Kanye West's Sunday Service Is Not a Redemption Story
What happened at the religious spectacle Kanye staged on the last morning of Coachella.
Rich Fury/Getty Images
Late Saturday night I was at a hidden disco bar tucked into a crevice behind the vegan ramen spot on the Coachella grounds (Goldenvoice please don’t sue me) and my friend was drinking something called a Mezcal Monstrosity. It tasted like children’s medicine. I asked him if he was going to go to Kanye West’s fake church thing in the morning. He pulled down his black face mask, looked at me soberly, and said: “I think I’m gonna wear a suit.”
On the way into the Empire Polo Club today, all the sickeningly friendly people who try to sell you rides on their pedicabs were playing Kanye songs out of tinny speakers. I don’t know if anyone told them to do this. A guy in a fluorescent mesh crop top was carrying one of those Bibles you find in a hotel room dresser. A red-faced security guard in an Angels hat high-fived a girl because her shirt said she was Team Jesus. A group of four identical men wore four identical shirts that, inexplicably, just said GRIMES. A man held a bag of red wine high above his head while a woman tilted hers back to drink the wine through a hose like an IV drip.
None of this was ever going to make much sense. Kanye was supposed to headline both of Coachella’s Sundays the way headliners normally headline: from the main stage. Only he wouldn’t do that; he wanted the festival to build him a massive, custom dome in the middle of its grounds. When they explained to him that, cost and timing aside, this would require impossible changes to the infrastructure on the grounds, he pulled out of the deal and was replaced by Ariana Grande. (Ariana brought out Mase––the public won.) But at some point Kanye and Goldenvoice came to an agreement that he would play after all, except only on weekend two, and only on a far less ambitious custom stage, and only in the morning––before the grounds are usually open to the public––and only if it could be billed as part of Kanye’s running series of Sunday Services, which to the public have only served, so far, to give us some Vine-length clips of Kanye chopping up gospel songs and not talking at all about the president.
When I made it inside the merch line was so long I couldn’t see where it ended. In the abstract, it was actually sort of fun. There are worse things to do on a Sunday morning than hang around on the grass and listen to professional musicians run through Gap Band songs and gospel standards. I opted out of the $17 plant-based breakfast burritos and laid down in the grass and listened to “Try a Little Tenderness.” The desert dust wasn’t making me choke too badly. And this is basically what it was like for the hour and a half between the program’s scheduled beginning and the first Kanye sighting: the songs were mostly worship and there was the occasional shirtless zealot yelling about how “he is risen” and all that, but if you squinted this was the platonic ideal of a lazy end to the weekend.
The strange contradiction at the center of Sunday Service was that, while it’s certainly a testament to Kanye’s power and vanity that he lured us all out of our comedowns to be here at 9 AM, his presence was really beside the point. A lot of the program saw the choir and the dancers––the ones who ringed the artificial grass hill in the center of the field and the ones who snaked out through the crowd itself––bringing the samples from Kanye’s songs, especially from the gospel-nodding half of The Life of Pablo, to dramatic, extended life. But Kanye exists, maybe ironically, as source material to be repurposed. His late arrival did not signal a big crescendo so much as it marked the point where the choreography seemed to come unspooled. The first proper rap performance, “All Falls Down” was nearly a disaster––he false-started three times and seemed to forget the lyrics before finally powering through. He debuted a new song, “Water,” which was frankly terrible. DMX came out to lead everybody in prayer. I eventually learned the merch was a grey t-shirt that says TRUST GOD ($70), a grey longsleeve thing that says HOLY SPIRIT ($165) and a brown version of the same that was $225. The socks were $50.
The weirdest thing, to lapsed-whatever non-American like me, was the earnestness. I don’t mean that I’m surprised religious songs have an earnest bent or that people take their faith seriously. I mean how readily people move from the cattle-call security lines into states of hands-to-the-sky worship, and how little prompting it takes to get them there. I don’t remember God being cool (which is not to say that what happened today was cool, strictly speaking). The groups of friends stalking around the field in matching Adidas tracksuits, or in white linens, or in I FEEL LIKE PABLO merch were in fact self-selected from a group of people who had paid to attend an expensive music festival in a resort town. But there were pockets of the crowd that would have made you swear you were at one of those Hillsong conferences that book out big venues in major cities for days on end. You expected Kanye to come out with one of those headset mics and tell a rambling story about his “friend” who, it would turn out at the end, was Jesus. (Surprise!) The religious stuff wasn’t window dressing and it wasn’t adopted, by the artist or the audience, as an ironic front. That’s not supposed to make it seem more profound, that’s just what it was. Is it corny to sell “CHURCH SOCKS” for $50? Of course it is. But is it different from—or does it come with more of a wink than––the kinds of televangelists who have successfully co-opted the public face of American Christianity? Probably not.
That earnestness doesn’t necessarily undercut, but does muddy one of the common arguments used to brush off this latest pivot of Kanye’s. There’s a prevailing belief among a certain kind of rightfully skeptical observer that these turns toward God and Chicago and John Monopoly are a cynical rebrand that has been plotted out in a Calabasas office to get a gullible public back on Kanye’s side after he donned a MAGA hat, met with Trump, and declared “slavery was a choice.” That’s only kind of it. That Kanye is suggesting he wants to go back to his perceived roots, and that he’s appealing to higher authorities than American government, and that he’s trying to remind people of his production genius are certainly coherent bits of damage control after the unmitigated disaster that was 2018. But the centerpiece of the concert was “Jesus Walks,” a song that Kanye (or, well, “Kanye”) wrote in 2002 or 2003. This has always been a part of his DNA, just like the impulse to snap on George Bush on live TV, just like the solipsism that would lead him to believe that Donald Trump’s defining characteristic could be how people expected Kanye West to feel about him. To put any of this on a linear timeline is silly. It’s all happening all at once, like it always has been. This is, for better or worse, who Kanye is. If his church is the beginning of a cult that doubles as a tax shelter, it’ll hold up under the polygraphs.