Rap mogul Kanye West’s controversial suggestion that slavery was “a choice” for African-Americans, among other eye-raising comments, put the Chicago-based Donda’s House, a youth arts program named after his mom, in a bind, according to the group’s organizers.
“Donda’s House was losing sponsors. We were receiving communications of concern from our individual donors,” said Donnie Smith, the executive director of the nonprofit formerly known as Donda’s House.
Those concerns caused the nonprofit to change its name this week to Art of Culture, Inc., a move that followed a heated public rift last month with West and a series critical tweets from his wife, Kim Kardashian West.
Smith and her husband, rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith, talked to Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia about the split with Kanye West, the power and pitfalls of being associated with celebrities, and the need for arts programming on the South Side of Chicago.
Here are some interview highlights.
The split with Kanye and Kim Kardashian West’s tweets
Che “Rhymefest” Smith: It really stems from private conversations that Kanye and I had been having for a few months that kind of boiled over into the public sphere. And then Kim Kardashian responded to that overboil, and that resulted in what I believe was just a need to do a restart — in terms of not the work, but just the name as we move forward. To not make the work we do about a particular person or persons, or celebrity or celebrities, [but] to make the work we do about the community we serve.
Tony Sarabia: How much of this had to do with Kanye’s, what some people would call controversial, political statements?
Donnie Smith: That’s actually what started the private conversations that Kanye and Che were having a couple of months ago. Donda’s House was losing sponsors. We were receiving communications of concern from our individual donors. And we were trying to kind of rectify that outside of the public. And as Che said, it just continued to happen and it just boiled over onto Twitter.
Unfortunately, it’s kind of like a blessing and a curse in many ways to be associated with a celebrity, because even though you try to distance yourself from the persona, it just isn’t very easy to do that.
Sarabia: It’s interesting that you were getting those calls because it says a lot about the perception that the public has when it comes to a celebrity being attached to an organization.
Donnie Smith: And that’s really where we are in America when you think about it. People are very powerful. Community is very powerful. And when, I’ll call it “Twitter justice,” essentially when people are not happy, they pressure sponsors, they pressure supporters in order to get whatever they perceive to be the correct path.
The need for a program like Donda’s House
Donnie Smith: At the time, this was December of 2011, I was actually a Chicago Public Schools teacher. I taught at CPS for 12 years. Che and I were looking at the landscape of arts programming in Chicago, and we realized that there wasn’t a lot of support for young artists, particularly on the South Side of Chicago.
So we had a conversation with many people, one of which included Kanye West. And Donda’s House was born at that time. So then, we spent two years really learning about Donda West, interviewing her students, reading her dissertation and her thesis in order to inform the curriculum of the program.
Rhymefest’s special rap for Tony Sarabia
Tony, the one and only
He is not a phony
Meet me down on the island
79th and Stony
You can come help the Art of Culture
I made it up from my mind
I pick it like a vulture
It’s free-styling like the top of my mind like a toupee
Skip what you say
It’s like touché
Hit ‘em with the sword I can afford
You can listen to the rap around the 14:42 mark in the audio attached to this page. You can also listen to the entire interview by clicking the “play” button above. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity, and it was adapted for the web by Hunter Clauss.