Philadelphia rapper Freeway made his mark in hip-hop on Roc-A-Fella Records during the 2000s. He presented the hunger and vigor of the inner-city streets on records. After the record label was dismantled, Freeway was able to maintain his career. He experienced some misfortune, including being diagnosed with kidney failure after a routine checkup and losing his close friend and collaborator, The Jacka, in 2015.
Three years later, the “What We Do” rapper has reunited with JAY-Z at Roc Nation, is promoting kidney health awareness and released a new album, Think Free, on which he addresses his adversities and blessings with a clear mindstate and strong Muslim faith. Freeway spoke with EBONY about his new music, getting dialysis and the first time he got a call for a kidney transplant.
Your voice is less aggressive on your latest album than it has been on any other record I’ve heard from you. Considering all that you’re going through, why is that?
I definitely feel like the project shows growth, you know, with the way my voice is and with me being calmer. [I] just wanted to get my message across clearly to the people. That’s one of the reasons why it came out like that.
What are the most important messages you want listeners to get from Think Free?
No matter what you’re faced with you can keep pushing forward and be successful. Everything I been through, throughout the years from the Roc-A-Fella breakup to what’s going on with my health, the kidney failure and everything. [Regardless] of what obstacle has been thrown at me, I’ve been able to push, keep going and [become] successful. Throughout all the ups and downs, God was always there for me.
You are touring and on a promo run, which can be tiring for anyone. But you’re doing it while having to get dialysis three times a day. How are you able to maintain from city to city?
When I travel from city to city, if I have to stay for a long period of time, I was just in LA for the BET Awards. I have to do dialysis Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I got there Thursday, so we set up for me to do dialysis in LA on Friday and Monday. No matter where I’m at in the country, I can get dialysis. I just have to set it up ahead of time. They have facilities all over the United States. Sometimes just being on dialysis is a little draining. I may be a little tired, but for the most part, I’m able to push through.
Have you made any dietary changes?
Yeah, I definitely had to make some changes to my diet. I had to start with portion control to watch what I take in. As a dialysis patient, you have to watch your fluid intake. You can’t drink too many fluids, especially in the summertime when you tend to want to drink more because [of the heat].
For Think Free you teamed back up with Roc Nation, you were previously on Roc-A-Fella. How is that regarding the direction of your music and your relationship with JAY-Z?
It’s definitely a new chapter in my life, and it’s great to be back with the family and to be working with Jay again. I feel like it’s a better situation. I have a 50-50 joint venture with Roc Nation, and I own my masters. So I’m basically my own boss. It’s definitely great for me; Jay put me in a great position, and I’m very grateful for it.
Has Jay listened to the album, yet?
I know he listened to it a couple of times and we’re going to chop it up when I see him in Philly when he comes for the On the Run II Tour.
On “All Falls Down,” you reflect on how your kidney failure opened your eyes to the people in your life. Who do you think from the experience has been revealed as some of your biggest supporters?
My immediate family and my media team are definitely in my corner. They call and check up on me, for the most part. Some people in my family don’t f**king check on me [laughs]. But because people see me doing so much, they’re like, ‘Ain’t nothing really wrong with that n****a. He cool.’ They don’t know that what I’m doing is really defying what’s normal. Most of the time I [am] tired and it [does] take a lot out of me to do what I am doing. It’s a gift and a curse. People see me on [Instagram], and they see me here in LA and in New York on another day. They feel as though [since] I’m doing all of that there’s nothing wrong with [me].
What keeps you motivated to keep pushing to attain your goals or even continue with half of what you’re doing?
The passion for the music and [the ability to] spread awareness about kidney failure. I was unaware. I was one of the people running around with three of the risk factors for kidney failure: being African-American, having hypertension and diabetes. Just for the simple fact that I was unaware I had three of the risk factors for kidney failure.
I didn’t know those were risk factors.
That’s why it is most important for me to spread the awareness. I was one of those people that was unaware, and if I knew earlier, I couldn’t have stopped it, but I could have slowed it down. I feel it’s crucial for me to let people know what’s going on, so they [can] be mindful and keep up with their routine physicals and make sure they get blood work at least once a year. All of those steps to make sure that they maintain a healthy situation.
A couple of months ago, you posted a picture at Johns Hopkins with Dr. Dorry Segev, M.D., Ph.D. How is the search for a kidney transplant going?
It’s going great. He actually called me [on July 18] and told me they have a new procedure that they’re doing and, hopefully, I fit the criteria. Then I could be getting transplanted later this year.
Do you know that the percentage of people who are able to get kidney transplants?
First and foremost, you have to be healthy enough to get put on the transplant list. [There are] a number of tests and things that you have to go through to even be able to get on the list, which is a blessing that I’m on there. There are people in my dialysis unit that can’t even get put on the list. Dialysis is their fate right now. I’m one of the people blessed enough to get placed on the list. It’s definitely a waiting process, but what I have going on with Johns Hopkins and Dr. Segev, hopefully, everything works out, and I’ll be able to get transplanted quicker.
There’s usually a wait. Some people wait seven to 10 years. I’ve been on the list since 2016, and it’s 2018 now. Besides what I [have] going on with Johns Hopkins, I’m on the transplant list in Philadelphia at Einstein Medical Center. The people from there just called me probably like three weeks ago, and they had a kidney opportunity for me. When they called, I was on my way to do a rally with Meek [Mill] for what he’s going through with the criminal justice system.
I just got out of dialysis, and they sent a car to pick me up. As I’m pulling up to the venue, my phone rings and I [answer] it. ‘Hey, Leslie Pridgen. This is the transplant people. We might have a kidney available for you.’ So you know, I broke down. It was a real emotional time for me because I never got a call for a kidney before.
They were like, ‘Is it a good chance that you can get the kidney? Yes. Is it a 100 percent? No.’
I was waiting. They told me not to go far because if it does work out, I would have to go straight to the hospital to get transplanted. They were checking my numbers and seeing [if] the kidney was compatible for me, and making sure there was nothing that would prevent me from getting the kidney. Sometimes there might be little differences with the blood or [other] things that don’t work out. The numbers on the [potential] kidney shot up, and it ended up being [unusable.] But, it is just a real moment for me. When they called me back, they explained that and [told me] to be patient because I’m starting to get calls and that’s a good thing, you know.
Under the Trump administration, you see more rappers coming forward speaking up about things that they’re invested in outside of music. You are speaking about health awareness. Pusha T is speaking about prison reform. Meek Mill and JAY-Z are speaking about criminal justice reform and community service. Why do you think that’s so important, especially during this current political climate?
Somebody has to do it. Somebody has to stand up and represent for us—the African-American community. The truth is the president we have in office, I’m not going to say he’s a racist, but he definitely has the characteristics of a racist with certain things that he [does]. That reflects against the people. Now other people believe they can say and do what they want because the president is doing it [laughs]. Someone has to stand up for the African-American community, that’s why I feel so many people are letting their voices be heard when it comes to injustice and other little obstacles that we face.
How can the average person help with what you’re doing in terms of educating the community about kidney disease?
Just follow what I’m doing and just continue to spread the awareness even if it’s just in conversation with your family, community and friends. The way things are and the climate of society today, things are so fast and this is so much information being pumped out there that people tend to forget, you know? So it’s definitely important to keep the conversation going and keep spreading awareness.
I really like “Blessed,” because you express such a positive outlook on life on that song. Is there any message you can give to someone who may be going through a tough time?
I think first and foremost that has a lot to do with my religious background. And just knowing my religion and having faith and believing that God is not going to put any obstacles on me that I can’t handle. I really believe that in my heart. That’s the mindset that I had going into a lot of things like even with the breakup of Roc-A-Fella Records back in the 2000s. Once that happened, I’m like cool, it took me a second to get myself together, but I knew God wasn’t going to do something that I can’t handle. So what I did was go back to what got me there in the first place. It was hard work. I was able to maintain the successful-independent career before I got back with Roc Nation. I wasn’t on the top of the charts and everything, but I was able to support myself and my family throughout those times.
Even with what I’m going through now with the kidney failure when the doctors called me to see if I could get to the hospital, the first thing I did was go to the mansion and pray. I asked God to help me deal with whatever the situation is, and I felt strong and firm that he was going to be there for me.
When I went to the hospital and was diagnosed, I said, ‘OK, this is what I got to deal with now,’ and I started dealing with it. So that has a lot to do with God, having faith in your God and believing that he’s going to be there for you no matter what. And of course, taking the proper steps to receive those blessings. You can’t just ask God to be there for you, and you’re out here shooting people and doing a bunch of messed-up stuff. You have to take the proper steps to receive your blessings. You have got to try to be a good person. You have to try to give back as much as you can. We know we’re not perfect. We’re not angels, but the least we can do is try our best.
What's Your Reaction?
Christina Santi is a news and culture writer for EBONY.com. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, she considers herself a well-read, not so traditional feminist with a heavy interest in music, fashion and pop culture. Christina currently lives in New York City, where she refers to her Cuban & Jamaican descent often while writing about her experiences as a first-generation Afro-Latinx in America. She also devotes time writing personalized reading material for her tutees and turning ideas into words for streetwear brand, PUER By Noel Bronson.