When Duke Ellington's mother died in 1935, swing was the music of choice, and Ellington's jazz orchestra was at the forefront. But instead of continuing to create music in the vein of the nation's most popular genre, Ellington composed Reminiscing in Tempo - a 13-minute suite, which at the time,, was the longest jazz piece ever committed to a record. The piece was the equivalent of a classical concerto and went against all the conventional characteristics of swing music, but Ellington could've cared less what his contemporaries were doing. He had a gift for musical composition, which brought him mass popularity, but opted to abandon the music of the times and create a piece for only one person. His mother.
I was reminded of this little known fact when I heard about the tragic death of Kanye West's mother, Dr. Donda West. Everyone knows how close the two of them were. Kanye wore his love for his mother on his sleeve, even recording a song ("Hey Mama") on his sophomore album, Late Registration. Not since 2Pac's "Dear Mama", had a rapper recorded such a heartfelt tribute to the lady who brought him into this world, so it was with tremendous surprise and sadness to learn of Dr. West's untimely death due to complications from cosmetic surgery.
Amidst my moment of reflection on the tragedy of Dr. West's death, I took the time to ponder the irony of it all. Before I go any further, let me make it perfectly clear that my heart sincerely aches for Kanye West and the West family, and what I am about to say is not an attack on Kanye.
Dr. West's death was largely due to a risky surgery of which she took part, but the irony is the surgery was one that Kanye himself often promoted in his music. I have no idea what Kanye is thinking right now, or if he is even taking the time to think about his role in any of this, but trust that Mr. Jesus Walks is probably going to be taking a long time to reflect on what he could've done to prevent this. Maybe he'll take the time to look at the lyrics of his smash hit, "Gold Digger", where he poked fun at groupies with the lyric, "She was supposed to buy your shorty Tyco with your money/She went to the doctor and got lipo with your money". Or what about Kanye's less-popular-but-still-well-known remix to "Throw Some D's" where he gloats about having enough money to buy a young woman a new pair of breasts for three verses?
I'm sure others have already seen this irony like I have, but it's worth noting, because when it comes to society's social ills, no form of music gets more blame than hip-hop, and as far as I'm concerned, no one is more aware of this than Kanye West. This is the same man who went on national TV and asked that the hip-hop community stop the gay bashing and boldly told the nation that its leader does not care about black people. He, more than most, knows the weight of his work and his words, which is why I'm sure he might feel somewhat responsible for the tragedy that has taken place.
So I wonder what kind of impact the death of Dr. West will have on her son and his music, just like I wondered how Jordan was going to react to his father's murder, or whether or not T.I. was still gonna get gangsta after seeing his best friend get murdered. How do public figures, whose bodies of work enrich the lives of so many others, use their gifts to help themselves? They say it's only entertainment, and life is bigger than music, but I'm sure Kanye will see how music made him and his relationship with his mother larger than life and in the wake of this tragedy, seek solace in the notes. Just like the Duke once did.