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  • Chrishaunda Lee Perez

Before Fame Collided with Mental Health: A Divinely Earnest Bonding with Kanye West

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

My Best Friend Syreeta always reminds me of the biblical truth that Nothing is wasted. 1 Corinthians 15:58 states, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” We might not know exactly the purpose of each occurrence in our lives, but I agree that there are no coincidences, even when we cannot seem to put two and two together about the ‘why’. It is possible that it is actually these moments or happenings, the most quote unquote, random, the most inexplicable, that are the most Divine. Sometimes we are called to bear witness to something simply to have a testimony, to be able to present a different lens or perspective that might become a valuable puzzle piece, or perhaps our view can be used to help inspire added thought, or to expand someone’s mind. Imagine a human being who is perceived to be one way by a majority of people, and then another singular being can attest to a completely different experience with that person. Right away, a new dimension is added to the aforementioned 'boxed' human being, and now others can know that their humanity does in fact, have range. Maybe the witnessing has happened so at a time when a majority has lost faith in someone, the encapsulated experience a singular being has had with the aforementioned person helps the singular being retain a sense of empathy for them at a time when they might need it most-Even if the singular being never sees that aforementioned human again. The positive vibes sent by the singular being still help. Good vibes help. And there is power in prayer. I had a most interesting, to say the least, connection with Kanye West, nearly 3 weeks before his debut album, “College Dropout” was released. When I met him I did not know who he was by face, although, after watching the first installment of the careful, caring, and well-done documentary, “Jeen-Yuhs”, by Clarence “Coodie” Simmons Jr., and Chike Ozah, I was shown just how hard Kanye had worked up until the day I met him to be visually recognized, though his efforts had not yet reached me. I thought I was in the mix of everything “cool”, “now” and “up-and-coming” in popular culture, living in New York City, serving as a fashion publicist by day and bonafied hip hop head by night. I felt like I knew everyone or knew of everyone who was on a serious radar, and yet, I did not know his name. I might have even brushed past him at Sony Studios on West 54th street, which was directly across the street from my apartment at the time, but his face was not at all familiar. When he finally told me his name, I did casually know a couple of hits that were produced by Kanye West, but I did not know know Kanye West. I think me being so green to the world that he was building around himself at the time when I first engaged with him gave me an opportunity to meet him on a completely clean slate, and that clean slate, yes, although MUCH has happened in his life for all of us to see, is what I have carried with me for all of these years. I met Kanye at an airport terminal in New Jersey on the way to pick up my grandmother for my aunt’s 50th birthday party celebrations. My spirit was on high because I was looking forward to the many fetes that were planned to commemorate her birthday, I was going to be with family, AND my aunt, who I did not know as a partying person was about to take the time out of her busy work schedule to honor herself in a way that I had been looking forward to for quite some time. I approached Kanye and his friends that day because they were sitting in the same terminal that I was scheduled to be, and I was confused because they were a bunch of Black dudes whom I did not know, who were headed to Milwaukee from the New York City area. The New York City/Milwaukee young Black people community pretty much all knew one another: my friend Forrest who was/is a party promoter, his sister Aliyah, who was/is an entertainer, me, Forrest's homeboy Diallo, and so on. Kanye and his group of friends looked like they were around my age, and unless they were Milwaukee transplants, or they were raised under a rock, how in the heck did I not know them? I had to know who they were. “Are you from Milwaukee?” Kanye was super, and I mean, super surprised. “You don’t know who I am?” “No, I don’t. Where did you go to school?” “I’m not from Milwaukee. I’m from Chicago.” “Why are you flying to Milwaukee and you are from Chicago? Do you have family in Milwaukee?” Kanye laughed, turned to his friends, and said, “Man, she really don’t know who I am!” I pinched back. “Am I supposed to know who you are?” No one let on. I was a little stunned. Sizing up the group of guys, who were all dressed “prepster cool”, might I add, did appear as if they were in the know of some kind. “They don’t exactly look like a rap group”, I thought. “Is this guy an actor?” After one or two more of the “What is your name”, and “She don’t know who I am” verbal dances, he finally copped to it. “My name is Kanye West.” I knew exactly who he was. I’d heard about him and his new style of music production. Being a hip hop and overall music lover, I could quote two artists for whom he’d produced their music. When I said these names, Kanye was mildly impressed. “You’ve never seen my video, ‘Through the Wire?’” “No, I haven’t.” I admitted. I told him that I worked as a fashion publicist, and I did not watch a lot of television. I spent most of my time in meetings or on the phone, or running around the city trying to get my client’s clothes placed in magazines. While I could see his initial frustration- there I was, yet another person who had not yet tapped into his talent despite all of his well-documented efforts. I could only mildly speak to what he had accomplished. Still, he slowly was overtaken by a need to convince me to join “Team Kanye”. “I like your style. Your hair is great (so freshly done it still smelled like Ellin LaVar’s West 72nd Street hair salon), your boots are fly (near decade-old Frye size 7 men’s motorcycle boots, intact with the only extra insoles- by Birkenstock- that Abbadabba’s in Little Five Points in Atlanta had at the time) and your jeans are dope (reimagined and destroyed frosted Levi’s that had my last name scrawled across my thigh with white nail polish), and your dog has a Louis Vuitton collar”, commenting on my beloved Reina, an English Cocker Spaniel runt that I had adopted nearly 10 years earlier from the Humane Society in Atlanta when I attended Spelman College for a semester. I did not know at the time how into the designer label Kanye was. From his very distinct compliments to me, it was clear that Kanye was not your typical, “Yo, shorty” kind of guy. I was a fashion girl, and even my most disheveled look had a rhythm to it. Like many of us fashionistas at the time, we loved mixing high and low. Not a lot of men who were not in the fashion world knew about that mode of dress, or even knew how to appreciate it. Though he was a noted music producer, and as I had just learned, an actual rapper as well, Kanye was not an average hip hop artist. He explained to me that he was traveling to Milwaukee to do radio to promote his upcoming album called, “College Dropout”. I asked if it was true that he actually dropped out of college. He told me that he began taking courses at the Art Institute in Chicago but left to pursue his dreams in music. I told him that while spending a summer with my aunt, I took an art class there to keep me engaged while she worked during the day. All I could remember was how huge were the buildings. He agreed, and shared with me that his mom was a professor, and that she was not happy that he dropped out of school, but that she knew he would do well anyway. When he talked about his mom, a most brilliant smile shone on his face. Almost like when he said the words, “My mom”, his chin lifted with pride. "I know the feeling about a mom who believes in you", I told him, and shared that my mom had recently passed away, but that she is with me all of the time, and I could feel it. Kanye paused when I told him this. He asked me when she transitioned. I told him that I was approaching the year anniversary. He nearly lost his breath, like he was unable to process the possibility of this same thing happening to him. I remember telling him to hold onto his mom really tight. He did not respond, he only stared at me as if still trying to process the idea of a mom dying. As is my custom after finding an authentic connection with someone, I asked him, “When is your birthday”. He told me, “June 8th”. “A Gemini”, I offered. He smiled. I said, “So was my mom. I get all of you.” Kanye and I covered this much ground all before we were called to board the flight to Milwaukee. We shared a few more things in common, including that he was from the southside of Chicago, and I told him I spent many years growing up on the south side with my grandparents. We realized that we were literally blocks away from one another during the summers as children. He knew the same corner store I used to frequent with my siblings and cousins. I shared with him why I was actually headed to Chicago after my Milwaukee trip to celebrate my aunt’s birthday… We talked about a number of things, and although when I noticed Kanye and his group of friends at first, none of them interrupted us while we talked. I almost forgot anyone was there with him. We were two young adults connecting in a real way, no frills, no “woopty-woo”, as we say in the West or Midwest. After the initial hilariousness about “You don’t know who I am”, it really was all love. When we were set to board the flight, as we approached the gate, I was wowed by how many people did know exactly who he was. Was I living on Jupiter? Why didn’t I, like all these people, men and women alike, instantly recognize him? Again, I guess because I had to be introduced to him on a clean slate. Kanye seemed to have been replenished from this boost from fans that I could not provide at first. He even looked back at me to ensure that I acknowledged the small fuss being made about him from the flight attendants at Continental. I nodded to him and smiled letting him know I had caught it all. When we were boarding, he asked the on-board attendant if we could sit together. The flight was not full (at that time of day, a Milwaukee flight hardly was), and the attendant told him to pick his choice of seating for us. I sat next to him, with my little dog tucked in her carrier under the seat in front of me, and it was no time before he handed me a pair of headphones and asked if I would listen to some tracks on his album during our flight. He stared at me intently as I bobbed my head and listened. He played me “Two Words”, and then a track that he said he was most proud of, “Jesus Walks”. He then asked me which one I liked most. Before I share my answer with you, I will let it be known that I am really, like, really into lyrics and beats, in no particular order. And I also like hard core hip hop. Some of my favorite albums are Nas’ “Illmatic”, Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back”, The GZA’s “Liquid Swords”, or most anything the RZA produces for Raekwon, Ghostface, or the entire WuTang Clan. I have never been a big fan of what I call, “pop hop”, when an artist teams up with a singer to make a song commercially friendly for example. Most of my favorite tracks don’t get played on the radio. And my favorite Jay-Z song is “Where I’m From” from my all-time favorite album of his, “In my Lifetime, Vol. One”. “Two Words” for me, was in that realm. Kanye spit hard, Mos Def spit hard, and Freeway, with his unique, almost beckoning cadence slayed what came to be known as Kanye’s signature production style in a different way than he slayed his own fly track, “What We Do”. I was so into “Two Words”, I asked to hear it twice. I wished I had a copy to play in the car when I left the airport. It was fire. Kanye laughed in a way that felt like he was a bit disappointed. “Two words is the shit, but Jesus Walks is gonna change the game”. He asked me to listen again. The song grew on me more the second time, but I could not get “Two Words” out of my head. He nodded and said, “You’ll see.” Later in our conversation he confessed to me that there were certain people who considered him arrogant. Again, I had just met him only about two hours prior, so I guess he came off a little heady with the whole, “You don’t know who I am?” bit, but again, there was such an innocence or an honesty about him that I could not take his behavior as arrogant. He was like a nerd boy trying to prove that he was worthy of cool. But through all of that trying hard, my impression of Kanye was that he actually did have an appeal like Jay Z, but Kanye did not realize that his work alone would draw massive crowds, as was later evidenced. He was immensely talented, something I learned just by the range of production on the two songs I had heard thus far. But Kanye was not the type to wait until people caught on organically. He was determined to ensure that the world knew who he was NOW. Equal to his displays of self-assuredness, his need for reassurance was endearing. One moment he’d be affirming himself to the fullest, the next he would be earnestly asking my opinion- me, practically a stranger- about something that was deeply meaningful to him, and it was clear that my response mattered to him, too. I chalked up his duality to him being a Gemini.

When I told Kanye that 'I knew all of him', I meant it. He told me that he wasn’t arrogant, that he was confident, and asked me why would that be a bad thing? I could not agree that showing confidence was a bad thing. It is true that Black men who publicly affirm themselves are at times perceived as “extra”, as almost caricature-like, as if confidence and Black men should not go hand in hand. There are Black male public figures who have been admonished for speaking confidently about themselves or issues they care about, and society demanded that they “shut up”. I was not going to laugh at him or hint that he was out of his mind about having such a strong vision for his life. I want Black men, everyone, to win, and so, if anything, I act as an ally or champion. He told me that he knew exactly where he was headed, and saw it all so clearly, and I listened. He told me that he believed in himself, even if others did not, and everyone would see in time that he was great. All of this has come to pass. While I spoke with Kanye, I could see him, feel him examining my face, and in one sentence I was saying, he stopped me and asked me to smile. “See, I want a smile like that. You’ve got really nice teeth”. I was unaware about all that he had gone through with his accident and how his jaw was broken in several places, rendering his bite not fully aligned. I did not know that his mouth was wired shut, and for the song, “Through the Wire”, he rapped through his mouth not being able to open fully. Until that day, I had never heard the song. Kanye came off as confident, yes, but there was also something about him that was very window-paney, like wanting to be in the “in crowd”, of which he seemed to believe I was so cool that I was. Truthfully, I was not much different from him: Totally an individual, almost a loner of sorts, and had built any popularity I had just by being me, not by being associated with a "crew". Sometimes, I would be recognized for who I was related to, though I did my best to be known for who I was and the work I put out into the world first. I was at that time and before very much working on my own level of self confidence and trying not to please and overcompensate. Thank God for growth, wisdom, and plain old not caring what other people who meant me no good thought anymore. I did not 'not get' him, my life path and upbringing only inspired me to do things differently. I knew lots of people, was friends with some, but I belonged only to myself and God. It could appear that it was he who had the big entourage, yet, I quickly realized that he was 'on his own', too. Straight off the plane, Kanye switched gears and took a call with an editor to whom he passionately stated his case about why he should be placed on the cover of the magazine over a more established artist who was set to release his biggest album to date. “I don’t care. I’m Kanye West.” He told the receiver of his plea. After his call ended, with no confirmation if he had won that cover story battle, he returned to re-engage me. Kanye decided that he wanted me to accompany him to his album release party at Webster Hall for “College Dropout”- and whew, what a night. And after that night, all that Kanye had prophesied about his life began to happen at rapid speed. One day soon after or right before that release party, I received a call from a fact checker from a magazine. Kanye did not tell me that our every word and action was being noted by a reporter from the same magazine about which Kanye fought to grace its cover the day we met. The writer shared with me that he, a white man, remained inconspicuous so he could gather information for the story. I soon read what the writer weaved was his account of part of our engagement. Although, I do not remember Kanye performing a rap verse for me at all, nor do I recall him being so flamboyant. The story appeared in the May 2004 issue of Vibe magazine. Kanye's image did not make the cover, but the writer’s coverage about Kanye was a cover story. Leading up to the “College Dropout” album’s release, Kanye and I had a few more outings together, all under the radar, including a studio session where he invited me to listen, and during that session he asked me about my opinion of a name he wanted to call a clothing label he aspired to helm. Another time I invited him to Jack Rose, one of my then favorite places to eat on restaurant row, co-owned by my friend/little brother Christian Pascal’s dad. There he probed me about all of the great people I met or knew, Black people in particular, and how they comported themselves with their wealth and fame. I remember telling him that the people I’d been around, mostly through my aunt, were rather protective of themselves, were not flamboyant, and held themselves to high standards. Kanye even performed for free for a homeless benefit concert produced by a dear friend’s associate called the New Life Project. It was backstage at this event where I had the honor of meeting the woman who made Kanye smile in a way that was different from any other smile I’d seen him give: his mom, Dr. Donda West. The footage on Coodie and Chike’s documentary is consistent with what I witnessed that evening. In the midst of a chaotic backstage culture, Dr. West had a way with Kanye that kept him centered and on the ground. Dr. West was a soft-spoken, eloquent woman, and it was clear that she wavered none for her son. I miss that sort of love, focus, and dedication for him today. When I heard that Kanye’s mom died a couple of years later, I was in shock for him. I reached back to that day we met when I shared with him that I’d lost my mom nearly one year before, and envisioned the look on his face. Kanye could not fully process the possibility of a mom dying. Who knew that when I was telling him about my mother’s death that his own mother would pass away three years later? Like Kanye, if I even thought about losing my mother before she actually transitioned it’d have brought me to actual tears as if it happened. I recall a day when the thought hit me so deeply that I sobbed uncontrollably and rang my mom to tell her about it. “Little girl, I’m still here”, my mom reassured me. “And I’m not going nowhere.” She would tell me when I asked her what would I do without her, “You would be just fine. No matter what. In whatever form, I will always be here for you. I promise.” When Dr. West died, I had four years of experience with the loss of a mother, and I was, in fact, OK. I always say that my mother’s and my relationship took on a different form when she died. That while I miss being held in her bosom, I still feel her with me every step of the way. By then, Kanye was really famous, I’d gotten married and had my first child. I saw him at a show during fashion week, at an intimate celebration, and a few times on the street. Despite him being larger than life, whenever he saw me he right away reverted to the Kanye that I knew. The “clean slate” Kanye. But we weren’t chatting on the phone anymore, and I wasn’t putting him on to exclusive underground parties where once when Table 50 was so packed that even I could not get in, Kanye yelled for us to not linger and jump in a taxi so no one could see his outfit and he could wear it again the next day. He was very successful by that time, but his world had not yet been rocked by fame, and he had not lost the one person who loved him the most. When Dr. West died I received calls from people who Kanye and I knew mutually, people who were concerned about how he would take her passing. I was urged to try to reach out to him because I became part of that grievance club before him, and maybe I could serve as a caring guide. When I finally received a phone number that was his, I rang it, someone picked up who seemed to be familiar with me, but told me that Kanye would call me some other time. Like Coodie said in his documentary about his friend Kanye whom he knew well for many years, even his efforts, like mine, were in vain. What I believe in my heart is that Kanye’s motivations right after his mom’s passing were a reflection of that great loss. My aunt imparted some solid wisdom to me after my mom died. She urged me to not make any big decisions. She told me to do my best to remain stable for at least a year before I did anything life-changing. Death, divorce, and moving remain life’s top 3 most impactful sources of stress. When my mom died, I did intend to remain stable, but the building in which I lived for 5 years required all occupants to either buy their apartment or move out in 30 days. This notice greeted me upon my return home burying my mother. God made me motivate when all I wanted to do was become one with my bed indefinitely. That was a God thing, and I did not fight it. Me moving around vs sinking into a possible despair is perhaps why I am OK and remain OK about my mother’s death today. Never in a million years would I choose 2 out of life’s 3 biggest stresses all within a two-week window, yet I suppose that is what I needed. I have a feeling that God might have beckoned Kanye to do the opposite of what I was lead to do: Do sit still. Maybe the inner directive encouraged him to be with family and other loved ones after Dr. West passed on, allow them to love on him and help soothe him, and Kanye fought it. I like millions of people have watched the ascendance and whirlwind life and career journey of Kanye West. My short and concentrated connection with him felt like none of that. I met him surrounded by a group of people, but from the moment we began to converse, there has never been anyone else in the room, so to speak. What I experienced was a clean slate, each time I would see him Kanye would return back to that. After watching parts 2 and 3 of Coodie’s and Chike's documentary about him, I wondered if Kanye could even go back to the Kanye whom I knew if I saw him again. The thought makes me sad. Maybe, as I mentioned at the start of this testimony, that I experienced what I experienced perhaps so there could be this honest account to highlight the clean slate Kanye West to try to balance the thousands of accounts where people have witnessed him not at his best self. I lost my mother in part because she had dwindled down to a shell of herself due to her fading mental health. I understand in a way watching someone in real time go in and out of their clean slate. I never gave up on my mother, because in the long stints of not being herself, out of the blue, she would return, most notably when I needed her. She could be down, way down, but if she even sensed that I needed her, she would come running. I have not given up on Kanye because I believe the light in him is still in there. Thank God for his children, who are reflections of him and his mom, and hopefully, despite all that has happened as of late, they or someone else who truly cares for him can serve as the right ignition to get him back to Center. As for me, a singular human being who has witnessed a particular space in time with Kanye West, I will continue to send him good vibes, and pray.

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