Kanye West has always been ambitious. Short-sighted at times, far-sighted at others, but nonetheless ambitious. This ambition birthed one of the deepest and most varied discographies by a modern rap icon—an icon who has toyed with religious imagery and warped it into his image.
Everything looks funny in the right light, and the light now is harsh and truthful. In 2019, evangelism and capitalism often look indistinguishable, and the light is pulling the shadows off an institution more concerned with the traditionalist status quo than it is the Gospel. This is the same institution reticently indulging its history of being an enabler of American consumerism and eschewing the power of a spiritual love ethic.
Leaders standing upon pulpits in Red Octobers and Gucci belts are preaching Christianity. Their message is feel-good and directed at self and self-improvement. Seldom does the message look at what’s happening outside of the church in ways beyond “thoughts and prayers.”
In an alternate reality, the church is recognized as an actor against the ills of capitalism, consumerism, and all the other structures defining our social order. Christianity wasn’t created exclusively as a passageway for personal freedom or a recipe for prosperity, even though for much of its history, that has been its usage. In his 1970 works A Black Theology of Liberation, James Cone puts it plainly in saying, “Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.”
With his new album, Jesus Is King, releasing Friday, October 25, Kanye is stepping into a new light and seizing the image of the church.
This phrase “Jesus is King” would be a profound statement of religious intent. If only it didn’t fall into the overwhelmingly Western equation of religion and commodified individualism that stands in stark contrast to the theology Cone spoke about. Kanye’s version of religious idealism is rooted in personal freedom.
Ye rode ultralight beams to salvation and poopity-scooped himself up into the freedom of being unlike what Black people are supposed to be, or so he says. Now that he’s found “religious freedom,” he can ascribe himself to white supremacy and believe the Republican Party is his best way of displaying his newfound individualism to secure intellectual freedom. He doesn’t care to recognize his MAGA-hatted brethren are free because they dictate the social order. Instead, he is parroting talking points from the masters he says he doesn’t serve and ironically doing it in spaces where they don’t need his preaching. His understanding of religion offers him singularity, and that freedom lets him make his own choices.
Religion shouldn’t work like that. Or at least Christianity shouldn’t. In Christianity, I know and have faith in, “Jesus is King” is a profound, loving declaration of Jesus’ work. That work was subversive. The last became first; the weak became strong; the rich, because of their attachment to the world, had tough times finding their way to heaven. Jesus came and spent his time with the disempowered and shared his words and healings with those most in need, all to change the way life works in the present, not just the future.
In his current stage of redefinition, Kanye is gallivanting across the country in a roving gospel circus act of a church he’s labeled “Sunday Service.” He has castigated “secular music” to make gospel without the hedge he offered when he called 2016’s The Life of Pablo “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it.” He’s tied Black performance and spirituality even closer to the sanctity of the church for display. He’s likened himself to a Black Hillsong, attracting disproportionately white crowds who come to engage, have a religious experience, and leave connected to Jesus. That is, if they can connect the baggy-clothed figure of Kanye on stage to the shaggy-haired white messiah hanging in Sunday schools across the country.
It feels like something happened to public perceptions of gospel when “Ultralight Beam” became the de facto celebratory point of enlightenment by white consumers. Somehow, genuine attempts at spreading a love ethic and sharing the gospel interlocked to expand audiences and command attention. In 2015, white consumers caught in the web got to double down on a newfound “love” for gospel with Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. The aftermath reduced Chance’s image to a gospel-rapping straightedge in the public eye.
The issue isn’t the perception of gospel as a genre; it’s how spirituality and the Gospel are being used in the public eye. In 2015, Kanye rapped “I am the light and the beacon you can ask the deacon,” on Tyler, the Creator’s “Smuckers.” Then, he was centering himself and equating spiritualism to individualism. Now, as evidenced in the trailer to the Jesus Is King film, he’s ceded his place as a symbol to make space for God. There’s a genuineness in his message that’s unmistakable, yet the experience of his Sunday Services is still one of performance.
Like Frank Ocean’s recent foray into space creation, we have to consider if, and how much, Kanye’s celebrity is getting in the way. If a celebrity is obscuring the spiritual love ethic incumbent in authentic Christian practice, it’s because people are delivering the love ethic within the confines of America’s culture of consumption, individualism, and celebrity worship.
As bell hooks told us in her 2000 works All About Love, “Organized religion has failed to satisfy spiritual hunger because it has accommodated secular demands, interpreting spiritual life in ways that uphold the values of a production-centered commodity culture.”
Christianity has always been used to oppress while begging the oppressed to work harder, believe harder, and trust their due will come. The message has always been to be thankful for what little you have because it could be worse. It has begged us into forgiveness instead of justice and allowed itself to unironically punish Black people for their crimes while celebrating those same Black people when they perform courageous acts of grace, mercy, and leniency.
2019 has forced me to grapple with religious symbolism in ways unexpected. There’s a tension in knowing Christianity was forced on the enslaved in America to satiate and control them, but also knowing that same belief helped people survive and strive for freedom. “Jesus is King” is a powerful declaration that sees a broken world that has forgotten how to love and power-washed the Gospel of its radical subtext. The phrase rings with the spiritual love we’ve missed. The love that has intentions of liberation and is not beholden to the delineations of power that governs our world.
It would be easier if there were a way to ignore Kanye, but there isn’t. So rather than ignore him, let’s set the record straight. At once, Christianity is a historical tool of oppression and a religion that can subvert those same systems of inequity. The real work of fighting subjection and systemic violence lies far outside the confines of Kanye’s discography. Despite the times on wax he’s seemed to approach the conversation, Kanye seems wholly unconcerned with it now.
So, Kanye, we’ll let you decide how you read it. In the meantime, the rest of us have to work to do.