| Dialysis | Kidney disease | Patient stories | Transplant

6 Black/African American Icons and Their Journey with Kidney Disease

February 14, 2024, 3:02pm EST

Celebrity signing an autograph

Here are the inspiring journeys of six people with kidney disease who have made history. These stories serve as a reminder that kidney disease doesn't have to stop you. They also underscore the need to raise awareness about health disparities within the Black/African American community.

The statistics

Black/African American people make up about 13% of the total population but account for 30% of the people with kidney failure in the United States.1

This isn't due to any one reason. It results from any combination of environmental, medical, and social elements called social determinants of health. These factors create challenges for individuals to lead healthy lives and get necessary medical attention and support. 

Despite these challenges, there are steps you can take to keep your kidneys healthy. Start with getting tested for kidney disease. Knowledge is power! It's the best way to slow or prevent kidney disease progression. 

Take this one-minute quiz to find out if you are at risk for kidney disease. Bring your results to your healthcare provider to discuss the next steps. 

1. Freeway- Leslie Edward Pridgen Freeway

Leslie Pridgen, also known as Freeway, is a renowned rapper who significantly influenced the Philadelphia rap scene during the 2000s. He's also been open about his struggles with diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney failure. Freeway received a life-changing kidney transplant in 2019 but continued to raise kidney disease awareness. By using his platform, Freeway hopes that others will better understand their risks and take action. 

Freeway standing with Kidney Walk participants at 1 mile turnaround

In 2023, Freeway took his activism to the next level and joined NKF in the fight against health disparities and kidney care inequality. 

"Kidney disease is a shameful example of racial and ethnic inequality in health care," said Freeway during an NKF panel discussion. "Kidney disease is more common among Black people. We're more likely to have kidney failure, less likely to get options like home dialysis or transplant, and more likely to die from kidney disease complications. But we can put a stop to this inequality by raising awareness, increasing diagnosis and treatment, and ending policies that perpetuate racism in health care."

Join NKF in the fight for KIDNEY EQUITY FOR ALL™.

2. Madame C.J. Walker 

Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, is the first self-made woman millionaire in the U.S.2 



In the late 1890s, Walker launched her business. She created and sold beauty and hair products for Black/African American women, which were not readily available then. Within a decade, the door-to-door business exploded in popularity. She opened a factory and had a staff dedicated to running the day-to-day activities. 

With more time on her hands, Madam Walker turned to philanthropy and politics. In 1916, she donated money to community projects and encouraged other Black/African American women to follow their business dreams. Walker supported the NAACP's anti-lynching movement, fighting the widespread practice used to terrorize Black/African American citizens. She went on to run one of the first national conventions for women business leaders. 

Sadly, Madam Walker suffered from high blood pressure, the second leading cause of kidney disease. Without current medical knowledge or treatments, her kidneys failed. Madam Walker passed away in 1919 at 52, but her name and company remain. 

Learn more about the connection between high blood pressure and kidney disease.

3. Alonzo Mourning

Iconic Basketball Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning helped his team win Gold during the 2000 Summer Olympics games. Excited from the win, he barely noticed his legs swelling on a flight back home. He assumed it was the altitude, but a routine physical shattered that outlook.



A post shared by Alonzo Mourning (@iamzo33)


Mourning had Focal Segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), a type of kidney disease that scars the kidneys. It was caused by a variant of the APOL1 gene, which is linked to a higher incidence of developing FSGS. 

Undeterred, Mourning learned more about the disease and how to control it. He took medications to slow the progression of his kidney disease.

While he missed the 2002-2003 season, he received a kidney donation from his cousin in 2003. This selfless gift gave Mourning the chance to continue playing for another six seasons. Now, he raises awareness about the condition and encourages others to get tested to pay it back. 

"The only thing we can do is to be an active participant and get tested," Mourning told Cathy Cassata in 2022. "If we have it, then we can process an understanding…and consult with our doctor and figure out how we can make the right decisions for our health long-term.” 

Learn more about kidney health testing.

4. Aries Merritt

Aries Merritt won Gold in the 2012 Olympics 110-meter hurdle. That same year, he smashed the world record for 110-meter hurdles. Merritt was unstoppable. 



Just a year later, Merritt suddenly couldn't perform, keep food down, or stay awake. The reason shocked him–his kidneys were failing from FSGS. Despite the health challenges and need for dialysis, Merritt continued training and racing.

By 2015, his kidney function hit an all-time low, but his sister, LaToya Hubbard, donated a kidney to him.

"My sister means everything to me; she gave me a second chance at life and allowed me to continue running for four more years after 2015. She allowed me to be able to walk and have a normal life. And so I wouldn't be here without my sister's help," Merritt told an Olympics reporter in a 2022 interview. "She gave me her kidney, she gave me a second chance at life. So I'm forever grateful."

Want to learn more about finding or becoming a kidney donor? Get started at the Kidney Learning Center.

5. Malik "Phife Dawg" Taylor

Malik "Phife Dawg" Taylor is a celebrated rapper and a founding member of the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest.3 The group of childhood friends started creating music together in 1985 as teens. Today, they are remembered for clever beats, insightful lyrics, and their celebration of African culture and history. 



A post shared by Phife Dawg (@phifeforever)


Phife Dawg also rapped about his health issues. He struggled with diabetes, the leading cause of kidney disease, dubbing himself the "funky diabetic." He continued to perform after the group broke up in 1998 to fund his medical costs.

By 2008, Phife Dawg had kidney failure, but his wife donated one of hers to him. Her gift gave Phife Dawg four incredible years off dialysis before it failed and he rejoined the transplant waitlist.

In 2015, the band returned to record one final album, but Phife Dawg wouldn't be there to see the end project. He passed away in 2016 due to diabetes-related complications.

A Tribe Called Quest finished the album to honor their long-time friend. Losing Phife Dawg was a blow, but his contribution to the hip-hop community will not be forgotten.

Learn more about the connection between diabetes and kidney disease

6. Ida B Wells

Ida B. Wells is a trailblazing Black/African American journalist, suffragist, and civil rights leader.4



A post shared by NAACP (@naacp)


In 1883, train workers insisted Wells leave her first-class train compartment despite having a ticket. Wells knew her rights and took the train company to court. She won at first, but later, federal judges said otherwise. But that didn't stop Wells.

In 1889, a prominent Black/African American was murdered. Wells set off to expose the truth about his death and lynching as a whole. She challenged the stereotypes behind the murders and fought to hold people accountable for their crimes against Black/African American citizens.

Wells published her discoveries in newspapers owned by Black/African Americans before running her own papers. But, doing all this came with a cost–Her press was attacked and burned down. Wells had to flee for her safety. 

Despite the risks, Wells refused to stop fighting inequality wherever she found it. 

She traveled to raise awareness in the international community about the treatment of Black/African Americans. She uplifted the voices of Black/African American women during the women's suffrage movement. Later in life, Wells worked to improve the living and working conditions of poor neighborhoods in Chicago. 

Ida B. Wells died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931, but her mark on history lives on.

Does Well's incredible advocacy inspire you? You can make a difference, too. Become a Voices for Kidney Health advocate to help NKF fight for policies that will end disparities in kidney care.



1“Kidney Disease Statistics for the United States.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/kidney-disease. Accessed 15 Feb. 2024. 

2Bundles, A'Lelia Perry. Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.

3“Phife Dawg’s Death a Reminder to Take Diabetes Seriously.” NBCNews.Com, NBCUniversal News Group, 24 Mar. 2016, www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/phife-dawg-s-death-reminder-take-diabetes-seriously-n544811. 

4Norwood, Arlisha. "Ida B. Wells-Barnett." National Women's History Museum. National Women's History Museum, 2017. 01 Jan. 2024.

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