With his latest album Donda, rapper Kanye West has attempted to honor his late mother Donda West, who passed away suddenly in 2007. West’s grief after the death of his mother was palpable — but the way in which he has chosen to honor her is questionable at best. The people who collaborated with Kanye on this album stand accused of sexual assault, misogyny and homophobia; are they really the best choices for a music collection intended to honor a Black woman?
Donda West was a professor of English at Chicago State University and had a close, loving relationship with her son. She died from complications after cosmetic surgery, with an autopsy revealing that she had a pre-existing heart condition doctors failed to identify before the procedure. It’s a situation that feels all too familiar to many Black women, including myself: heart disease and medical negligence are two factors that often lead to our delayed diagnosis, deaths, or worsening of chronic health conditions.
The Donda West Law was passed in West’s honor. It requires plastic surgeons to ensure a complete physical exam and written clearance 30 days before elective cosmetic surgery.
In 2015, West implied that he felt he might be responsible for Donda’s death, telling Q Magazine that, “If I had never moved to LA she’d be alive. I don’t want to go far into it because it will bring me to tears.” Guilt is a common part of the grieving process, but it’s also possible that West was hinting here at the impossible beauty standards hyper-present in LA and Hollywood culture. Because those beauty standards often elevate classically European features, Black women can feel the pressure and the pain of those standards acutely.
One of the artists who collaborated with Kanye on Donda is Chris Brown, who physically assaulted pop star and beauty mogul Rihanna in 2009. Brown has also been accused of abuse and harassment by ex-girlfriend Karrueche Tran, and was recently accused of battery by a woman in Los Angeles, among other incidents. He was convicted of assaulting Rihanna, and a judge granted Tran a permanent restraining order against him in 2017. Brown denies that he assaulted Tran or the other women who have made allegations against him, though he publicly admitted to beating Rihanna.
Another is Marilyn Manson, who has been accused of domestic violence by multiple women. “I have fantasies every day about smashing her skull in with a sledgehammer,” Manson said in 2009 of his then-girlfriend Evan Rachel Wood, later claiming it was just a “theatrical” statement. Ashley Lindsay Morgan, an ex of Manson’s, said, “I have night terrors, PTSD, anxiety, and mostly crippling OCD. I try to wash constantly to get [Manson] out or off of me…. I am coming forward so he will finally stop.” Manson has denied all allegations against him.
Then there is rapper DaBaby, who recently made several homophobic comments onstage and on his Instagram Live during a rant about HIV/AIDS, causing the artist to be pulled from multiple shows and albums. DaBaby apologized and said that he had not intended to insult gay people.
In Donda, it seems, West has ensured that those accused of abuse and bigotry have a safe haven. After DaBaby’s verse initially didn’t appear on the album, West even took to Instagram, posting screenshots of texts between himself and DaBaby, claiming that DaBaby’s manager wouldn’t clear the verse. “Yo manager cap,” Kanye texted his fellow artist. “They tried to stop you from coming in. The people next to you trying to destroy you. But God gotta bigger plan.” DaBaby also punched a Black woman named Tyronesha Laws in the face after she shined a flash from her phone in his face. Claiming he didn’t know she was a woman, DaBaby offered to fly Laws to see him so he could apologize to her in-person. He also posted an apology on Instagram, writing: “I do apologize that there was a female on the other end … keep in mind, I couldn’t see you because you got the flash this close to me … I wish you could have respected me.”
It’s worth noting that even though DaBaby claims to value respect, he invited Tory Lanez on stage after Megan Thee Stallion performed at his show. Lanez shot Megan in the foot and the appearance was potentially a violation of the restraining order against him. Including him in an event without Megan Thee Stallion’s knowledge was objectively disrespectful.
One has to wonder what larger purpose Donda serves when it claims to honor a Black woman and yet proudly features men who have been accused of harming women. While we can never know for certain what she would have thought of the album he dedicated to her, we do know that Kanye included some incredibly harmful and misogynistic artists, seemingly courting controversy to make a self-serving political point. He even said that he wanted his “brother” DaBaby on the album because “he was the only person who said he would vote for me in public.”
Donda wasn’t meant as a love letter to Black women as a whole, and that’s okay. All art doesn’t have to make a wider point — an audience of one, living or dead, is often enough to produce something powerful and worthwhile. Donda West’s death had political and social implications, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the album has to focus on those implications. But it does ring hollow when one considers that this is what Kanye wanted to lay at his mother’s altar: a self-pitying, rambling album dotted with people accused of abusing women and spreading hateful ideas about queer people.
Like most of Kanye’s work, Donda features a lot of religious imagery and commentary. In “God Breathed,” Kanye re-asserts a notion he’s often expressed, that God is looking out for him and blessing all his endeavors. With all these unapologetic abusers on the album, though, it’s hard to feel as though this album is blessed. Instead, it feels like yet another disappointment from an artist who, for some years now, has failed to look outside himself and create good music.
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