For more than a year now, Kanye West fans have been eagerly awaiting his ninth studio album, Yandhi (a title that plays on the name of Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi). Tomorrow, the album will finally drop, but it’s no longer called Yandhi. According to a Tweet posted by West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, the new album title is Jesus Is King.
That title, paired with publicity for Kanye’s recent worship services, once again begs this question: What are we to make of Kanye West’s ongoing references to Jesus in his life and in his work? Is it all just a cynical publicity stunt? Is it sincere? Somewhere in between?
Kanye, of course, is infamous for his extreme self-promotion—seemingly placing himself on the same level as Christ in some of his lyrics and album titles. He has long demonstrated a “god complex,” you might say. This has gone from posing as Jesus à la The Passion of the Christ for Rolling Stone magazine, to titling his 2013 album Yeezus (an obvious play on the combination of his nickname “Yeezy” and Jesus), to including the song “I Am a God” on that album.
But at the same time, West says he’s a Christian—not just using the religion’s trappings—and he has been open about his faith since the beginning of his career with songs such as “Jesus Walks” on his first album.
That same dichotomy of sincere spirituality and self-promotion seems to be in play in West’s weekly Sunday Service (a title he’s seeking to trademark) as well, a Christian-themed worship service that began on the first Sunday of 2019.
Pastor Rich Wilkerson, Jr. of Vous Church in Miami describes the event as an “old-fashioned worship service of Jesus Christ.” But it’s probably not the come-one, come-all kind of service most of us might be used to. During a recent service, Wilkerson told guests they were “welcome” to be there—a bit ironic, since (until recently according to Elle magazine) attendance is by invite only.
The locations (mostly in Southern California) change every week in order to keep uninvited guests from sneaking in. Additionally, attendees must sign a non-disclosure agreement that prohibit them from speaking to the press about the service. (Oddly, posting videos of the service on Instagram is allowed). In contrast, though, one of West’s most recent services took place in Cody, Wyoming (where he and his family have moved recently). The Billings Gazette reports than nearly 4,000 people showed up to participate.
The secrecy of Sunday Service has led many to question Kanye’s motives in staging it. Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker said of the weekly events earlier this year, “They’re held in a field in Calabasas [Calif.] or in some sort of indoor studio that’s always saturated with bright, colorful light and a really good gospel choir runs through some gospel songs [and] a lot of Kanye West songs.” Tolentino also said that the service she attended wasn’t so much about piety as it was self-promotion; she suspects Kanye’s true goal has less to do with worshiping God and more to do with selling music and merchandise.
Indeed, Sunday Service merchandise hawked to the masses at Coachella earlier this year (where West live-streamed the service for the first, and so far the only, time) was anything but cheap. Festival attendees could purchase apparel such as sweatshirts or socks with phrases such as “Sunday Service at the Mountain” and “Jesus Walks” printed on them—for a hefty price: $50 for socks to $225 for sweatshirts. Critics immediately called Kanye out, labelling him a “Prophet for Profit,” and even going as far as calling him “sacrilegious.”
And any way you slice it, Kanye does seem to be profiting handsomely from his business endeavors. This week, Business Insider reported that West’s 2019 income alone hit $150 million, making him the highest-earning rap musician by far (nearly twice as much as Jay Z’s $81 million so far this year). But Forbes contributor Zack O’Malley Greenburg added that Kanye’s financial success has more to do with his lucrative deal with Adidas and his Yeezy shoe line. Still, Kanye might want to be cautious about how he sells his church-y apparel. After all, Jesus did overturn tables of money in the Temple in the book of Matthew.
On the other hand, other evidence suggests Kanye’s buzz-generating Sunday Service is coming from a genuine desire to worship God with other believers.
In an interview with Elle, Kim Kardashian West said the service was a healing experience for her husband. “It’s just music; there’s no sermon. It’s definitely something he believes in—Jesus—and there’s a Christian vibe. But there’s no preaching. It’s just a very spiritual Christian experience,” she stated. She went on to say that everyone who comes understands “it’s just a really healing experience with an amazing choir, and amazing messages about love to start off your week.” Tony Williams, a good friend and collaborator of West, also told Elle that the goal of Sunday Service was to communicate love effectively.
Nicki Minaj reported that Kanye had told her he was a “born again” Christian. Chance the Rapper (another artist who openly talks and raps about his faith) said of Kanye, “I think fellowship is the most important thing, period. And if we can’t talk about faith, then it’s like, ‘Why are we talking?’” Both rappers announced earlier this month their decisions to take a break from their careers in order to spend more time with their families.
Kanye, of course, has been at the epicenter of several controversies over the years, such as interrupting Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards and cancelling a concert tour to check into a mental health facility. He’s been honest about his struggles with his bipolar disorder and left many fans worried. However, when Tolentino of The New Yorker watched his Coachella Sunday Service, despite her personal assumptions, she said “West sounded good—agile and alert and formidable,” indicating that the service may indeed be a healing experience, just as his wife proclaims.
In addition to professing his faith in Christ, Kanye has also quoted Scripture extensively, and he’s said it’s a major influence over his fashion designs, his music, and his entire creative process. And although many of the songs performed at Sunday Service are his works, he’s also cleaned up them up quite a bit, removing the profanities and adding spiritual messages to the lyrics. He’s even put a Christian spin on songs from Nirvana and other secular artists. In Nirvana’s “Come as You Are,” he changed the lyrics to “Just confess/He’ll do the rest/Christ is here,” and in “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the lyrics in Sunday Service are now “Let your light shine, it’s contagious!”
With track titles such as “Selah,” “God Is,” “Baptized,” and “Sweet Jesus,” on his upcoming album, West has potential to display a faith-centric and honest acknowledgment of God’s presence in his life. And considering how much he’s cleaned up his old songs for Sunday Service, it isn’t a huge stretch to hope for such a positive change. But we’ll have to wait until the album release tomorrow to know for sure.