Kanye West has been using his music to ask God for help for 15 years. “I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid ’cause we ain’t spoke in so long,” he raps on “Jesus Walks.” The faith-centric rap song captured the disconnect between the secular and the sacred, with the then-27-year-old Chicago rapper trying to pursue a pure heart with a song about Jesus that could be played in the club. Since his debut 2004 album, College Dropout, West has gone from seeking God’s kingdom to creating his own, christening himself Yeezus and adopting an audacious god complex.
Nearly two decades since “Jesus Walks,” Kanye West is returning this week with Jesus Is King, his ninth studio album which he teased throughout the year with ongoing Sunday Services, or hour-long concerts remaking hip-hop and R&B into gospel music. The services often resemble church with an occasional testimony—except you can’t exactly come as you are. The guest list is reserved for Hollywood elites like Rick Rubin, Katy Perry, and Courtney Love, and attendance usually requires you to sign an NDA. West’s gospel-leaning album is bound to draw some skeptics, but what does it mean for one of hip-hop’s most influential artists to use the church as a vehicle for his next album?
“If you want to do anything with the Black people in this country you still have to go to or go through a Black church,” Dr. Jay-Paul Hinds, an Assistant Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, tells VICE. “The political election season is warming up again and you’re going to see politicians in the churches again because it’s still the main avenue by which you reach the African American community.”
Kanye’s fixation with the Black church has implications beyond what Jesus Is King will sound like. The optics of the Trump-adjacent rapper who said slavery sounded like “a choice” making his rounds at institutions that preach theology that dates back to enslavement should draw skepticism.
“It raises questions of how does [Kanye] situate himself to that particular [Black Christian] prophetic tradition that is much more interested in the social good and social welfare as opposed to personal piety,” Visiting Assistant Professor at New York University Dr. Xavier Pickett says.
In September, Kanye held a Sunday Service at Atlanta’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. In 2010, Bishop Eddie Long, the former lead preacher of the megachurch, was accused of sexual assault by four men in the congregation. Now led by Dr. Jamal Bryant, New Birth’s decision to allow Kanye West to conduct a Sunday Service at their church could also raise eyebrows. The spectacle of having a guest as famous as Kanye West could be enough to push the church back in the public, this time for reasons other than the accusations against Long. New Birth’s motives remain unclear, but shouldn’t go unscrutinized. “If no one wants to ask the question then what are we really interested in. Do we just want to be entertained and want to be tickled?” Dr. Pickett asks.
Kanye’s turn to religion isn’t unprecedented. Black artists like Ma$e, No Malice, and DMX (who led a prayer at Sunday Service in March), have all made a departure from their original rap personas after seeking God. Kanye may be fashioning himself like a church leader, but as one of the most visible rappers in the world, he holds an immeasurable amount of influence. When it comes to the commercialization of religion, is it only wrong when Kanye West wants to do it? We enlisted professors Hinds and Pickett to help us unpack the ramifications of Kanye making the church as mainstream as hip-hop for what is said to be his most virtuous album.
How would you define the role of the Black church in the Black community?
Dr. Xavier Pickett: It’s important to draw attention to the fact that the Black church has never been monolithic. The role that it plays depends on the community. It requires us to interrogate another social phenomenon which is the idea of community. Neighborhoods don’t look the same way they did 60, 70 years ago through desegregation. What was once identifiable as a discreet Black community is becoming harder and harder to identify.
[When Barack Obama severed ties with Jeremiah Wright] Many white Christians and many white folks, in general, had no idea what went on in Black churches or the types of theological thinking that have given rise to these particular churches. They did not understand how Black Christians are inextricably tied to the making and formation of this nation.
You don’t have Martin Luther King apart from Black churches. They want to have the “I Have a Dream King,” but not the religious tradition that made King have a dream in the first place. There’s a Black radical tradition that has always existed, from slavery to hush harbors, to Frederick Douglass, to Sojourner Truth, who have always been extremely critical of this nation. A nation that at times, more often than not, has claimed to be Christian or acting on behalf of God.
Dr. Jay-Paul Hinds: It still plays a great role but in terms of participation and what it means in people’s daily lives, it’s waning over the last 20 years. For most, in the inner cities especially, that’s still their first point of contact for financial resources, health resources, psychological resources. It’s still the primary resource for a person who has no other means of getting help. Not just for religion or spirituality, but just in terms of people’s day-to-day lives. You tear that down and the community is extremely left abandoned.