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Jesus is King—but is Kanye a believer?

Kanye West
Capture d'écran YouTube Sunday Service "Say You Will".
Kanye West
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Christians are asking themselves: Is Kanye’s newfound faith authentic? And if it is, will it last? 

Kanye West’s new album Jesus Is King—and an accompanying IMAX film of the same name—mark a seismic shift in a career long caught between fame and infamy. The rapper-producer has embarked on a public journey of faith over the past year, embracing a new mission in Christ and giving his creative energies over to its development. He has even gone so far as to say that he’ll no longer be creating secular music. 

But just about everyone, especially Christians, are asking themselves: Is Kanye’s newfound faith authentic? And if it is, will it last? 

The skepticism is justified. In the decade since the “Jesus Walks” days—especially in recent years—many have come to equate Kanye with the most distasteful qualities of celebrities, especially their noxious egotism. He has become one of the most controversial and erratic figures in pop culture.

But there was an interesting moment in the middle of his stormy 2018 when Kanye was caught watching a Jordan Peterson video about art, one with Catholic imagery and themes—leading this writer to wonder whether, politics aside, he might one day become Catholic.

If that sounded far-fetched then, it doesn’t anymore—because 2019 introduced a spiritual revolution to the West family. Kanye’s wife, who is Armenian Orthodox—a church that is “closer to reunification than ever” with Rome—recently was baptized with her children in the “Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church.” And while Kanye himself has not shown special interest in either (or any) religious tradition, Christ has suddenly become the center of his world. 

It started in January when Kanye started hosting weekly “Sunday Services” in Southern California, where Kanye and a choir called The Samples performed a blend of hip-hop and Gospel for an invite-only crowd of friends and family members. As Kanye explained to Dave Letterman, the goal was to “open up our hearts and make music that we felt was as pure and as positive as possible.”

He eventually took the services on the road, and by April, had undergone a conversion experience. Ever since, Kanye West has been taking his mission public. From his “born again testimony” (“To be radically in service to Christ is the only culture that I want to know about”), to his appearance at a Chance the Rapper concert (“We came here tonight to declare that Jesus Christ is king”), to his various listening sessions, including a recent DC event (“I’m not here for your entertainment…We’re here to spread the Gospel”), the world is meeting a new Kanye—one who is lamenting his past life, quoting from Scripture, and proclaiming the power of Jesus to the world.

The suddenness of the transformation and the apparent self-promotion involved (Kanye’s music and fashion are on full display in the services) has left many people suspicious. Is Kanye West trying to start his own celebrity church…or cult? Is this all a marketing ploy? 

Well, Jesus Is King is finally here. And while the album and film are both somewhat disjointed, disorienting, and brief (they each clock in at just a half hour), they are also strangely powerful—and I think leave little doubt that Kanye’s new Christocentric focus is in earnest.

After a whirlwind choir intro to open the album, Kanye launches into “Selah” (a biblical reference), which also opens the IMAX film. Before a slow build of “Hallelujah” chants from the choir, Kanye declares:

Won’t be in bondage to any man

John 8:33

We the descendants of Abraham

Ye should be made free

John 8:36

To whom the son set free is free indeed

He saved a wretch like me

These are just a few of the many biblical references that appear in both projects. But one that Kanye has been spotlighting in a special way is Jesus’ opening declaration in Mark: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Jesus Is King swings back and forth between these two movements of repentance and belief. 

In “Closed on Sunday,” he offers a family-oriented warning about the dark side of the culture, something he’s been emphasizing in recent interviews: 

Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A

Hold the selfies, put the Gram away

Get your family, y’all hold hands and pray

When you got daughters, always keep ’em safe

Watch out for vipers, don’t let them indoctrinate

Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A

This ain’t game day, get your house in shape

Train your sons, raise them in the faith

To temptations, make sure they’re wide awake

Follow Jesus, listen and obey

No more livin’ for the culture, we nobody’s slave

But then in “Water,” we hear the imagery of baptismal renewal and a kind of litany of prayers (“Jesus, please help, Jesus, please heal…”). And no less than three songs have God in the title: the sample-based “Follow God,” the synthy “On God,” and the more straightforward “God Is,” where Kanye sings his confession of faith with scratchy vulnerability:

I can’t keep it to myself, I can’t sit here and be still
Everybody, I will tell til the whole world is healed…


I know God is the force that picked me up
I know Christ is the fountain that filled my cup

In the Jesus Is King film—an interesting but abstract work that might leave many audiences scratching their heads—Kanye mostly recedes and lets the Sunday Services choir shine, in a string of single-shot vignettes filmed in James Turrell’s Roden Crater. In one song, the choir turns “O Fortuna” into a chant of “Jesus is King, the King of Kings…Jesus is Lord, the Lord of Lords.” In another, Kanye sweeps the floor with symbolic humility, leading to a beautiful Gospel reimagining of “Street Lights.” And in the closing close-up shot—a moving one for any father—he holds one of his babies close and sings “Use This Gospel,” one of the highlights of the album:

 

Use this Gospel for protection

It’s a hard road to Heaven

We call on your blessings

In the Father, we put our faith

King of the kingdom

Our demons are trembling

Holy angels defending

In the Father, we put our faith

God is a God of surprises, and as far as I can tell, he sure surprised Kanye West this year. Like many great sinners before him, some of whom even became great saints, he seems to have heard God’s call, repented, and believed. The Jesus Is King projects are filled with excitement—about the person of Christ, about the adventure of faith, and about the transformation of life that follows. Whether it lasts, and where it will lead—to a deeper engagement with Christian life and history, or off into a vague, subjective spirituality—remains to be seen.

In the meantime, a man who has ten million more Twitter followers than the Pope (with the support of his wife, who has 150 million followers on Instagram) is telling the world that Christ is its King. Not money, not sex, not power, not respect, not a philosophical program, not a political party, not a celebrity, not the self—but Jesus of Nazareth. In the denouement to both projects, he echoes the words of St. Paul:

Every knee shall bow

Every tongue confess

Jesus is Lord

Jesus is Lord

And I for one am happy to know that lots of people, especially young people, will be hearing him proclaim it.

 

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