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Kanye West Donda listening event
Courtesy of press

Inside Kanye West’s emotional Donda listening party in Atlanta

We attended the first public play of Ye’s album in Georgia where, clad in red armour, he delivered a funeral of sorts for his late mother

The ‘curse’ of Friendship Baptist Church is known throughout the city of Atlanta, Georgia. Since the church was removed from its former Mitchell St and Northside Dr locations and relocated, it has been the excuse for lacklustre sports teams and burned interstate bridges. Friendship Baptist, along with Mt. Vernon Baptist, founded in 1862 by former slaves, was the foundation of multiple HBCUs (historically black colleges or universities) in the city. It is where the Mercedes-Benz Stadium is located today – and where Kanye West chose to publicly premiere his new album.

At the stadium on Thursday (July 22) night, Kanye’s audience seemed tense and unclear on what they were showing up for. He turned up two hours late, lighting up the venue in brilliant white. On the vast milky stage he stood out in a suit of red armour: Yeezy boots, a nude mask, and a Yeezy puffer suit that made him look as though he was preparing for battle.

Kanye was born in Atlanta to Donda West, a then-professor located at Morris Brown College, just steps away from where Ye performed. When she moved to Chicago to teach at Chicago State University, another small HBCU, she became head of the English department and left to manage Kanye full time until her untimely passing in 2007. Donda West’s son got 50,000 people to listen to her posthumous voice a block away from where she spent years of her life teaching. West also gifted 5,000 tickets to faculty staff and students from Atlanta HBCUs for the event.

Grief has been a lingering question in West’s work and life for years. Although he has touched on themes of loss in past works, the release of this record finds the rapper going through a period of personal upheaval; leaving his first marriage, while finally seeming to come to terms with the reality of his mother’s death.

The importance of location, legacy, and grief is vital to how Black people grieve their loved ones in public and exuberant ways. A ‘homegoing’ service is an African-American Christian funeral tradition where, in contrast to many other types of funerals, the occasion is marked by rejoicing and singing as the deceased goes on to a better place.

Even the on-sale merch nodded to the idea of the event as a homegoing for Donda. There were $125 T-shirts displaying photos of Kanye’s mother as a child, and audience members received fans that looked like funeral programmes containing candid photos of mother and son. “Mom West was a remarkable woman and a role model who we all loved dearly and cherished,” the programmes read. “We are fortunate that our lives crossed paths.”

Musically, West delivered on an album made for stadiums. The record started abruptly – almost haphazardly – with Donda’s voice booming through stadium speakers on the song “24/You’re Gonna Be OK”, setting the tone for a project that played with bass and deep gothic organ chords, with lyrics like, “Nothing ever feels right,” and “We’re gonna be ok”. The opening track, at times, felt like Ye trying to convince himself of his ability to survive his loss.

The album, in its current form (as of press time, the “final” version isn’t officially available on streaming services), features a reunited Jay-Z on its final track, as well as Pusha-T, Travis Scott, Lil Baby, Baby Keem, Jeremih, Lil Durk, Roddy Riich, Pop Smoke, and more, plus spoken word interludes from Donda herself.

Tracks like “Remote Control” and “Junya Watanabe” recalled Ye’s old sonics, with sampled and distorted vocals that kept the brilliance of his production at the forefront as he moved backwards through his memory of his mother. Overall, as a result, we got a less egocentric project, one that revolved around mourning and being somebody’s son again.

The producer sounded at his best on “Night”, a work of looped chord mastery using a clip of Donda’s voice, jolting the listener into the darkness of Ye’s grief just as you expected him to be coming up for air. The project concluded with “No Child Left Behind”, featuring collaborator Vory, then the Jay-Z-featuring “I'm Going To Jail Tonight”. Much of the stadium couldn’t hear Jay-Z’s verse, making for a clunky end to the performance. However, we now know that Jay-Z recorded the verse on the day of the Thursday night show, in line with Ye’s famously careless deadlines with projects.

Then, it was over: the complicated rapper and first-born to Donda left Atlanta as quickly as he had arrived. Many attendees were disappointed to hear Kanye not speak a word. What feels confused about Donda as a project is its ability to gloss over Ye‘s problematic facets. Kanye’s anti-Black political views, his deep-seated misogynoir, along with his allegiance to idolatry at the hands of white supremacy, have not left the public consciousness. For many of his fans, especially Black queer folks, Black people, and more specifically Black women, his past is still visceral and unforgivable. 

As fans left the humid Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the thick of the summer, many felt unsatisfied not hearing from a man always willing to talk out loud. While others, like the throngs of young, suburban white kids, came to escape into the bright mythology of Kanye, who could easily have missed the themes of ancestry, identity, and grief that the event centred around.