Donda, Kanye West’s mother: A musical muse who died after cosmetic surgery

The rap superstar has dedicated his 10th studio album to his ‘momager,’ who passed away 14 years ago from heart failure caused by multiple postoperative factors

Kanye West and his mother Donda West in May 2007, months before she died.
Kanye West and his mother Donda West in May 2007, months before she died.Vince Bucci (Getty Images)

Rapper Kanye West had never made a secret of his devotion to his late mother, Donda West, and has now named his 10th studio album after her.

His first long-awaited release since 2019, Donda is not just the rapper’s post-pandemic comeback, but also a love song to his mom who died in November 2007. But just hours after it hit streaming services on Sunday, the artist complained on social media that Universal Music Group had released it without his approval.

Several years have passed since West, 44, announced in an unorthodox fashion that this latest work would be dedicated to his mother; he did so by sharing a text conversation with a friend along with a photo of the plastic surgeon who operated on her the day before her death. “I want to forget and stop hating,” he wrote in a message he posted on Twitter.

After undergoing liposuction and a breast reduction, Donda, then 58, left the operating room apparently in good health, but died at home the next day. “She would still be alive if I had never moved to Los Angeles,” West would say later, expressing his feeling of guilt in an interview with Q Magazine. According to People magazine, the subsequent autopsy concluded that the death was due to heart failure as a result of multiple postoperative factors. The tragedy prompted California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to tighten cosmetic surgery laws with the Donda West Act, which requires that all cosmetic surgery patients receive prior medical clearance following a physical examination.

A professor at Chicago State University’s English department, Donda West left her teaching job to act as “momager” for her son. She was often seen with him at events and wrote a book just five months before her death: Raising Kanye: Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar. In it, she recounts the excitement she felt upon hearing her only son’s debut album, The College Dropout. “I sat in the parking lot and listened to the whole CD. I couldn’t pull off. I wanted to be still and take it all in. I sat there, listening halfway holding back tears – halfway jamming. I had the music turned up real loud. I wanted to open my window and scream to everybody walking by, ‘Hey, this is my kid!’”

That first album not only earned West industry recognition in the shape of a Grammy, but also reflected the spirit in which his mother Donda had raised him, with values such as self-improvement and being a positive example for African-Americans. “They make us hate ourself and love they wealth,” he raps on All Falls Down, a track in which he criticizes the unbridled consumerism of African Americans in the US. In his second album, Late Registration, he included Hey Mama, a track expressing his pride in his mother, which he performed live on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show in 2005 with Donda in the front row.

Following his mother’s death, the rapper performed the track again at the Grammys with an additional two new verses, including the line, “Last night I saw you in my dreams, now I can’t wait to go to sleep.”

His ex-wife, Kim Kardashian, also made reference to how the loss affected Kanye, stating: “He is a brilliant but complicated person who – on top of the pressures of being an artist and a lack man who experienced the painful loss of his mother – has to deal with the pressure and isolation that is heightened by his bipolar disorder.”

Born in Oklahoma in 1949, Donda West graduated in 1971 from Virginia Union University, received her doctorate in 1980 from Auburn University in Alabama and taught for 31 years, first as an assistant and then as a professor. She raised Kanye alone after she divorced his father, Ray West, one of the first black photojournalists at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

When the rapper decided to drop out of the college where she worked, Donda tried to persuade him to stay, yet didn’t hesitate in supporting his bid to make it in the music world. She had long been aware of his talent and, in an interview for the Chicago Tribune in 2004, she recalled how, at the age of five, Kanye had composed a song in the back seat of the car as they returned from a vacation. The admiration was mutual. “My mother was everything,” Kanye declared in 2005, referring to his childhood.

With 27 tracks lasting almost two hours, including one with Jay-Z after a long-standing feud, the new album has been a source of conflict for West with Universal. In an Instagram post that appeared shortly after Donda was released on streaming services, West wrote: “Universal put my album out without my approval and they blocked Jail 2 from being on the album.” Jail pt 2, which is now available on the playlist, has been a source of controversy as it features both Marilyn Manson, who is facing four sexual assault cases, and DaBaby, whose homophobic remarks recently made headlines.

Although the label has not commented, sources at Universal described the artist’s statements as “preposterous,” according to Variety magazine.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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