
“It’s kind of an out-of-body experience when Kanye West’s team calls you and says, ‘Can you get on a plane and come to California? Kanye wants to see you,’” he said. “Of course I said, ‘Yes.’”
West flew McClendon, 55, who has taught at CSU for 11 years, to San Francisco, where West had rented out an entire Silicon Valley resort while working on the reveal of his album, a tribute to his mom, who died in 2007 at age 58 of complications following plastic surgery.
West wanted McClendon’s help with a philanthropic endeavor he’s putting together to honor her.
All that McClendon can share for now is that a curriculum based on Donda West’s work is being developed for educational purposes, spearheaded by her music and fashion icon son.
“I spent five days out there with him. It was beautiful. It was my privilege to be there. His brilliance, I got to see it. My role was just to be a conduit, a provider of any information he needs on his mother’s work in his effort now to honor her,” he said.
“He is a multifaceted creative, to be sure. But what I saw was a sensitive side that, of course, is piqued by his interest now in honoring his mom.”
West’s mother was a noted scholar who taught at CSU for 31 years — 24 as chair of its Department of English, Communications, Media and Theater.
A Fulbright Scholar and recipient of many awards, she’d helped establish CSU’s Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing. After retiring in 2004, she’d moved to California to help with her son’s career.
“I met her twice, and we had discussions about her scholarly works. At one point, I’d said to her, ‘You know, Donda, your scholarly works should be published. Everyone knows Kanye, and many know you have a Ph.D. But no one’s really familiar with your scholarly works, which are phenomenal. Someone should publish them,’” McClendon said.
“She looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Why don’t you publish them?’ That took me totally by surprise, and I laughed it off, never thinking about it again for many years.”
Years after her death, those words haunted him. McClendon became a man on a mission.
In 2011, when he shared the request of the late professor with Che “Rhymefest” Smith, a longtime friend of Kanye’s, Smith urged him to fulfill her wishes and connected him with the rapper.
In 2013, McClendon enlisted the students in his Philosophy of Education classes to help him mine various archives for Donda West’s full body of work. The book was birthed in fall 2019.
“The students did a wonderful job helping me find all of this archival material. We’re talking her scholarly works, her dissertation, her master’s thesis. We found personal notes of hers, poems of hers, hundreds of hours of her audio speeches. So in those six years, we’re compiling, we’re editing, and having conference calls with Kanye,” McClendon recounted.
“This is how her story gets told. Kanye, who stayed in contact through the publishing, LOVES the book. Oh my God, he loves the book. It was a business relationship at first, then it became more of an acquaintanceship, then friendship.”
Donda West, whose 2009 book, “Raising Kanye – Life Lessons From The Mother of A Hip-Hop Superstar,” (Gallery Books, 2009, $16.95), left little question about where Kanye gets his unbridled confidence, was CEO of West Brands, the parent company of his businesses.
The closeness of the single, divorced mother and her son was always evident, as in his tribute “Hey Mama” track on his second studio album, 2005’s “Late Registration.” The Chicago native has included references to his beloved mother on just about every album, and not only is this new album named for her, but so is his design company.
Tell us more about the upcoming curriculum project, I pushed McClendon. No dice.
“Until that becomes full blown, we probably won’t make any comment on that. But I can tell you the book has 70 rules — Donda West’s 70 rules on writing and thinking,” he said.
“Donda West believed children learn by doing, that you can’t tell a child what to learn — they have to do it. She would always say, ‘I didn’t teach Kanye how to rap or how to produce music. What I gave him was the freedom and the tools to do so.’
“See, when you learn all about Donda West — a freedom fighter, a poet, a scholar, a civil rights activist and just an outstanding professor — then you know the outcome in her son, Kanye Omari West, was inevitable.”