Hip hop artist Freeway is raising awareness of kidney disease as he battle the disease and take dialysis treatments 3-times a week. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
The Philadelphia rapper Freeway was just in Baltimore on Sunday, headlining a concert at the Ottobar. On Friday, he'll make the trip down again — but this time isn't for music.
Freeway, who was a key member of Jay Z's Roc-a-Fella label in the early 2000s, will receive dialysis treatment at MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital for his chronic kidney disease. He was diagnosed just over a year ago, and it has significantly changed how he has lived since.
"It's a lot of things I have to stay away from. For instance, potatoes and potato chips — one of my favorite foods. I can't indulge in them like I used to," Freeway said on the phone Thursday from his house on the outskirts of Philadelphia.
Then there's the toughest part: How much water he can drink.
"I can only take in 32 ounces of fluid a day," he said. "Especially in the summertime, I have to really monitor what I drink."
Life is drastically different for Freeway these days, but he's turning his disease into a catalyst for raising awareness, which explains his trip to Baltimore. Not only will he receive dialysis treatment while here, but Freeway will meet and interview patients to get feedback on how their treatments are working. The visit will be filmed for a documentary about Freeway's life after his diagnosis.
Simple tests already used regularly to assess kidney function and damage could also help doctors predict who will suffer heart disease, researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have found.
"I just want to get a different opinion from some of the people that's on dialysis," Freeway, 38, said. "Baltimore has always been a second home to me, so I figured it'd be good."
The goal of the documentary, which does not yet have a release date, and the visit are the same: To help raise awareness for early detection of chronic kidney disease, along with diabetes and high-blood pressure. Freeway was diagnosed with the latter two in 2012. He believes a simple check-up would have made a huge difference in getting his health under control sooner.
And despite knowing he fit three categories that increased his risk for kidney failure — diabetes, high blood pressure and being black — Freeway said it still didn't compel him to take his health seriously enough. He wants to correct that for others.
"A lot of people don't want to go to the doctor. A lot of people think there's nothing wrong with them," he said. "I'm not even that old. I'm in my 30s. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody."
Bernard Jaar, the nephrologist treating Freeway on Friday, said chronic kidney disease "is a huge problem in Baltimore," and inner cities in general. Jaar said black people are three to four times more likely to be affected by kidney disease than white people for multiple reasons, including access to care in a city population and genetic predisposition.
He agreed with Freeway that raising awareness is vital for public health. A routine check-up with a physician could be the difference in detecting a problem before it's too late, Jaar said.
People with chronic kidney disease are more likely to die from cardiovascular disease, he said.
"Kidney disease can be a burden on a patient's mortality," Jaar said. "The one thing to know is kidney disease is a silent disease. You don't have symptoms until it's very advanced."
Beyond early detection, Jaar recommended those at risk to maintain a healthy weight, try to keep their blood pressure below 130 over 80 and to avoid excess salt in their diet.
Freeway, born Leslie Pridgen, said modifying his lifestyle and being more aware of his health has him feeling well today. He can tour, but still needs to receive dialysis treatment multiple times per week.
But Freeway — who became a rap star thanks to rapid-fire, scene-stealing verses on songs like "What We Do" and "1-900 Hustler" — maintains a positive outlook, which the Muslim rapper credits to his religion.
"Islam teaches you to be patient, and deal with whatever situation God puts you in," Freeway said. "There's a saying in Islam that God won't put nothing on you that you can't handle, and I firmly believe that."
Freeway's last release was his fifth album, April's "Free Will." He said he finished before his kidney disease diagnosis, which explains why he doesn't address it on the record. That will change with his future music.
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"I still feel like I have a lot to talk about," Freeway said. "With the kidney failure and me still pushing and driving and still being able to see success, all of these things are just fueling the fire of the music I'm creating."
But before the next project comes the documentary and raising awareness.
Freeway — who once rapped "If … the heat stop working then my heat start working / I'ma rob me a person" — said he owes it to his community to do something positive. To him, it's karma he can control.
"As a youngster, growing up in the inner city, there was so much stuff that I did that was inexcusable. I did so much taking from the community, just being immature and unaware of the damage that I'm doing to others, just trying to look out for myself," he said. "I always told myself, if I was ever in a position to give back, I was going to try and do it the best that I can."