Kanye West's Christian Opera Was a Mess—and Now He's Getting Sued Over It

He's been accused of underpaying and overworking his performers and crew, who are seeking $1 million in damages. Will he walk away unscathed?
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
December 11, 2020, 1:29pm
Kanye West
Photo by Patrick Kovarik / Getty Images

In November of 2019, Kanye West put on a massive show at LA's Hollywood Bowl dubbed the Nebuchadnezzar, a religious "opera" featuring hundreds of onstage performers, the Sunday Service choir, Sheck Wes, and, of course, West himself. Critics described it as a trainwreck: a nonsensical, hastily thrown together mishmash of dancing and largely wordless singing, which dragged on for about an hour while West read Bible verses into a microphone somewhere offstage. It was, by all accounts, a complete mess—but what happened behind the scenes was apparently even messier.

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West is now facing two class-action lawsuits accusing him of underpaying his workers, refusing to give them meal and rest breaks, and taking months to send them their checks, all in violation of California labor laws. According to several employment attorneys who spoke with VICE, if the allegations are true, West could wind up having to pay out upwards of $1 million.

The first lawsuit, filed this past July, involves crew members like hairdressers, costume designers, and makeup artists who West hired for the Nebuchadnezzar; the second, filed in August, centers on the performers. But the allegations in the two suits are nearly identical. They both claim that West (and the production companies he partnered with) misclassified the people he hired as independent contractors when, in reality, they should've been treated as employees. By doing so—intentionally or otherwise—West managed to avoid paying thousands of dollars in taxes, and exempted himself from providing his workers with basic privileges outlined in California's labor code. (VICE reached out to West's representatives for comment, but did not receive a response.)

Under California's "ABC test" to determine how workers are classified, if your employer tells you when to work, supervises that work, and buys your work materials—say, if they give you specific guidance on how and when to do someone's makeup, or they tell you to dance in a specific way at a specific time—you're an employee, not an independent contractor. If they hire you to do a job that's in their typical line of business—say, to dance and sing, when they're an entertainment company—you're an employee, not an independent contractor. According to the employment attorneys who spoke with VICE, if the allegations in these suits are true, it's clear the workers West hired should've been classified as employees.

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"As alleged, they seem like very strong suits," said Eric Kingsley, an employment attorney and the co-founder of the California based law firm Kingsley & Kingsley. "The alleged employees are going to argue that… under the ABC test, they fail, and we should have been paid as employees."

As employees, those who worked on the Nebuchadnezzar would have been legally entitled to overtime pay—but the lawsuits allege that, even though they worked about four hours of overtime each day, they weren't paid extra for their time. They would've been legally entitled to meal and rest breaks—but according to the suits, that never happened. They would've been legally entitled to prompt payment—but according to the suits, it took months for them to receive their paychecks. 

That last alleged flub opens West and his co-defendants up to "waiting time penalties," which, under California labor law, grant employees the right to collect up to 30 days of additional wages when they don't get paid on time. According to the lawsuits against West, those he hired were paid about $250 a day for their work, meaning they could be eligible to collect around $8,000 per person in waiting time penalties. According to Frank Kim, a managing partner at Kim Legal, APC who's representing the performers in the Nebuchadnezzar, roughly 500 of them were hired for the job. If they each receive those waiting time penalties, West would wind up shelling out millions.

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"I think this is a pretty substantial violation," Kim said, adding that, while his firm is still investigating, he sees at least $6 million in unpaid overtime damages and penalties for the class he's representing.

Kim is aiming to expand his class-action lawsuit to include other performances West put together over the past three years. He has a hunch, he told VICE, that West has been habitually misclassifying his workers as independent contractors, and he's trying to track down as many of them as he can. If Kim manages to pull that off, the total damages he could ostensibly seek from West would be astronomical. 

According to the California employment attorney Branigan Robertson, while it's technically possible for Kim to expand this lawsuit to encompass several of West's performances, it wouldn't be easy.

"In theory, if you can show the continuity of all these events and the defendants at play, then yeah, you could turn it into a much bigger thing," Robertson said. "But lawyers get drunk on the numbers all the time. Lawyers are notorious for just looking at what's on paper, and what the letter of the law says. But trying to prove all that, and get that total amount—the reality is very different from what you can see on paper."

Every attorney VICE spoke to said that it's basically a given that the lawsuits against West won't wind up going to trial, but will instead wind up being settled by a mediator. According to Kingsley, "less than 1 percent of class-actions" ultimately get tried; it takes too many years, costs too much in attorneys' fees, and presents too great of a risk for most defendants to justify taking these suits all the way to the courtroom. Instead of opening themselves up to potentially massive judgments, most defendants in class-action lawsuits—at least the cases that have merit—opt to pay out a smaller sum in an agreement hashed out behind closed doors, which allows them to walk away without admitting any wrongdoing.

"This case, 99 percent, isn't going to trial," said Nicholas De Blouw, an employment attorney for the California law firm BNDB. "There's just no upside for anybody: There's no upside for the attorneys, there's no upside for the clients, and there's no upside for Kanye… This is peanuts to him."

Though Kim is seeking to bring in a multi-million dollar settlement—or judgement, on the off chance his case does go to trial—the attorneys VICE spoke to said that this case will likely get settled for a far smaller amount, closer to about $1 million. With an estimated net worth of $1.3 billion, quietly covering that tab would be a no-brainer for West. Maybe, for whatever reason, he'll choose to fight this out; if he does, there's a chance these cases could prove to be a real problem for him. More likely, he'll dispatch with this latest scandal as quickly and as handily as all the others he's faced over the course of his controversial career, always somehow managing to walk away unscathed, wealthy and unbothered as ever.

"Within the next 18 months, maybe in the next two years," De Blouw said, "you'll see it probably dismissed and settled."

Correction (12/11): This article previously misquoted Frank Kim as saying, "We're hoping to get at least $6 million." We've amended the quote, and we regret the error.

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