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.
Since the beginning of the year, Kanye West has been putting on a Sunday Service, where he remakes hip-hop songs as gospel. How would you describe the significance of music within the Black church?
XP: Religious leaders were able to promote their message through gospel music. It was because of radio and television that people like Mahalia Jackson and Thomas Dorsey were able to popularize gospel music because of the new technology. They were able to put the music out in the mainstream in a way it wasn't before.
Gospel music itself is an amalgamation of folk, religion, and Black southerners migrating to the urban north. It ended up changing the sound of music in places like Chicago. It's a mixture that is not some pure music that has only a religious source. The commodification of religion and churches is really a continuation of how Christianity has proliferated. New religions were able to be born in the U.S. because of how religion was seen as not just something to be marketed, but something that's always available on the market.
JPH: If you go back, W.E.B. DuBois has a book called The Souls of Black Folks and he calls the spirituals the greatest gift African Americans have given to this nation. Music is essential to the African American religious experience, which goes back prior to DuBois. It goes back to the work songs during slavery.
You can debate as to whether what Kanye West is doing is real gospel music or is it secular music. Is he just trying to sell records or is he trying to express some kind of spiritual longing? I don't know. But what he's doing is using the primary mode of the Black church. Even the way that Black preachers present their sermons has a singing, melodic mode to it. You can't escape it. He's tapped into something that's already a part of the Black church experience. I think that's why it's being so well received.
It's difficult to tell what's fake and what's real when you watch footage of a Sunday Service at a church like New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta.
JPH: I don't know how much of this for him is a means of reconciling. A conversion in terms of what he believes Jesus is doing for him or with him, but also his way of reconciling to a community. If you want to reconcile back to the Black community, you have to go back to the Black church. If you want to convince the community "I'm back home," and all the stuff I said isn't what I meant. Or maybe it is what I meant, but I still want you to like me. You gotta go to the Black church because the Black church will accept you back home.
If he goes back to the White House and continues to talk the way he was talking before, what does that mean in terms of what he said at New Birth? Does that mean its inauthentic? It could still be just as real as ever. That doesn't mean he's changed his political views or he's changed his views about how he feels about the African American community because he believes Jesus delivered him or changed his life.
What is the difference between him making a song like "Jesus Walks" and him making a conceptual album like Jesus Is King? What does it look like to commodify religion and the church?
JPH: Kanye is doing nothing different than what televangelists do on a weekly basis which sells the word, sells the message, sells the gospel. It's "If I don't sell this right, I'm not going to get viewership. If I don't sell this right, somebody's not going to buy my tapes. If I don't sell this right, somebody's not going to come to my conferences." Even on a micro-level, "If I don't sell this right, people aren't going to come to my church." Membership, tithing, all of it is about commodifying the gospel. He's doing nothing different.
The danger is you really do lose the message in this repacking of the gospel in so many different ways. The focus becomes how it's communicated rather than the message itself.
My fear is for how many people were at New Birth who hadn't been to church in years and decided that Sunday I'm going to turn my life around because of what Kanye said. I'm going to be born again today because of what Kanye said. There's an irresponsibility to it when you get in that kind of forum. You can't do that every week. You may be getting people converted initially but are these people then going to communities to help them develop a real ethical lifestyle?
XP: There's a long history of the merge between religion and capital, as what's generally called the prosperity of the gospel. Black churches are not isolated from it, and they too are purveyors of neo-liberalization. The Black sounds that became popular were becoming more desirable. Motown wanted not just the sound, but the singers that came out of these churches. Black churches have been a breeding ground for singers who would sometimes lead a church and go on to national and secular success like Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke.
Are people right to be skeptical about his motives?
JPH: You can be skeptical but I don't think you can judge him. You can ask why he's doing this, but I can't judge where he is in terms of his walk of faith. I can't judge and say if he goes back to the White House he can't be a Christian. If TMZ finds him at a strip club drinking Hennessy, I can't say he's walked away from the faith.
XP: Kanye, in particular, has a greater burden than most artists given his history. This is the same guy who said: "George Bush doesn't care about Black people," but is also hanging out with Trump in the Oval Office—and we know what Trump thinks about Black people. So it raises the question, okay what do you think about Black people, Kanye? Do you think that because Black people love Jesus we'll just forgive you too? That's also in the background in terms of why the Black church might be so instrumental. There's an assumption that Black people are very forgiving, especially Black Christians.
It raises even more questions about those churches [who invite him]. Why do y'all want Kanye to come in here? Do y'all want to leverage that fanbase, that name, the authority, the association, and the values that come along with that? If so, for what purpose? If y'all got God, why do y'all need Kanye?
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.