- SaFiya D. Hoskins
A version of this article originally appeared in African American National Biography.
rapper, record producer, musician, singer, songwriter, film director, and fashion designer, was born Kanye Omari West in Atlanta, Georgia, the only child of Ray and Donda West. His father, who had been a member of the Black Panther Party, was as an award-winning photojournalist and after some time became a Christian church counselor; his mother worked for Clark-Atlanta University as an English professor, then later assumed a position as chair of the English Department at Chicago State University. When West was three, his parents divorced, and he moved with his mother to Chicago, where he was raised in a middle-class community on the city's south side.
West's interest in rap music was sparked at an early age, and by junior high, he had begun producing tracks and beats for area artists. His production style was influenced by RZA, lead artist of the 1990s Staten Island hip-hop pioneers Wu-Tang Clan, and the music of the 1970s British rock band Led Zeppelin, among others. In 1991, Donda West reached out on behalf of her son to a student at Chicago State, Doug Infinite, after Infinite wrote a paper about the success of his rap label, Jay Chill Records, and recording studio on 95th Street, in the Beverly neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Consequently, West became part of a close-knit crew of rappers, graffiti artists, skateboarders, and party promoters who met, worked, and played under the roof of Jay Chill Records and on the streets of Beverly. These artists included David “Dave Dred” Stephens (who later became an educator and fashion photographer), John “Intek” Bargyh (who went on to be a graphic artist), and the group Dead Poets Society. West served as a producer to Dead Poets Society, and when that group disbanded in 1993, he joined Lucien “Chilly” Watson and Eugene “Frex” McNair as both rapper and producer for a new group, State of Mind. It was also at this time that he had begun to forge a relationship with Che 'Rhymefest' Smith with whom he co-wrote the Grammy award winning track, “Jesus Walks.”
By that time, West had already begun to establish himself in Chicago as a respected rap artist and music producer while maintaining his status as an honor roll student at Polaris High School in Oak Lawn, a southwestern suburb just outside Chicago. Upon graduation from high school, he studied art at the American Academy of Art in Chicago and enrolled at Chicago State University as an English major.
In 1996, West discontinued his academic career at Chicago State in order to pursue a career in music full time. The same year, he produced eight tracks for the album Down to Earth for rap artist Grav. Subsequently, his work garnered the attention of much higher-profile artists for whom he went on to produce music, including Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, The Madd Rapper, Jermaine Dupri, Harlem World, and Goodie Mob. In 2000, West joined the roster of respected producers for Roc-a-Fella-Records, founded by Jay-Z and Damon Dash, and his popularity grew after producing “This Can’t Be Life” for Jay-Z. In 2001, he produced chart-topping songs for Jay-Z's successful album The Blueprint , including “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” Subsequently, West was summoned to produce tracks for artists such as Mos Def, T.I., Nas, Ludacris, and Talib Kweli, in addition to his continued production for Jay-Z and other Roc-a-Fella artists.
In the midst of West's success as a producer, he began seeking an entree into a career as a rapper, but in 2002, he skirmished with death in an almost-fatal car accident in Los Angeles. This crash was the impetus behind “Through the Wire,” the first release from his debut album, The College Dropout , on Roc-a-Fella Records in 2004. The album achieved triple-platinum success. In 2005, West released Late Registration , which charted at the top of Billboard and ranking industry publications, achieved triple-platinum certification, and, furthermore, earned eight Grammy Award nominations, among them “Album of the Year.” In 2007, West released his third album, Graduation , which achieved certified double-platinum success and earned two American Music Awards. One year later, he released his fourth album, 808s & Heartbreak . In 2010, West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy , on which the poet and musician Gil-Scott Heron was among the artists sampled, and which immediately achieved Number 1 status. In 2011, West collaborated with Jay-Z as both rapper and producer on the album Watch the Throne , released on Def Jam Recordings, which was founded by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons . The album was widely acclaimed and sold out tours internationally. June 2013 saw the release of West's sixth album, Yeezus . The album, often marked by a stark, aggressive sound, was well received by critics and debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
In 2008 and 2009, West performed in support of President Barack Obama . In 2010, he provided the voice for “Kenny West” on the FOX Television animated series, The Cleveland Show , and that same year, Black Entertainment Television ranked West Number 3 on its list of “The Top Ten Rappers of the 21st Century.” West has emerged as a businessman, purchasing the rights to a Fat Burger franchise in Chicago under his company KW Foods, LLC. He also financed his father's Good Water Store and Café in Lexington, Maryland. As a fashion designer, he sparked his own line, Past Tell, and collaborated with Nike to produce a shoe, “Air Yeezys.” In 2009, during Paris Fashion Week, he showed his first line of shoes, designed exclusively for Louis Vuitton.
In 2003, West founded, in Chicago, the Kanye West Foundation, which is focused on academic success for minority students and music education. In addition, West has shown his philanthropic support through fundraisers and benefits for the 2005 victims of Hurricane Katrina, Iraq war veterans, and global environmental efforts. In 2007, West lost his mother to complications during an abdominoplasty and breast-reduction procedure. Consequently, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger enacted the “Donda West Law,” which requires people undergoing plastic surgery in California to first receive physical examinations in order to determine their fitness for the procedure.
In December 2012, West announced at an Atlantic City concert that he and his partner, model-actress Kim Kardashian, were expecting a child. Their daughter, North West, was born 15 June 2013.
- Frere-Jones, Sasha. “Black Noise: Kanye West's Assaultive New Album.” The New Yorker , 24 June 2013. Available at http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2013/06/24/130624crmu_music_frerejones.
- Robinson, Eugene. “Lessons Taught by Grammy.” Washington Post , 10 February 2006. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/09/AR2006020901436.html.
- “West, Kanye.” The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 4th ed. (2008).