In 2004, Kanye West released one of his most acclaimed albums, “The College Dropout,” with a featured track titled “Jesus Walks.” West describes the problems plaguing society and dialogues with God in the hook:
God show me the way because the Devil trying to break me down
(Jesus Walks with me)
The only thing that that I pray is that me feet don't fail me now
And I don't think there is nothing I can do now to right my wrongs
(Jesus Walks with me)
I want to talk to God but I'm afraid because we ain't spoke in so long
The lyrics reveal West’s faith and allow the listener to join in on his conversation with God. Maybe this could be what West is aiming for with his “Sunday Services.” The opportunity for all to commune with God in an unfamiliar way.
Kanye’s Sunday service is an open space predominantly attended by millennials intrigued mainly by the music produced. A talented choir is directed by Jason White as they belt renditions of celebrated gospel classics with a twist and Kanye’s own lyrical additions. Yet, it’s the motive and message behind his “Sunday Services” that leave many unsettled.
West draws upon the storied history of black communal worship and gospel music as his movement continues. Sunday service in the African-American diaspora is holy, a sacred moment of communal worship amid the turmoil of our present world. This is evident throughout the intensity of black spiritual faith, commitment, and worship. The black church’s musical impact stretches far and wide, especially in the realm of gospel music – extending beyond hymns – due in large part to the late Thomas Dorsey known as the “Father of Gospel music.” It was he who at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago infused the elements of rhythm and blues and created a new sound through their gospel choir; a music formation that remained authentic to the church’s core and uplifted the internal musicality of black people.
In Dorsey’s conversion, from secular to gospel, a new genre was birthed that transformed the world we know. From this, choirs were formed throughout the nation and Chicago, and churches such as the famed Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church (Rev. Clay Evans), Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer (Rev. Charles G. Hayes), Trinity UCC (Rev. Jeremiah Wright), and Apostolic Church of God (Rev. Arthur Brazier) became known for their unique ministries and dynamic music departments.
Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, The Caravans, The Clark Sisters, Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary, and others are staple names within gospel, known not only for their notable singles but their ability to be crossover without losing their sound, commitment to the church, and identity. This was an era in which the commercialization of gospel music had not occurred, before we witnessed the Mississippi Mass Choir as the intro to SportsCenter on ESPN.
R&B and rap artists have sung gospel in the past and present. But what’s different about them and West is their consistent inclusion of spiritual roots in all elements of their careers and music.
For example, take Pharrell’s “Something in the Water Tour.” While guests included Beyoncé and Jay-Z, it also featured a special Sunday service where he ensured local Virginia Beach (757) churches were included in the festival. Pharrell was once a member of New Jerusalem Church Of God In Christ (COGIC, Inc.) under the leadership of the late Bishop Barnett K.
And let’s not forget about Fantasia and Patti LaBelle who end each concert with mesmerizing gospel songs. Again, the difference between them and West is their consistency and not seemingly rash decision to capitalize on the one thing and place black people own undeniably: their faith.
West’s Sunday service took over social media in January and has continued to consume timelines and conversations since. His gatherings in Chicago on Northerly Island, Detroit, Salt Lake City, Howard University and pop up appearances at Fellowship Church, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, and Greater Allen Cathedral AME, led to many intense conversations. Kanye’s services included rhetoric eerily similar to slave holder religion.
Yet, what I find more alarming is Kanye and his choir entering sacred black spaces of communal worship, and HBCU campuses, with no rebuke for his toxic alignment with Donald Trump. He is preaching a pacified grace and love message, masked in the cloak of black Christian faith traditions.
Although uncertain of the authenticity of this movement, God may still move within “Sunday Service” as Jason White leads the choir, but it is not a substitute to the true work that has been done and is continually at work in black churches daily. While the authenticity of West’s salvation is not up for debate, his politics and theology void of denouncing hate, racism, xenophobia, and greed, cannot go ignored. There’s not enough celebrity or greed in the world that should lead one to forsake their salvation.