Music

From ‘Jesus Walks’ To Pop-Up Church, How Kanye West Is Turning Faith Into Big Business

On Tuesday, Kanye West announced that his ninth album, Jesus Is King, will be released on September 27. The album announcement comes after several false starts for a followup to 2018’s Ye album. An album entitled Yandhi was planned for last September — and then November — but Kanye postponed it in November 2018 after tweeting that it wasn’t “ready yet.”

Perhaps he sensed that is the masses weren’t “ready” to receive his new album in droves as they have in the past. Kanye has always been calculatingly unhinged, but he self-sabotaged himself in a manner that few artists ever have during a spectacle-filled spring and summer of 2018 which included wearing a MAGA hat, declaring his “love” for despotic President Donald Trump, and an infamous “slavery was a choice” assertion on TMZ.

He and his wife Kim Kardashian-West’s clan are adept at headline hunting, but they’re also smart enough to know when to take their foot off the figurative pedal. After the June bonanza of G.O.O.D. music releases — and a trip to Uganda with self-proclaimed “global influencer” YesJulz, Kanye secluded from the public eye and social media. In January, he created an act called Sunday Service with longtime collaborator Tony Williams and several talented instrumentalists and vocalists. He’s spent every Sunday of 2019 performing popup Sunday Services. They’ve played all over the country, with the likes of Brad Pitt, DMX, and a recently-home A$AP Rocky attending the private events.

The clips from the services showcase a joyous atmosphere as Kanye, his daughter North, and attendees dance to gospel-tinged renditions of his own hits such as “Power,” “Bound 2,” and “Jesus Walks,” as well as standards like Gap Band’s “Outstanding,” and Ginuwine’s “So Anxious.” But there are many who aren’t swayed by the proceedings. There’s a swathe of people on social media joking — or not — about the Sunday Service being the prelude to a cult. Most Sunday services encourage attendees to spread the word; Kanye’s reportedly requires a nondisclosure agreement (though attendees can share videos on Instagram). From the outside looking in, the Sunday Services could easily be perceived as both a strategic entreaty to Black people and a lucrative endgame for an egocentric artist whose family is already reportedly running a church that charges attendees $1,000-a-month.

Kim Kardashian recently told The View that “Kanye started (the services), I think, just to heal himself.” The 42-year-old has long been a survivor of bipolar disorder. He has been more upfront about his mental health struggles in the last several years, being candid in interviews as well as on his last two albums, The Life Of Pablo and Ye. He even called bipolar disorder “his superpower” last year. It’s worth noting that “an increased focus on religion or religious activities” is a widely recognized symptom of mania induced by bipolar disorder, though it’s impossible to know Kanye’s mental state.

His public proclamations of faith aren’t new. In 2004, he defined himself as a “spiritual” follower of Jesus, though not a Christian. In 2013 he released the self-aggrandizing Yeezus album (which audaciously featured God on “I Am A God”), and he called 2016’s sonic fever dream The Life Of Pablo “a Gospel album with a whole lot of cursing.” And, of course, there’s 2004’s “Jesus Walks,” a defiant affirmation of Christ. Sasha Frere-Jones presciently said at the time for The New Yorker that, “in a different year, ‘Jesus Walks’ might register as an eccentric’s conflation of faith, commerce, and war.”

That unholy trinity of faith, commerce, and war are exactly what Kanye’s Sunday Service represents in 2019. Kim Kardashian-West recently clarified that the Sunday Service is a vessel of Christianity. Is it his genuine attempt to share his faith as a missionary for God? Does his July application to trademark Sunday Service (and $225 “Holy Spirit” hoodies at Coachella) mark the movement as mere commerce? Is every Sunday Service a war of an unapologetic egomaniac reckoning with forgiveness and humility amid a fall from grace? Maybe all three things are true at once for Kanye.

The services have veritably graduated to actual churches multiple times in the past month. During his most recent service, at Atlanta’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, he didn’t just perform but preached for 10-minutes. He implored “radical obedience” to Christ while singing, “nothin’ beats God… and a sound mind.” Longtime friend T.I. said on Instagram of the service, “love to see him at peace with his self again. Felt like the old Ye’… With a new purpose.” Gospel Fred Hammond commended a Sunday Service rendition of “This Is The Day,” and Gospel artist Donald Lawrence tweeted, “I keep trying to tell peeps Choirs+HipHop+Trap+AfroFunk+Groove+GospelSound = Pop Culture… go @kanyewest.”

But despite the praise, there are still remnants of “the old Kanye’s” desire for spectacle in the proceedings. There was a recent video of him parting the proverbial sea of patrons in his native Chicago on his way to the stage, imploring his security that it was “his city.” Walking through people to get on stage isn’t an inherently offensive action, but after considering that Kanye is excessively hubristic and feeds off of external adoration, the clip could easily be perceived as a haughty show of power akin to the set of his Saint Pablo tour, which had him hovering above fans on an aerial stage.

For the past 20 years, Kanye’s energy synthesis has taken place on the world’s grandest platforms. He’s blurted stream of consciousness testimonies to sold-out arenas, and created three of the most memorable TV moments of the 21st century with his George Bush, Taylor Swift, and TMZ comments. Everything he’s done professionally, from courting controversy to creating tireless music, is in furtherance of his goal to garner enough attention to feed his massive ego. That’s why skeptics believe that the Sunday Services are a continuation of Kanye’s “ego being in charge of every move” as J. Cole once rhymed. No matter his intentions, his track record gives the services the appearance of a crisis-averting rebrand couched in religion and an insular movement devoted to rejoicing the greatness of Kanye rejoicing God.

And the services are thriving. To his credit, he’s exercised his musical genius on a weekly basis by fusing so many genres of Black music with gospel. It’s no surprise that many of the clips showcase a swathe of Black faces in the crowd dancing along. But anyone with a cursory understanding of the Black experience (in North America especially) knows how susceptible some of us are to charismatic figures who claim to extol God but have exploitative intentions. One could look up scandals involving the likes of Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar, and David E. Taylor to understand how depraved and greedy pastors prey on their community. While there’s no way to know what effect the Sunday Services have on attendees, the sight of Black people being spiritually wooed by a man who hugged Donald Trump and never apologized for throwing our ancestors under the bus is pitiful. Whether purposeful or not, Kanye is capitalizing on Black people’s credulous relationship with religion to re-ingratiate himself to segments of the community that he’s been alienating through his half-baked philosophies on race and gender.

The skepticism compounds when considering that Kanye’s mother-in-law Kris Jenner co-founded a church that’s run by a controversial pastor. In 2009, Jenner co-founded the Life Change Church, which has since rebranded to the California Community Church. The Church runs out of a Sheraton Hotel in the Agoura Hills section of L.A. The Church’s pastor is Brad Johnson, who married Lamar Odom to Khloe Kardashian in a wedding that was broadcast on the family’s Keeping Up With The Kardashians reality show. Johnson resigned from his previous post after being caught in an extramarital affair and surmised that he was “not qualified” to be a pastor at the time.

But Jenner felt different and tabbed him to head a church which insists on either a $1,000 a month or customary 10% tithe from its members. Kim Kardashian-West said in 2011 that she and her sisters fund the church. Jenner doesn’t show up on the leadership page of the site, but it would be safe to assume she’s still involved in the church. The Kardashians are known to attach their brand to anything they think is a lucrative hustle, from cosmetics to sneakers. Is the church another Kardashian racket, or a genuine endeavor? Does Jenner have any input on the future of Kanye’s Sunday Service? Who knows. Kim Kardashian tellingly said on The View that Kanye hasn’t yet signed up for a 501(c)(3), which would turn the Sunday Service into an official church.

For now, the Sunday Services are just an exploit of Kanye’s imagination, and from an outsider’s perspective, exemplify almost every one of his interactions with the public in the past several years: high on spectacle, of questionable substance, but always egotistically gratifying for him.

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