Georgia Today: The Scenes Behind The Scenes of Kanye West's Residency at Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Mercedes-Benz Stadium: home to the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United and, for a few weeks this summer, hip-hop icon Kanye West? The megastar staged a listening party for his upcoming album at the stadium. And then he moved in for a couple of weeks. And that’s not all. Steve Fennessy chats with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Greg Bluestein about what Bluestein's investigation into the logistics of West's stay at Mercedes-Benz Stadium turned up.
Steve Fennessy: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it's an architectural marvel home to the Atlanta Falcons, home to Atlanta United and for a few weeks earlier this summer, the venue was also home to Kanye West. The mercurial hip hop artist showed up at the stadium to host a listening party for his upcoming album called Donda. And then he basically moved in, like, for real.
[News tape] USA Today: Kanye having another listening party inside his new temporary residence, Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The updated version of West's 10th studio LP impressed the crowd.
Steve Fennessy: It got weirder. When the Atlanta United Major League Soccer team hosted the Columbus Crew, fans looked up to see a man walking around the stands wearing a bright red puffer jacket, red pants and a stocking stretched over his head. It was, well, it appeared to be Kanye West himself. What in the world was going on? This week, my guest is Greg Bluestein. Now, normally, Greg covers politics for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but he convinced his editors he should also file an open records request to see just what was going on behind the scenes during Atlanta's summer of Kanye. Turns out it involved a lot of money. Greg joins us this week to tell us just what he found. So I want to hear what these documents show. But first, for anyone who might not be a fan of Kanye West. Tell us about this album Donda and why he came to Atlanta to have this listening party for it.
Greg Bluestein: Yeah, well, he's actually had two listening parties. And this is named for his mother, who died in 2007 at the age of 58 due to complications from a plastic surgery.
[News tape] Kanye West, as told to Time: My mother made me believe in me. What’s the main thing that makes magic magic? The fact that no one believes it's possible. They supported me. They pushed me. They didn't set me up to be inside of a box.
Greg Bluestein: And Kanye West, like many other artists, has a process in terms of developing the album. He likes the whole give-and-take of crowd reaction and how listening parties test what works and what doesn't. And so it wasn't too unusual a few weeks ago when he headlined a sold-out listening party before 40,000 fans at Mercedes-Benz.
Steve Fennessy: Kanye. He's got some Atlanta roots, right?
Greg Bluestein: Yeah. His father is a former AJC photo staffer. And there are still people with Atlanta Journal-Constitution who know him and who have stories to share about him. And so it was very near and dear to Kanye's life. Kanye's mother, Donda West, was a professor for 31 years before leaving the field in 2004 to help her son's career take off. She has a doctorate in English education from Auburn, and she began teaching at Morris Brown, one of the gems of Atlanta's historically black colleges, in the early 1970s. She's an English professor. So deep, deep roots in the Atlanta community. And he also has a huge network of fans — I mean, how many artists can say that they can sell out a listening party in the middle of a fourth wave of a pandemic in downtown Atlanta on a weeknight? Forty thousand people showed up and it wasn't cheap, right? They spent upwards to hundreds of dollars on some of the tickets and the secondary markets were crammed with tickets, very expensive tickets. So it just shows you the extent of his appeal down in Atlanta.
Steve Fennessy: Greg, did you go?
Greg Bluestein: No. You know, that was not really on my radar. If I had known I was writing the story, I could have asked my bosses to comp me a ticket and pay for it, but I didn't go.
Steve Fennessy: OK, so there's the listening parties which took place at Mercedes-Benz. And then there's the rehearsals which took place next door at Georgia World Congress Center. Now, there were two listening parties. As this is happening, of course, he has been sort of sequestered at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
[News tape] 11Alive: Four days ago, Kanye West sold out Mercedes-Benz Stadium for an album listening party. But Kanye reportedly hasn't left.
[News tape] CBS46: Rapper Kanye West is temporarily living inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Well, this all comes following Thursday night's listening party for his upcoming album Donda and that was originally set for release the next day. But it's not out just yet.
Greg Bluestein: And then later on, Kanye West himself posted a picture of where he was staying at Mercedes-Benz. And it was this kind of nondescript makeshift living quarters with a twin bed, a TV, not much else — it was very sparse. But people would see him wandering around the stadium. And one of my friends actually posted a picture of him at an Atlanta United game.
Steve Fennessy: I've seen pictures of this because it looks like Kanye, but we're not 100% sure it is because he's got something over — over his head.
Greg Bluestein: It looks like pantyhose. Yeah. He's walking around. You're exactly right. He's wearing the same bright red leather two-piece that he was wearing, he has black gloves on. And he has an entourage that has masks over their face as well. But he is wearing a complete and total full face mask, like, covering his eyes and nose and everything.
[News tape] 11Alive: The artist even made an appearance at the Atlanta United match on Saturday.
[News tape] Spectator: Kanye! Kanye!
Greg Bluestein: But imagine walking up to watch the Atlanta United game and seeing Kanye West in your seats.
Steve Fennessy: Kanye, you're in my seat.
Greg Bluestein: Yeah, exactly.
Steve Fennessy: Because I did see it reported that when the Columbus Crew MLS team came to play Atlanta United — and this was the game that Kanye was seen walking around — they couldn't actually go into the visitor's locker room. They had to put that team somewhere else because Kanye was posted up there.
Greg Bluestein: I wasn't able to confirm it, but it seemed like even the Columbus Crew’s players were talking on background, which meant not — not for attribution, but there they were telling that to sports reporters as well. So this became a sports story and an entertainment story about how visiting players going against United had to relocate their locker room.
Steve Fennessy: What can you tell us about sort of the situation at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with Kanye sort of camping out there?
Greg Bluestein: Well, I can say that they had — they had a pretty hectic schedule already of different events that were planned. United games; there's a Falcons scrimmage. There were private parties planned as well for conventions next door. And so the very fact that suddenly Kanye West is there and Kanye West is going to also host a party meant a lot of last-minute logistics changing for the stadiums organized.
Steve Fennessy: Which they're inclined to do because he's going to draw in 40,000 people who are going to be spending money. And so that means more money for the stadium, right?
Greg Bluestein: Yeah, and it's unclear exactly how much more money the stadium made from Kanye West. Stadium officials declined to comment, but state officials indicated they believe the stadium netted about seven figures, about a million dollars from Kanye's performance.
Steve Fennessy: A giant concert that really wasn't a real concert in the sense that they didn't need to put up all of the accouterments you need for a real live show.
Greg Bluestein: Exactly. It was it was a scaled-back giant concert.
[News tape] CBS46: We're told that West has a chef, living space and recording studio — once again, inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Steve Fennessy: Obviously, Kanye coming in kind of last minute and then they had to move things around, not just at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but also at Georgia World Congress Center. You know, its bread and butter are these conventions. And so the disruptive nature is that's something that they need to be concerned about when it comes to attracting future clients who might want to hold an event there and be like, well, you're going to move us around for somebody like Kanye?
Greg Bluestein: You know, I imagine that. I thought that — that could be off-putting. And the documents didn't go too deep into it. But one of the events was for something called the International Association of Venue Managers. So you'd figure that venue managers would understand and would have a unique insight into moving around venues at the last minute. And they were supposed to have a massive party at Mercedes-Benz the night of — of Kanye’s — it seemed like the night of Kanye's second watching party, and they had to be moved. They were offered, according to the emails, they were offered free suites to take in the listening party. But there was all sorts of emails about finding alternate sites, maybe the College Football Hall of Fame, maybe the Georgia Aquarium. So luckily for the World Congress Center, they sounded like they had understanding organizers for their big convention.
Steve Fennessy: Arthur Blank, of course, built Mercedes-Benz Stadium. What is the agreement or the — the operating agreement between the Georgia World Congress Center and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, because they're not completely separate and distinct from each other, right?
Greg Bluestein: It's built on state land. I think it's safe to say technically, the state owns the facility surrounding the stadium, but it's run by the Mercedes-Benz, which is a private organization. And so that means that they can sign contracts and carry out their business. Whereas right next door you've got this mega, you know, one of the biggest convention centers in the nation run by a huge state agency that's also organizing their calendar of events that is just beginning to fill up again. We couldn't get the records to the Mercedes-Benz because it's private and World Congress Center has to release the records, even if they don't want to comment on it.
Steve Fennessy: Because they're a state entity.
Greg Bluestein: Because they're a state entity covered by the Georgia Open Records Act.
Steve Fennessy: So that's why you can find down to the smallest detail, like how much is being spent at Georgia World Congress Center on events, on salaries, things like that, but you can't do the same for a Mercedes-Benz.
Greg Bluestein: That is why we can get thousands of documents mentioning the phrase Kanye West from just a week or two of research and zero from Mercedes.
Steve Fennessy: Greg, one of the things that struck me about these two weeks when Kanye sort of checked into a Mercedes-Benz Stadium was how big of a story this became, not just in entertainment, but like cultural circles. Like this was a — this was a big deal nationwide.
Greg Bluestein: Yeah. It was so bizarre having Kanye West share space with the United and Falcons players for a couple of weeks, right? And even with our own little small part of it at the AJC, my editors were joking when I outlined the story to them. They said “We'll get more clicks out of this one than you have out of, you know, covering the runoffs earlier this year and covering the governor's response and all these other stories that we're usually working on.” It happened because I cover the state government and I just was like, “I wonder if this willturn up anything.” And so I figured, you know, “We'll see what happens; might as well try.” And I just thought there might be, you know, 50 documents or so back. To my surprise, what I got back: thousands of documents, that I pored through. Most of the time, these records request don't yield much. Maybe like a line or two in a story, maybe just a tidbit you file away. But this case, it was something else.
Steve Fennessy: Next, more about what Greg Bluestein's investigation reveals about the inner workings of the Georgia World Congress Center and the state's convention industry. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.
You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Joining me is Greg Bluestein from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. What stood out among all of these documents that you were looking at?
Greg Bluestein: Just how interesting it is and how complex it is just to have enough security on hand for a rehearsal. Kanye West wanted a specialized drape at the last minute, and the drape company had to do a last-minute order. And so just a lot of drama. But what stood out the most was a subject line I saw pretty deep into the file. The subject line was three words — “Kanye hasn't paid” — from a sales executive named Kim Allison. “They have not signed anything, provided insurance or paid. So our building is locked down until that changes and receive all docs signed and with payments. Oh fun.” So — so this was just a few hours before the big show and the building was locked down because Kanye West’s folks had not paid what they owed the state.
Steve Fennessy: And what did they owe the state?
Greg Bluestein: It was hundreds of thousands of dollars. The entire contract was $218,780 for the Aug. 4 rehearsal. It was really fun reading through these documents to see all the other interest from state employees and others who were basically asking for tickets. There is an email from an executive assistant of one of the administrators at Georgia World Congress Center who is basically saying, “Hey, can I — can I wander by? Will I get in trouble if I peeked my head in?”
Steve Fennessy: Can you hook a guy up?
Greg Bluestein: So the World Congress Center is overseen by a board of about a dozen very connected business leaders and political figures in Georgia, and several of them really quickly emailed over to — to their main contacts over at the state authority and said, “Hey, will you guys be opening the suite for this event?” And so they got hooked up with some tickets, which is, by the way, the normal practice sitting on the board. You get access to — to suites and tickets and things like that.
Steve Fennessy: So there's nothing untoward or unethical about it? That's common practice?
Greg Bluestein: It's common practice. It's why the — sitting on the board is — is one of the better perks in state government as those appointments go. Sitting on the World Congress Center board is pretty good because it means that, yeah, if there's an SEC championship or another major event, you've got it made to go sit in a suite for free.
Steve Fennessy: How long did did Kanye West stay at Mercedes-Benz Stadium?
Greg Bluestein: We understand just about two weeks.
Steve Fennessy: So do we know what that work consisted of while he's sort of in these — the cinderblock rooms in the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium?
Greg Bluestein: I guess we'll find out when we hear when we hear the album.
[News tape] GMA: “Please welcome Dr. Donda West.” It's the moment millions of fans have been waiting for: Kanye West stepping back into the spotlight to unveil his newest album, Donda, to a sold-out Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. It's been a two-year hiatus since his last album. The anticipation just mounted and reached a feverish peak to where we're like, “OK, we need something and we need it now.”
Greg Bluestein: All that solitude, you know, with the occasional United game sprinkled in between gave him some time to work on his lyrics and work on his act.
Steve Fennessy: So that 200-plus thousand dollars that he owed the Georgia World Congress Center, I assume that was paid?
Greg Bluestein: Yeah, I was able to at least get a background source at the state agency that said, yes, he ended up paying. I saw all sorts of emails where the agency staffers are trying to figure out who on Kanye West’s team was the was the right contact to pay off these bills. I actually reached out to several of them as well, because their cellphones were in the records and they did not respond to me, but not for lack of trying. But I was — I asked another question, too, which is basically, “Did you get paid and would you do this again?” I got a “yes” for the “We ended up getting paid,” but I got a “no comment” on would the state authority host West again for another rehearsal. But I think in that case, the documents spoke for themselves. Frank Poe, the agency's executive director, pretty much answered my question in an email exchange the day before the show: He asked one of his top deputies, “How do we come out with this event?” The deputy wrote back “Greater than 40 to 50% net,” which is pretty good for a show like that. And Poe answered with a one-word response: “Great.”
Steve Fennessy: And it's also important to note, as you have, that this is in the middle of a pandemic. And so these large events have been few and far between. So when something like this happens, that's going to draw a lot of people. It's hard to say no.
Greg Bluestein: It's a major venue, it was a major event. And it's at a time of uncertainty.
[News tape] WESH-TV: As large gatherings were banned at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in America, conventions came to a screeching halt: a devastating blow for an industry that research shows in 2019 had an economic impact in the U.S. upwards of $100 billion. While some states are starting to reopen, one thing remains unclear — when we'll be able to have thousands of people in one place again.
Greg Bluestein: It was interesting reading through these emails because some of them were questions to venue staffers saying, “Hey, the city has a has a mask ordinance, but the state doesn't. So what does that mean for World Congress Center, do our guests have to wear masks?” There's still a lot of uncertainty. And by the way, the answer to all that is in a state building, there is no mask mandate. But the agency's officials say if you want to require masks, you can. And conventions are just beginning to tick up again in Georgia.
Steve Fennessy: For those two weeks this was a really big story, not just in Atlanta, but nationwide. And that's the kind of publicity you can't buy.
Greg Bluestein: Yeah, and you can't buy it, especially at a time where the schedule is not as full as it usually would be, right? We're still in the teeth of a pandemic. We have a vicious fourth wave. There aren't as many bookings. There aren't as many events. There aren't as many people going to the events they have. So Mercedes-Benz suddenly got a lot of time in the national spotlight as an entertainment hub.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to reporter Greg Bluestein from the AJC. Kanye West's listening party continues this week, this time in Chicago. And as coronavirus cases surge, Kanye's shows at Chicago's Soldier Field included COVID-19 safety protocols, but no vaccination requirements for fans in attendance.
[News tape] ABC7CHICAGO: But we are learning that vaccines will be offered here at the event at one of the gates, and Soldier Field and the city teamed up to offer more than fifteen hundred vaccinations for people who have not gotten their shot yet. And they'll assist with setting up a second dose at a later date.
Steve Fennessy: For more Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. And don't forget to leave us a review on Apple. Jess Mador produced this episode. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jahi Whitehead. Thanks for listening. See you next week.