It’s been nine years since Kanye West lost his mother, but the memory of Dr. Donda West lives on through her son’s work.
In 2013, Kanye joined forces with friend and collaborator Rhymefest to launch Donda’s House, a nonprofit that aims to provide a safe environment and creative opportunities for at-risk youth in Chicago, a city that’s had almost 700 homicides this year alone. While Kanye, who still sits on the board, is busy juggling music, fashion and family (not to mention his own health), Rhymefest continues to hold things down alongside his wife, Donnie Smith.
In a new documentary titled "Saving Chicago: Inside Hip-Hop’s Movement to Make Chicago a Better Place," Billboard gives us a first-hand look at how Rhymefest and Donda’s House are using music to inspire and empower the city's young people. Using his knowledge and experience as a battle rapper, solo artist and songwriter (Kanye West “Jesus Walks,” Common and John Legend “Glory”), Rhymefest holds music classes throughout the year to nurture the talent of aspiring artists in the city while providing them with access to studio equipment.
Rhymefest’s classes often go deeper than just music, though. As a high school dropout who grew up without a father (their emotional reunion was turned into a film last year), Fest understands hardship better than most, and he’s quick to share lessons from his own struggle with his students. “Sometimes in life, you gotta make bold moves,” he tells the class, recalling the time he was homeless while trying to get his rap career going (which he eventually did). “You can’t be diplomatic about your passion.”
Rhymefest may be the voice of Donda’s House, but his work is very much a continuation of the legacy of Kanye’s late mother, who was a Ph.D., a Fulbright scholar and the chair of the English department at Chicago State University. In a separate interview with Billboard, the South Side native remembers an encounter with Donda, who he used to call Miss Maya (after Maya Angelou), that had a profound impact on his art.
He relates how one time when he was making a song in her house with her son, rapping about the drugs he sold, the girls he slept with, the suckers he had shot, she pulled him aside. “Did you really sell all that dope, shoot all those people and have sex with all those young women?” she asked. Nah, Rhymefest, then 16, admitted he just wanted to get on the radio. “Can you live in that lie you just told?” she asked, pressing him to talk about his family, his hopes for his sister. “That’s the best song you never wrote.”
“She activated who I am now,” says Rhymefest. “It was like she touched my forehead and brought the light out.” And that’s what he wants to bestow on the students of Donda’s House, even if it means foregoing opportunities to write hits elsewhere.
As for Rhymefest’s relationship with Donda’s son, things sound slightly more complicated. Kanye flew him out to Paris in 2013 to work on Yeezus, providing him with a much-needed paycheck at the time, but Fest was left feeling worried about his friend’s state of mind after their last conversation in December 2015—concern that seems vindicated given Kanye’s recent hospitalization.
“He had some bad people around, giving him advice,” he says. “I’m concerned about his mental well-being. He’s pulled in multiple directions.” He told West that Chicago needed him, certainly more than the fashion world or reality TV did. And, he contends, West needs his hometown. “Kanye used to be trying to find humanity through his vanity,” says Rhymefest. “He references lines he loves from ‘All Falls Down,’ which West raps in his Chicago twang: ‘I got a problem with spending before I get it/We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.’ But, says Rhymefest, “the vanity has won. So whatever.”
However, that hasn’t slowed Rhymefest’s mission with Donda’s House. Last week, he announced that he’d purchased Kanye’s childhood home in the South Shore neighborhood, which he plans to convert into the headquarters of Donda’s House as “a gathering place for the community with events and concerts.” The building will feature a state-of-the-art recording studio and also serve as a museum of sorts for the South Side Chicago community.
Music can be a bit of a painful subject for Rhymefest, who never quite hit the heights as some of his peers. “My life has been a series of great failures,” he says rather harshly about himself. But like Kanye, Rhymefest has always been able to turn tragedy into triumph. Now he’s hoping he can inspire the next generation to do the same.
By Andy James. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Instagram