The Emancipation of Kanye West in Kingston, Jamaica

Kingston, Jamaica provided Kanye West’s Sunday Service a safe space.
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Kanye West Sunday Service in Kingston, 2019

Both Jamaica and Kanye West have reputations for being a bit unruly. Maybe one more than the other, depending on who’s asking. 

Around the island, there’s something called “Jamaican Time,” which essentially means if a show starts at nine, many are dressed by 11, to arrive by 12. Showing up to an event on time could mean being the only one there. 

This past weekend, when Kanye arrived to spontaneously debut Sunday Service in Kingston, Jamaica, he packed out Emancipation Park by 6:30 PM, with only a 48-hour notice. The entire island was on “Kanye Time.”

The stage crew arrived at 6 AM. Nearly 13 hours later, band members took to the stage, followed closely by choir members. Ye emerged at 7:07 PM. It was divine timing. For once, Ye kept his word. What followed was a fantastic show with immaculate sound and transcendent energy.

If Kanye was crucified socially for his appearance at Howard University’s Homecoming, then Kingston was his resurrection. While his last set of comments only added to the growing list of offenses and calls for “cancellation,” what attendees witnessed at Emancipation Park was glorious. It was a peak moment in the career of a man that only God himself could raise: A Ye who was humbled, glowing, and seemingly renewed with purpose.

Kanye West Sunday Service in Kingston, 2019

Having lived in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Miami, I never thought my first time seeing Kanye would be in the West Indies. But the circumstances were perfect. I got to observe him from both angles: the American celebrity of African descent struggling to find, define, and adequately voice his identity, and the foreign superstar who people were excited to see for the first time.

Jamaica is still new territory for international acts. Even though everyone from The CARTERS to J. Cole has recorded and filmed in the Caribbean island nation—hip-hop, R&B, and pop music blasts from taxis, coaster buses, and sound systems—many mainstream artists avoid Jamaica on their international tours. When a 21x GRAMMY award-winner shows up, you’re not about to miss out.

Whether by coincidence or providence, Sunday Service occurred during Heroes Weekend, a Jamaican national holiday celebrating six heroes and one heroine for their contributions to freedom and social betterment. Among those honored are political activist Marcus Garvey, who believed in African unity and traveled to the US in the early 1900s to preach liberty to the oppressed; Samuel Sharpe, who led one of Jamaica’s largest slave rebellions; and Nanny, a Ghanaian-born leader and the toughest fighter in the island’s First Maroon War.

And then there’s Kanye, the controversial hip-hop legend. Ye has always been the unmasked mascot for free spirits. He released College Dropout just as I was transitioning from being a high school dropout to an art school graduate (with honors). I, too, felt George Bush did not care about Black people. And while I didn’t agree that Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time (not yet, at least), I cheered Kanye on for speaking up on behalf of a Black woman who continues to get robbed at award shows a decade later.

As an equally flawed child of God, I fully supported Kanye’s socially awkward, yet seemingly sincere commitment to Christ. Furthermore, I genuinely understood his everyday struggles in doing so. I was undoubtedly the target audience for the free pop-up; however, people from all walks of life showed up to Sunday Service. Christians and Rastafarians, believers and non-believers. The “spiritual but not religious” folks. The crystal-wearers. The Obeah men and women. The ganja smokers and gunmen. The good, the wicked, and the well-dressed. Everyone from uptown, downtown, country, and Kingston came out for Sunday Service on a G.O.O.D. Friday.

Kanye West Sunday Service in Kingston, 2019

I walked freely through the park gates without the need for ticketing, cash, or security checks. I was moved by how Kanye and the city of Kingston had successfully brought together people from around the island. Most unconventionally, Sunday Service emancipated us from all social conventions. It wasn’t just Ye who needed redemption. Church folks needed deliverance from dogma and outdated practices. The youth needed liberation from parents and pastors who viewed their clothing or spliffs as straying from God. Naysayers needed to realize no matter how much rain or traffic they wished upon us, we would still be in attendance.

To the outside world, Jamaica may seem like an unlikely place for a Sunday Service staging. Statistically, though, there are more churches per square mile in Jamaica than anywhere else in the world. They are like Starbucks or Subway. Shops are painted brightly with scriptures. Buses and taxis are plastered with decals that proudly proclaim “God A God” and “Who God Bless No Man Can Curse.” Jamaica is not shy about God.

With the spirit of the island in mind, Kanye opened with a gospel rendition of Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock,” updating the chorus to “The Prince of Peace, His name’s Jehovah! Traditional Jamaican gospel songs followed, including a lively blend of “I Am Blessed” over a riddim inspired by Koffee’s “Toast,” winning the crowd over right away.

“Oh, Kanye meant Gospel-gospel,” a spectator tweeted midway through the show.

Surprisingly, Kanye wasn’t the center of attention. Not visually nor spiritually. The choir, which circled the stage, did most of the entertaining. Rows and rows of angelic, beautiful Black and Brown people in all shapes and hues, decorated with braids, fros, gold-tinted locs, pink lace fronts, doorknocker earrings, sparkle-encrusted acrylics, long blue wigs, fades, high tops, black nail polish, and large bejeweled rings, all singing in perfect alto, tenor and soprano, blended together as one spiritual voice. Smiling, laughing, dancing, praising, and worshiping. It was a celebration of people living out their purpose in music.

Eventually, Ye blessed the crowd with a powerfully honest testimony: “Look, I don’t have all the information,” he said. “I know I love God, and I need to love Him more. I call on Him, but I don’t call on Him enough.” Ye was vulnerable and transparent. He was less Media Scapegoat Kanye and more like a flawed human trying to get it together by turning his life over to a higher power.

Kanye confessed his seventh studio album, 2016’s The Life of Pablo, fell short as a gospel album because he hadn’t fully committed to being saved—yet. He admitted Sunday Service started with wanting to be “surrounded by music that just feels good.” There was even one moment where he quietly and humbly fell to his knees in sincere worship.

By the grace of God, Kanye was clear-headed when speaking at Emancipation Park in Jamaica. No wildcard slavery or Trump references. Instead, he reminded us all to stay blessed, walk with purpose, and yes, to repent because the Kingdom of God is near. Jesus was indeed King that night.

Some attendees left before the show officially ended. Perhaps it was the intense heat from bodies packing together in tropical weather or one too many references to Jesus and not enough Ye. Those who stayed until the end, however, were treated to divine renditions of “Ultra Light Beam” and “Jesus Walks.”

In Jamaica, Kanye West rose again. Not Yandhi nor Yeezus, the deities who couldn’t fathom, let alone handle all the power bestowed upon him. He rose as the apostle Kanye, who flipped samples into hymns and spit gospels about the power genuinely belonging to God.

Miles from Trump, MAGA hats, and the mainstream media, Ye was free to breathe again. He seemed lighter, like the College Dropout days. With Sunday Service, Ye moved like a mainstream dropout deciding to pursue his path. He needed a safe space to show us what this whole Jesus Is King thing is about. Kingston, Jamaica, provided just the place.

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