For related reading, get started on my “Understanding Kanye West Rants” series
As Mr. West’s weekly worship programs powered by hip-hop/gospel fusion scale up, I once again wander into no man’s land as Kanye’s polarized fans and critics fight to determine his place in the culture. From the outside looking in, here are my thoughts on Kanye West’s Sunday Services and the discussion surrounding them.
Sunday Service is an evolution of what Ye has always done
Much of Kanye’s musical brand is based on this candid fusion of his Christian faith and hip-hop.
Kanye West’s music has always been a medium of worship. Even a surface-level study of his solo discography provides a strong picture of Ye’s relationship with God throughout his career. The running dialogue between Kanye and God in Kanye’s music has been and continues to be explicit, heartfelt, and always evolving.
A brief timeline of Ye practicing his Christian faith through his music:
- 2004: His pleas for God’s guidance as he makes it out of Chicago and into the music business in “Jesus Walks” and “Never Let Me Down”
- 2007: His acknowledgement of sin and distance from God in “Can’t Tell Me Nothing“
- 2010: His catharsis and return to God throughout My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in songs like “Gorgeous,” “Devil in a New Dress,” and “Lost In The World“
- 2013: Loudly claiming God within himself throughout YEEZUS
- 2016: Taking a step back and praising Him with songs like “Father Stretch My Hands” and “Ultralight Beam” on The Life of Pablo
Not to mention Ye’s unofficial first form of weekly music-based worship via GOOD Fridays (2010 and 2016), an ode to the Christian holiday Good Friday. Instead of almsgiving and prayer to Jesus, people eagerly gathered up and marveled at the high-level collaborative gems the GOOD Music team dropped like rap Easter eggs.
Much of Kanye’s musical brand is based on this candid fusion of his Christian faith and hip-hop. Through his periods of piety and sin, the view West gives us of his relationship to God has always been refreshingly honest. The sins, primarily pride, vanity, and lust, are relatable and shared with little filter. The worship, too, comes without filter. When Ye suggests he is back in touch with God, his music swells with what we can only imagine is the same exuberance Ye actually feels at the time. Often, his naked sin and pure love for God appear on the same track as if *gasp* he’s a human being capable of both.
It’s hard to not feel something when listening to “Ultralight Beam,” or even a song like “Waves” which still looks to sooth existential worries despite no straightforward lyrics about God. Not to mention, Kanye as a personality often takes a backseat in these powerful musical moments. For instance, Chance The Rapper, Kirk Franklin, a gospel choir, and Chris Brown are the centers of attention on “Ultralight Beam” and “Waves.” This is consistent with how Ye behaves in his Sunday Services, often relegating himself to background vocals or the keyboard while a lead vocalist turns it out or the crowd sings in unison.
The same visceral, egoless so-high feeling West’s music offers is what fans come for, virtually or in-person, during these free weekly gospel-infused jam sessions. Peep Mr. West inconspicuously seated and head-bobbin’ on the left during this stripped-down rendition of “Father Stretch My Hands.”
In theory, a world-class hip-hop/pop producer with strong Christian roots using his gifts to help people find new paths toward God should be inspirational and celebrated. In reality, it’s just the latest fuel to the fire we’ve been holding Kanye West over for years. Aside from the fickle nature of we, the people, what has Kanye done to keep finding himself in this position?
Kanye’s ignorance to how the public views his moves causes dissonance
What bothers critics more than the content of Ye’s Sunday Services is the image of people gathering to find God through a brash A-list celebrity with loud, unclear beliefs…a false idol
One of the greatest mantra’s of adulthood is having the “maturity” to not care what people think about you. Ideally, this looks like a person thoughtfully doing what’s best for them—changing careers, forgiving a wrongdoing friend, cutting people off—regardless of how it looks to others. In real life, this often looks like people shirking their responsibilities and causing harm in the name of self-care, happiness, or in Kanye West’s case, “free thinking,” which is really just being a contrarian for its own sake.
The responsibilities of a celebrity to the public aren’t standard like the Hippocratic Oath is to physicians. Depending on a celeb’s level of fame, source(s) of their fame, identities possessed, and career stage, some celebrities can put out mediocre work and beef with randoms on Twitter with no repercussions. Others might be torn to shreds for not having a thorough stance on prison reform. Fame requires a celebrity to negotiate rules of engagement with their fans and the media. Based on a celeb’s early behavior in the spotlight, questions like, “What do they speak on?”, “How seriously should we take them?” and “How do they make us feel?” get answered. These answers solidify a celebrity’s responsibilities to the public.
Once established, we monitor A-listers with firm expectations. From the timing of product drops (e.g. Rihanna’s next album) down to their emotional expression, we demand specific experiences from our favorite stars. Controversial ones, however, regularly break the rules their supporters thought were in play. In some cases, these are bold reminders to fans that there are actual human beings behind their favorite brands of entertainment, such as Kanye’s making of 808s & Heartbreak. In other cases, these transgressions are selfish moves that insult and sometimes harm people they knowingly and unknowingly represent, like Kanye’s public support of the egregiously bigoted and corrupt POTUS Donald Trump, something he reiterated during his latest Sunday Service in Salt Lake City.
What bothers critics more than the content of Ye’s Sunday Services is the image of people gathering to find God through a brash A-list celebrity with loud, unclear beliefs. To some, the perfect example of a false idol (see J. Cole). In the same way some think Kanye’s self-referential title YEEZUS is blasphemous, watching the artist lead his own version of a church is simply another show of egomania disguised as art. The optics of Ye’s famous friends and family being front and center at these Sunday Services adds more fuel to the cynicism suggesting this practice is cultish.
What are Kanye’s intentions then?
On Revolt TV’s latest episode of State of the Culture, panelists Eboni Williams, Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins, Joe Budden, and Remy Ma discussed Kanye’s Sunday Services among other topics. The stances of Eboni, Jinx, and Joe represent the main criticisms the hip-hop community has of Ye’s latest work. Among them are the following:
- Eboni: Kanye’s Sunday Services might be a cheap apology for his insulting, tone-deaf commentary on American politics and the Black community
- Jinx: Sunday Services strip gospel and Black Christianity of its context, making any “worship” hollow and vulnerable to manipulation—a moderate to severe concern depending on how disingenuous someone thinks Kanye is
- Joe: Sunday Services are a scammy cash grab, with Budden snidely suggesting, “Totally not weird to anybody that all of this behavior tailed him and his public rant about being in debt?” Budden also suggested the possibility of Ye looking for religious tax write-offs
Addressing Eboni’s suggestion
It makes sense until you learn that Kanye still preaches his free-thinking-Black-Republican bullshit during Sunday Services. To pull from the Salt Lake Tribune article cited earlier, Ye did the whole “Republicans freed the slaves” thing before making the tired point that his race does not determine his party affiliation. In true Kanye fashion, his mid-Service monologue touched on several other unrelated topics including social media’s effect on thinking and his past mistakes living in service of fame and money.
For better and for worse, Kanye’s approach to his latest Sunday Service is consistent with his approach to live shows while he was headlining tours: hook fans with beautiful sounds and next-level stage design, then go on stream-of-consciousness rants praying something sticks. Incoherent and misguided? Yes. Willfully ignorant of America’s political history? Yes. Sneakily apologizing for his messy recent past? Not at all.
Even if Ye half-heartedly wanted Sunday Services to be a plea for forgiveness, don’t you think the programming would be more calculated? Some official branding, planned statements, perhaps Kris Jenner advising Ye to shut up about anything political so it could all fade away? Maybe an album that dropped on time for once?
Kanye West – Jesus is King is officially 1 week late
7 days may just be the beginning…
Kanye projects are, on average, 129 days late
Equivalent to 18.4 weeks, or 4.5 months
11 commercial projects delivered
1,415 days (3.9 yrs) we’ve waited for them
Settle in for a long wait
— Hip Hop By The Numbers (@HipHopNumbers) October 5, 2019
Kanye West might not be wise for continuing to express himself without filter, but it demonstrates a lack of concern for his public image. How, then, can we say the intention of his Sunday Services is to repair it?
Addressing Jinx’s point
Jinx’s concern is legitimate to anyone who takes their Christian faith seriously. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, roughly three-quarters of American adults identify with some sect of Christianity. According to the same poll, 21 percent of Americans claim no religious identity and one of every three Americans is not religious in practice. It’s safe to assume Kanye West’s fanbase includes a mixture of serious Christians, non-religious folks, and nonchalant Christians-by-association.
What Ye’s Sunday Services have offered thus far are the raw spiritual arousals experienced in Black churches, but with trimmed-down versions of the scripture and community experience it takes to get to those feelings. To quote Jinx, “context matters.” To be fair to Kanye though, he has often involved pastors in his Sunday Services. Most notable is Adam Tyson of Placerita Bible Church who hopped on the Pure Flix Podcast last week to claim Bible studies with Ye prior to and during his involvement in the Services convinced him Mr. West’s new endeavor was genuine. Also to Kanye’s credit, he allows pastors to give short sermons during his Services and works scripture into the vocal performances of his choir as well as guest vocalists like Australian pop star Sia.
Of course Kanye West will not deliver the Word in the same way as an ordained minister at an established church. Panelist Remy Ma made the point that Sunday Services should be viewed as Ye’s unique contribution to the Christian community rather than a substitute for the church, a view echoed by Reverend DeForest Buster Soaries.
Sunday Services should be viewed as Ye’s unique contribution to the Christian community rather than a substitute for the church
Jinx also rightly pointed out the Word’s vulnerability in the hands of Kanye who has the power to polarize and massively profit from it. Making Christianity a bigger part of his brand makes Kanye’s product even more susceptible to misuse. The coverage of Ye’s Salt Lake City Service noted a divide between people who knew what was happening and those expecting a full-blown concert. But despite the confusion, the good vibes and spiritual takeaways for those who have participated so far suggest the Services are organic and structured enough to add value at various levels of faith.
This program isn’t theologically deep, but Ye isn’t rolling around the country bastardizing the Word. Jinx’s concerns also prompt a more important question: what should people expect from Kanye? As touched on earlier, celebrities negotiate their roles with the public. Kanye is constantly renegotiating in an attempt to make us stop holding him to one form of expression. Is there room to appreciate his boundary-pushing in this conversation? I say there is plenty.
Addressing Joe Budden’s suspicions
Frankly, I find them disappointing. As one of the most thorough debaters in hip-hop media, Budden’s “debt + wildin’ = scam” equation feels lazy. He asserted to Remy Ma that facts had to be confronted, so let’s confront them.
Kanye West’s strange and loud claims of debt, peaking with his tweets at Mark Zuckerberg for $53 million, were the background music to his disastrous 2016 that led to the beginning of Ye’s most controversial chapter in life yet. Where did the debt come from? Mostly from years of ambitious trial and error in the fashion industry, you know, the stuff he was yelling about in 2013 (which I break down here)?
Anyway, this is where Budden’s argument falls apart: Kanye West made $150 million before taxes between July 2018 and July 2019. The Yeezy shoe line is expected to earn $1.5 billion in 2019. And thanks to a wonderfully worked royalty deal, Mr. West makes more money off of shoes than Michael Jordan.
Unless someone can provide a strong correlation between Ye’s MAGA hat-wearing and a spike in Yeezy sales and West’s real estate values, the idea that Kanye needed to dip into his Creflo Dollar bag holds no weight. For six years now, Kanye has insisted the financial backing he needs to achieve his true endgame—design at the highest level possible—could only come with major corporate backing. Milking his middle-class fans through Sunday Service merch? Completely worthless up against the value of his deal with Adidas.
And about Sunday Services possibly being a slimy route to religious tax write-offs? Sunday Services have not been licensed as a 501(c)(3) and don’t meet many of the IRS criteria necessary to do so. Not to mention Ye would have been better off keeping the Services exclusive if the endgame really was “lucrative musical cult”—something he was against once the smaller-scale events received overwhelmingly positive responses. Again, despite the messiness and confusion of it all, the way Sunday Services have been conducted are as on-brand for Kanye as it gets. If Budden honestly considered Kanye’s business track record, he’d have to admit the Services turning into a superficial commercial machine is weak speculation unsupported by reality.
Kanye West is a firm believer in trial and error. He workshops his ideas with the same ambition and much more bravado than the top tech innovators in Silicon Valley. Whether it’s a hard-to-swallow album at the peak of his musical powers, a disastrous fashion show as he struggles to establish himself in clothing, or a personal-turned-public religious program which seems to put him at odds with the God he loves, Ye lives to fail on the world stage. He does so over and over again, learning and tweaking while we’re mocking and talking until he does something so complete and singular there’s no learning, tweaking, mocking, or talking left to do.
Also knowing Ye’s résumé, Sunday Services likely won’t be the last form of his quest to properly use his gifts to help the world praise the Lord. In the same way his albums and clothing items evolve many times before becoming something worthwhile, Ye’s Sunday Services seem like the first of many public beta tests to come.
Kanye West’s politics upset me. Not because I oppose them, but because he nor anyone close to him has taken the time to form careful, well-educated stances to represent his brand with. I’m also unsure if he truly understands the harm he caused to various fights for liberation for the sake of his aloof, reactionary views on American politics. That being said, I like to think Kanye’s willingness to learn and change in his creativity is an extension of his willingness to do so as a person. With his mental health and happiness appearing to be significantly improved, I hope someone with the capacity to speak to him about his significance to the culture (i.e. not David Letterman) can at least prevent Ye’s next rambling Devil’s Advocate episode.
TL;DR: Kanye’s Sunday Services are lit and not some devious ploy for money or the public favor. Also, pray that Ye sees the error in his past political ways.
Thank you if you made it this far. Make your comment respectful and relevant if you plan to leave it. Peace.