Mourners, merch and… Marilyn Manson: on the scene at Kanye West’s ‘DONDA’ event in Chicago

Before he even arrived in Chicago, Ye had already earned seven million dollars in merchandise sales. He could earn more from not releasing 'DONDA'

He called it “The Donda Experience” but the experience Kanye West staged Thursday in Chicago was a pantomimed funeral procession complete with dozens of black vehicles, hundreds of marching mourners in black jumpsuits, and Marilyn Manson.

Following that? Try a mock wedding featuring a potential Kim Kardashian lookalike, or maybe the real thing. Plus, West setting himself on fire.

Indeed, the third listening party for ‘Donda’, the much-delayed, forthcoming 10th album from West, was a manic grab bag of towering theatrical symbols and melodrama that overshadowed the new music by several miles. The Chicago event was far more complex than the first two ‘experiences’ he staged in Atlanta. While those featured West alone inside a sports stadium listening to his own music surrounded by thousands of fans, in Chicago people arrived to the sight of a full-sized replica of the rapper’s childhood home, reproduced on a hill of dirt and topped with a neon cross.

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Fog wafted around the house for nearly four hours, during which nearly 60,000 people were allowed through the doors. And then West arrived with an entourage that included Manson and DaBaby (the former facing sexual assault allegations and the latter cancelled appearances after making homophobic comments at Rolling Loud Festival in Miami). West and the sulking posse mostly hung out on the front porch. For three-fourths of the audience, that made them invisible except for on video.

But while West occasionally ‘performed’ songs using arm gestures, a black mask stretched the full length of his face, allowing no glimpse of emotion. His entourage, particularly Manson, mostly moped on the front porch and stairs, looking bored and occasionally nodding their heads. Even West took occasional breaks to read his phone. The poor sound at Soldier Field, an open-air stadium where the Chicago Bears American football team play, made it impossible to comprehend the lyrics of the new recordings.

While all these factors might handicap a traditional performance, the real stars of the evening were the continual entrances of mourners who formed circles around the mound, followed by black vehicles, followed by more mourners, followed by more vehicles, and so on. By the end, three circles of mourners and vehicles apiece moved around the house slowly in opposite directions. The choreography was occasionally clumsy – mourners were unsure of their movements and circles didn’t connect — but the overall memorializing of West’s mother Donda, who died in 2007, was splashed on a large canvas and didn’t allow for misinterpretation.

Donda West, a former English teacher at nearby Chicago State University, bought the modest 1600-square-foot frame house in 1981. She lived in the city’s South Shore neighbourhood until 2003, just a year before the release of her son’s debut album. Since her death in 2007 – of complications during a cosmetic surgery procedure – the house remained empty and was later headed to foreclosure court after it was purchased by a non-profit foundation associated with Rhymefest, one of West’s collaborators. Last year, West bought the house and it is currently under renovation.

West’s live appearances are often psychological theatre pieces portraying him a solitary saviour seeking both redemption and needy recognition. Many years ago at the United Center in Chicago, he stood high atop the audience on a fabricated mountain peak. That night, spanning two-and-a-half hours, he rotated through a minimalist set wearing a series of facial masks that hid all expression. He was a terrorist and a monk at the same time.

On Thursday, he was both a wounded son and reunited husband. The new music swelled with choir voices throughout the evening and, just like those vehicles and mourners moving slowly, songs were largely moody, matching the legion of voices with thudding bass undertones and sinister keyboards. Each song was introduced on video with a Bible chapter and verse, suggesting the spiritual drive of the entire enterprise. On ‘Moon’, West imagined himself floating away from earthy problems and onto another planet.

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To illustrate his need for rebirth, what handier symbol could West borrow but fire? He indeed walked through flames which danced on his back until a handler put them out with a fire extinguisher. With point made, the house no longer took focus. Now, mourners moved quickly to exit while a woman in a white wedding dress moved slowly among them, a veil draped over her head. Whether or not it was West’s former wife Kim Kardashian in the flesh didn’t matter – He met her smiling and produced a ring. Moments later, they exited together.

While inviting thousands of people to a sports stadium to listen to a record they can’t even stream yet or buy may seem unorthodox, it’s already been a lucrative strategy for West.

Besides the ticket and merchandise revenue from the Chicago event (top price: $425 a ticket), and two others in Atlanta, West entered a deal with Apple Music to stream the listening parties. The second Atlanta event broke Apple Music’s livestream records with 5.4 million viewers. Before he even arrived in Chicago he already earned seven million dollars in merchandise sales. (T-shirts featured pictures of the childhood house and a baby picture of his mother.)

“I want to hear the music tonight and it might turn out I may never hear it again” – punter Ryden Lewis

Then there is the Gap. West appeared in Atlanta wearing a puffer jacket from Yeezy, a new line of clothing he designed for the retailer to debut this fall. Financial Services company Wells Fargo has already forecast it will generate nearly one billion dollars in sales in 2022.

With all that ancillary income pouring in based on the hype of new music, West could possibly earn more not releasing ‘DONDA’ than by finally putting it in the public’s hands. But the promise is that won’t happen. According to Billboard, the Chicago stop is the third and final listening session West is hosting for the record. The closing night brought out stars including Dave Chappelle, Pusha T, and A$AP Rocky, who were all spotted at Soldier Field.

The unpredictable nature of West’s musical instincts compelled some fans from around the U.S. to travel to Chicago. “He’s always doing something new. I appreciate the art. He’s in his own lane, like Missy Elliott back in the day,” says Tremaine smith, 34, of Las Vegas.

Swathi Chander, 30, of Chicago, says the show was a special night for her and her husband Revi since it was the first they were attending since the pandemic began. For her, the notion West would recreate his childhood home perfectly fit the narrative he established since the beginning of his long career. “He creates his music according to different chapters of his life,” she adds.

Marilyn Manson appears at Kanye West Donda Chicago album playback event
Marilyn Manson at the Kanye West ‘Donda’ album playback event in Chicago. Credit: Screenshot of Apple Music livestream

The unusual choice of hosting a listening party and not a concert did not bother Ryden Lewis, 25, of Chicago who says, with the release date of ‘DONDA’ having been pushed back for weeks, Soldier Field might be the only place he might hear it. “I want to hear the music tonight and it might turn out I may never hear it again,” he explains.

West’s representatives did not respond to questions asking when the album would become available outside major US sports stadiums.

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