When Kanye West Lived in China

As a child, Kanye West spent around a year in the Chinese city of Nanjing, where his mother Donda was a lecturer at the university

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12:20 AM HKT, Fri November 30, 2018 3 mins read

Last weekend marked a decade since Kanye West released 808s and Heartbreak. The album’s significance has grown with hindsight, but its 10th birthday still wasn’t the most widely-celebrated musical milestone and it probably would’ve passed me by if I hadn’t happened to stumble across a post about it from a contact on my WeChat moments. But then it got me thinking: if it was a decade since the release of that record, then it was just over a decade since Kanye performed his first (and to date only) concert in Shanghai — and just over a decade since I spoke to him about his time living in China as a child.

On November 3 2008, Kanye played a show at Shanghai Grand Stage, a venue which sounds, well, grand, but is basically just an old, echoey indoor gymnasium. Ticket sales hadn’t gone as well as they should, but they weren’t so bad that he refused to take to the stage (looking at you here, Nicki Minaj). He also had some problems with his mic that night when he tried to tease a little “Love Lockdown” toward the end of the show.

I had a media pass that I managed to convince a security person was a backstage pass, but by the time I got to his (very modest) dressing room a few minutes after the concert had ended, Kanye had bolted. I don’t think he was all that impressed with his first official show in China.

Which was a shame, because until that point the country had held some important, and in some cases happier, memories for him. As a 10-year-old, Kanye had spent a while living in Nanjing when his mother Donda was a lecturer at Nanjing University in 1987 as part of a Fulbright Scholarship.

In an attempt by the promoters to help drum up the less-than-stellar ticket sales for his Shanghai show, I was somehow offered the opportunity to get on the phone with Kanye a few weeks before and interview him for the now-defunct weekly listings magazine I was at at the time. After several hours of delays, I managed to reach him in his hotel room in Rio. I opened with a softball question along the lines of “how’s Brazil?” and he fired back that he didn’t know because he’d only been able to look at it out the window while doing press all morning. It probably wasn’t the best start.

I threw out some questions about his upcoming album, 808s, which we hadn’t really heard anything from yet and Kanye was good enough to go through the motions on that. But then I asked him about coming back to China and his time here as a child. His mood shifted significantly — this wasn’t something he was used to talking about in interviews and he couldn’t just rely on stock answers.

Update: I’d originally written here that the listings publication (SH magazine) didn’t have a website archive and that I’d lost the interview recording, but thanks to a friend I’ve retrieved the audio. Here are a few quotes from Kanye on China, from back in 2008:

“China was a time where me and my mom spent the most time together, we spent a year together, and she used to homeschool me. I was in school and I wasn’t doing so good, but it was actually because I was bored and after she homeschooled me I did so good on the tests they put me two grades above in a lot of different courses.

“We really connected there, so it’ll probably be very emotional for me to go back to China. As soon as you, y’know, feel the energy and hit the ground and see familiar sights from your childhood, and familiar smells — which is the most memorable sense of all — it’ll take me right back to fifth grade with my mom.”

Sabotage Times had also asked Kanye about his experiences in China a couple of years earlier, and that interview is still on the internet. Here’s a taste:

I think being in China got me ready to be a celeb because, at that time, a lot of Chinese had never seen a black person. They would always come up and also stare at me, fishbowl me and everything. And that’s kind of the way it is for me right now.

I used to say something in Chinese that I just knew by instinct meant ‘get away!’. They’d rub your skin. They’d ask you how old your mother is. I went to school there but it was hard because I didn’t speak Chinese that well.

Alright, maybe not crazy positive there. It would’ve been tough for an adult getting thrown into those kind of situations, but it must have been especially difficult for a child. He seemed to view Nanjing and his time in the city with at least some positivity when we spoke about it however, and before she passed away his mother had recounted tales of a young Kanye breakdancing on the streets for yangrouchuan (lamb skewers) or small change with more fondness.

For a bit of extra Kanye in China trivia, one of the people he supposedly crossed paths with in Nanjing was a young kid called Hua Dong. Hua would go on to become the frontman of post-punk band Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, or Re-TROS, who you can read more about here:

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