In May, Sia, the uber-talented but famously enigmatic pop singer and songwriter walked onstage wearing a hoodie and no makeup and belted out a gospel rendition of her hit “Elastic Heart.” The seemingly-impromptu performance (she was holding her phone to make sure she remembered the changed words) was backed by a gospel choir, and was incredibly powerful. The performance was tweeted by Kim Kardashian West, who said “there wasn’t a dry eye in this room.” The setting? An early iteration of Kanye West’s “Sunday Service.”
“Sunday Service” is West’s music-focused, faith-based experience (it has a “a Christian vibe,” says Kim Kardashian) that has propelled the artist's music over the past year. Sunday Service went to Coachella. It went to Atlanta. More recently, it went to Wyoming, where thousands joined in. And it is also the foundation for his latest film project and album, “Jesus Is King,” which dropped on Friday (after multiple delays).
West is a cultural chameleon, who has remained one of the most talented, fascinating and controversial pop culture figures for 17 years and counting. He has evolved from mostly-anonymous producer to dynamic young rapper to awards show stage crasher to fashion designer. But his most recent turn toward faith has renewed the cultural fascination — and with it, plenty of scrutiny.
He has evolved from mostly-anonymous producer to dynamic young rapper to awards show stage crasher. But his most recent turn toward faith has renewed the cultural fascination.
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Full of gospel-inspired hip-hop — and just literal gospel — “Jesus Is King” contains allusions to West's past and the evolution that brought him to this point. “God is king, we’re just soldiers,” are the first lyrics on the album in his opening song “Selah.” Just six years ago, West repeated the chorus “I am a God” in a song of the same name on his "Yeezus" album. Although West has long been prone to hyperbole, especially when it comes to his career aspirations, "Jesus Is King" spends a lot of time trying to position West as less the center of his own universe and more the servant of a higher power. “Cut out all the lights, He the light,” he says on “Hands On.”
West has made religion a centerpiece of his art in recent years. But he's rarely preachy — there’s a cheerfulness to his turn to God. Others in pop culture have reached levels of uber-fame and subsequently taken similar paths — Justin Bieber, once one of the world’s biggest teen pop stars, has been speaking with increasing openness about how faith has helped him deal with drug abuse and anxiety. West protege and sometimes collaborator Chance the Rapper also has a new album featuring faith as a major theme.
But religious openness doesn’t sit well with everyone (take a recent Vice headline: “It’s tough to be a Chance The Rapper Fan When You’re Not A Christian.”) Large swaths of America see religion as important to their life (77 percent in a recent Pew survey), but that number is declining. Part of that, without a doubt, is because trust in religious institutions is hitting an all-time low this year, according to a Gallup poll.
Some of the most ardent and and socially conservative religious institutions — which can be found in almost all faiths — also turn off more progressive potential members due to stances on cultural issues such as abortion and LGBTQ equality.
But West has always been a liberal, and progressive. And his nonchurch church he’s built with Sunday Service is in some ways an answer to the dissatisfaction many people of faith seem to have with more traditional religious institutions. In fact, West’s views on acceptance and inclusion have been a part of his persona and his art ever since he burst on the scene with “College Dropout” in 2004. As detailed in the podcast “Dissect,” the second season of which is essential listening for any fan, West was somewhat of an anomaly when he burst onto the scene. Pink collared shirts, backpacks — this was not your typical hip-hop attire.
West spoke out against homophobia in hip-hop on MTV in August 2004, years before even the Democrats were supportive of gay marriage or the term “woke” was popularized. “If you see something and you don’t want to be that because it’s such a negative connotation toward it, you try to separate yourself from it so much, that it may be homophobic, by the time I was through with high school,” West said in that interview. “Everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people. That’s one of the standards of hip-hop.”
Of course, irrespective of faith or his socially progressive beliefs, there’s an elephant in the White House — West and the infamous red hat. Yes, it’s hard to separate West from his support of Donald Trump, including a visit he made to the Oval Office last year. But while West may have praised Trump, he and his wife have used their relationship to affect real change — Kim Kardashian pushed for the release of Alice Johnson and has helped spearhead the First Step Act, while West helped secure the release of ASAP Rocky from Sweden.
Without a doubt, it is this association with Trump that has largely changed the perception of West’s art. As Lakin Starling argued in Mic recently: "As polarizing as Kanye has always been, these antics were the last straw. Most of his black fans felt like they had no choice but to walk away from him."
Still, West’s faith shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. I’m not a Christian, but as a Jewish person of faith who considers God a key element to my being (and who is married to a Christian), I’ve been impressed by West’s spiritual passion and journey.
West has always been at the cutting edge of culture, never afraid to speak his mind and push boundaries, almost exclusively in a positive way. (Taylor Swift may disagree.) And his talent, of course, is undeniable. The breadth of his work is so impressive, it’s sometimes difficult for big fans to go back and pick a favorite song. (For me, though, it’s “All Of The Lights” — an incredible feat on mental anguish and fame.)
“Nothing worse than a hypocrite,” West says on “Hands On.” “What'll you be hearing from the Christians? They'll be the first one to judge me. Make it seem like nobody love me.”
Now, he navigates a cultural landscape largely foreign to both hip-hop fans and people of faith alike. It is not hyperbole to call West a genius. With his Sunday Services and “Jesus Is King,” West is once again testing the boundaries of that talent. But in the process, he may be building a cultural bridge that shouldn't be discounted.