Both in #MusicSermon and in my writing, I like to stay in a certain pocket: pre-2000 Black music and culture. Untold or undertold stories. We move into more current music and things get a little sticky for me as someone whose been working in the music industry since 1998, and I never want to cross the line of objectivity or discretion. So the last thing I expected was to churn out multiple pieces about Kanye over the span of a few months. But mixing Black church elements with hip-hop also falls in my wheelhouse now, so I guess it makes sense.
When I was initially approached to write about Sunday Service, I was definitely leaning towards “Nah.” There’s a lot of personal and professional relationship crossover, and even more, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a target for his fans. But I ended up doing work I’m proud of (although I’m really good on never writing about Kanye Omari West again).
Kanye West’s Quest to Become God (VICE)
On the first Sunday of 2019, Kanye West unveiled his latest creative passion: Sunday Service. Every Sunday since January 6, the Kardashian-West family, their friends, and associates have gathered in Calabasas for a transcendent, invite-only jam. There are guest performers and musicians, cameos from young North West, and likely the word “vibes” being thrown around a lot.
For three months we got of glimpses into Kanye’s worship experience through Instagram posts, primarily from First Lady Kim Kardashian West. It all culminated Easter morning with West’s personal Sermon on the Mount, live from Indio, CA, during Coachella’s second weekend, complete with premium-priced merch to mark the occasion.ADVERTISEMENT
But what is Sunday Service? Some say Kanye is building a church as a tax shelter, not unlike Kris Jenner’s own former church. Despite the rumors, the family stays on message. “It’s really a healing experience,” Kim Kardashian West told Jimmy Kimmel of the Calabasas services. “There’s no sermon. There’s no word. It’s just music, and it’s just a feeling.” Sister Kourtney clarified, “It is Christian,” and Khloe added that people who feel judged in traditional church settings feel free in the space Kanye has created.
But this healing, freeing experience feels an awful lot like a marketing ploy. Is his latest foray into the marriage of the spiritual and secular truly a ministry to bridge barriers and heal humanity, or is his pulpit just a stage like any other he’d perform on?
Kanye Just Wants to Be A Leader, Any Kind of Leader
FROM VICE: On the first Sunday of the year, Kanye West unveiled his latest creative passion: Sunday Service. For the past many months, the Kardashian-West family and their friends and associates have gathered every Sunday in Calabasas for a transcendent, invite-only spiritual jam. And it all culminated on Easter morning with West’s personal Sermon on the Mount at Coachella, complete with premium-priced merch to mark the occasion. But journalist Naima Cochrane says that it all feels an awful lot like a marketing ploy. So on this episode of The VICE Guide To Right Now Podcast, VICE Senior Culture Editor Alex Zaragoza and Cochrane ask, “is this really an attempt to bridge barriers and heal humanity, or is his pulpit just another stage on which to perform?”
The History of Hip-Hop Going Gospel, From MC Hammer to Sunday Service (Billboard)
It appears that 2019 is the year of Kanye West as revivalist. Or worship leader. Or, if rumors prove true, church founder.
After the delayed and eventually scrapped Yandhi project in 2018, the center of West’s focus in 2019 has been the compelling but controversial Sunday Service: an elevated, traveling praise and worship service — call-and-response, music-centered worship that became increasingly prominent in evangelical ministries over the last 20 years — that’s kind of Hillsong meets hip-hop. Kanye and his monotone Yeezy gear-clad choir flip soul, R&B and hip-hop classics to gospel by changing lyrics and message. Fans and critics have been debating whether Kanye has truly found his higher calling, or just created another platform to serve his ego.
West was expected to offer a formal presentation of his new spiritual growth via his ninth solo studio release, Jesus Is King, on Friday September 27th. Of course, Kanye being Kanye, that didn’t happen. There’s speculation about why the project was delayed: the label isn’t happy with the concept, Kanye isn’t finished with final mixes or sequencing, something isn’t cleared; but there’s been no official public reason given, just “First Lady” Kim Kardashian West’s occasional less-than-reliable updates. What we do know is that the music exists — West has performed at special Sunday Service experiences and played the album in intimate listening sessions since Friday, the intended release date. We also know a Jesus Is King documentary is planned for IMAX release October 25th, and that Kanye has announced he’s no longer recording secular music.
The “Jesus Walks” rapper is a master of creating spectacle, but it’s surprising that his pivot to spirituality has whipped up quite such a frenzy. The cult of personality factor for West can’t be ignored, but what he’s doing is hardly unprecedented: Blending hip-hop with gospel isn’t radical. Prominent rap producers like Timbaland, Pharrell and Zaytoven developed their musical chops in the church and brought influences into their work; other producers, like Pimp C, pulled Hammond B3 organ chords, hand claps and choir vocals straight from the sanctuary to add soul to their tracks. Several mainstream rappers have released gospel-influenced songs and even entire gospel albums. Most notably, contemporary gospel artist Kirk Franklin kicked the door wide open for the marriage of hip-hop sonics and gospel messaging 20 years ago. Even the idea of a rapper forming a church isn’t new; Hammer and Ma$e both retreated to ministry after their commercial heights.
As we await Jesus Is King — or whatever Mr. West is preparing for the public — let’s take a look at the gospel of hip-hop over the years.
Using This Gospel: The Black Community’s Skepticism of Kanye West’s New Direction (Billboard)
Kanye West starts conversations and debates. He’s provocative by trade — it gets the people going — especially over the last almost two years.
The rapper emerged in early 2018 from an uncharacteristic period of quiet sporting a MAGA hat, doubling down on support of Trump, and proclaiming slavery “sounds like a choice.” In many Black conversations online, in print and in person, the tone regarding Kanye used to be a bemused but still warm and sometimes empathetic recap of his antics — a “bless his heart.” Sentiment is now overwhelmingly “enough of him, already,” or even a straight “f–k Kanye.”
When Kanye was just disrupting telethons, crashing award stages, and ranting about fashion conglomerates, there was at least the sense that the rapper was fighting, in his own maybe misguided way, for a greater collective good. Now, after years of extending West grace — because of the tragic loss of his mom in 2007, because of his mental and emotional health, because of his talent, or just because the Black community’s instinct is to protect our men publicly — the collective Black “we” are largely done trying to decipher his motives and intentions.