For “horizontal” minds committed to fixing society’s ills, turning a blind eye to what lies beyond it, it’s a bracingly spiritual song that reminds us of deeper currents: the world, the flesh, and the devil.
2020 has been such a rollercoaster ride of a year in the United States that you’d be forgiven for completely forgetting that one of the biggest megastars in the world just had a public conversion to Christianity. The question on everyone’s mind at the time was: Would Kanye West stay true to this newfound Christian calling? Or would he be the same old unpredictable artist? If his new single is any indication, the answer is: yes…and yes.
Mixed by legendary producer Dr. Dre and featuring Travis Scott, “Wash Us in The Blood”—the first track off the forthcoming God’s Country—features a hard-edged trap track with alarm and siren sounds over heavy drums and a rapid-fire conga. It’s a dramatic departure from the gospel-infused Jesus Is King, one that captures the ominous mood of the country a year later. But it’s the disturbing and chaotic video (for mature audiences only) assembled by video artist and Crooklyn cinematographer Arthur Jafa that really taps into our national fear and pain.
The video opens with a warped video of police clashing with protestors, then slips into a scattered montage of images of the black community in America spliced with abstract solar and metallic imagery, including a sea of chains. We see a woman dancing with friends and a man dancing alone in prison; a man decked in gold and another covered in blood; people brawling in the streets and struggling to breath in a hospital; footage of musical artists, from Kanye himself to Lateria Wooten performing the gospel song “Nothing But the Blood”; footage of both Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor; riots in the streets and Grand Theft Auto game play; young people doing donuts and losing control of their car into a crowd. Apart from a hopeful coda of Kanye’s daughter dancing behind his Sunday Service choir, the overall mood is unsettling, convulsive, anguished—in a word, suffocating.
While there is no overt or pat partisan message here, Jafa unblinkingly faces down these raw social realties—and Kanye simultaneously calls on the healing power of God. The song opens with a preacher quoting from the King James Version of the fifth chapter of 1 Peter: “A roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”—the “lion” being a reference to the devil. The preacher’s voice punctuates the song (“It was the blood that cleansed me”; “And as we live in this evil and crooked and jezebelic world”) as Kanye prays again and again with urgency: “Holy Spirit come down / Holy Spirit help now / Rain down on us / Wash us in the blood.”
These lines point to the crux of Christian revelation. The Holy Spirit is the divine person who reveals the truth, gives us new life in it, and stirs us to action, bearing fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22). But what is that truth? That Jesus, the “Lamb of God” (John 1:36), offered himself on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for all people. To be “washed . . . in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14) is to be redeemed, forgiven, and saved in that sacrifice, and drawn ever-deeper into its merciful love. This is the radical transformation of conversion, and Kanye offers it as his hope and prayer. Like the nation itself, the notoriously arrogant rapper reached the edge of his own powers, and now gives voice to our own helplessness and instability.
At the same time, the fascinating twist here is that Kanye’s spiritual message isn’t hermetically sealed off from history or the fight for human dignity. The prayer of the chorus is surrounded by references to genocide, slavery, drug-dealing, mass incarceration, and capital punishment. Kanye asks for the blood of Jesus in the midst of the pain and confusion glimpsed in both the visuals and lyrics—not apart from it or beside it, but sacramentally in it and through it.
“Wash Us In The Blood” is an unsettling song of unsettling times, and it poses a serious and broad challenge. For “vertical” minds prone to turning a blind eye to society’s ills, focusing on what lies above it, it’s an intensely social song that brings us face-to-face with suffering in the here and now. For “horizontal” minds committed to fixing society’s ills, turning a blind eye to what lies beyond it, it’s a bracingly spiritual song that reminds us of deeper currents: the world, the flesh, and the devil. It’s a violent collision of the sacred and the secular, of eternity and time, of the Holy Spirit and our fallen flesh—a violence that, following Flannery O’Connor, might just also be a channel of grace.
As millions listen on, Kanye is reaching out to God: We need you now. Help us. Send us your Spirit. Wash us in the blood of Jesus.
In the latter half of 2020—whatever it holds in store—America would do well to join him.