At Kanye West's Sunday Service, 'He Is The Church'

Apr 25, 2019
Originally published on April 26, 2019 11:54 am

Kanye West has been rapping about God from early in his career, hearkening back to one of his first hits, "Jesus Walks" off his debut album, 2004's The College Dropout.

Now, the 41-year-old rapper is hosting what he calls Sunday Services. They're exclusive, musical worship gatherings for the rich and famous, from Katy Perry and Diplo to Tyler, the Creator. "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,"Jia Tolentino, staff writer at The New Yorker, explains.

West's latest Sunday Service was held last Sunday at Weekend 2 of America's premier music festival, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The performance took place on a grassy hill in the middle of the festival grounds. Performers wore faded mauve ensembles for the occasion and a sermon was given by fellow rapper DMX. Tolentino, who watched this gathering closely, says that West's services aren't so much about piety as they are about self-promotion.

"With Kanye, it's always been this very complicated dance between whether he is worshiping God or subsuming God to his own ends," Tolentino notes. "He grew up Christian, he's spoken about that. There's always this sense though that he might worship God but never serve him. It's always seemed like God, in the end, would always serve him."

But while many celebrities have seemed to find solace in God through millennial-friendly mega churches and organizations like Hillsong Worship, the difference with West, Tolentino says, is that he is the point of worship.

"He is the church... he is the text of the sermon. It's his songs. He is the worship. He is creating a church in himself and selling it, really," Tolentino says, pointing out that the key selling point to the Sunday Service gathering at Coachella was exclusive merchandise for exorbitant prices — from $50 tube socks to a $225 sweatshirt with the words 'Sunday Service at the Mountain' across it. "It comes down to this complicated relationship between, you know, being a prophet or a supplicant," Tolentino says.

To many who've watch West in the past few years publicly grapple with his mental health and come under scrutiny for supporting President Donald Trump, these Sunday Services are a sign that the rapper is searching for redemption. Tolentino is not convinced.

"There's so much ambient hunger and desperation in so many aspects of our culture right now," Tolentino says. "The need, I'm sure is sincere. What kind of made me sad about watching it was it's just, 'Is this the thing that will fill it?' I'm not sure. It seems like the incorrect answer to an extremely real hunger."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Kanye West has been rapping about God from early in his career, and it all started with "Jesus Walks," off his first album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESUS WALKS")

KANYE WEST: (Singing) Jesus walks. God show me the way because the devil's trying to break me down. Jesus walks with me - with me.

CORNISH: Now he's hosting what he calls Sunday Services, exclusive worship gatherings for the rich and famous. His latest one was at Coachella. Here to talk about Kanye's spiritual evolution is Jia Tolentino. She's a staff writer at The New Yorker, who wrote about this. Welcome to the program.

JIA TOLENTINO: Thank you for having me on.

CORNISH: So first, just describe the so-called Sunday Service - what does that experience look like?

TOLENTINO: They are small, invite-only gatherings that have drawn a lot of celebrities - Katy Perry, Diplo, Tyler the Creator. Everyone has to sign a nondisclosure agreement. They're held in a field in Calabasas or in some sort of indoor studio that's always saturated in bright, colorful light. And as Kim Kardashian said on Jimmy Kimmel, it's a church service where there's no preaching; it's just music, specifically a lot of Kanye music.

CORNISH: So people got a glimpse of this, as we mentioned, at Coachella. Let's hear a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Lift me up. Oh, won't you lift me up? Lift me up. Oh, won't you lift me up? I need you. Oh, I need you. Oh, I need you.

CORNISH: So this performance was actually staged, so to speak, on a big grassy hill - right? - that they had created just for Coachella. And you see dozens and dozens of performers all wearing similar kind of costumes, these robes. And there's also - the sermon, so to speak, if we could call it that, came from the rapper DMX.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DMX: Father, please walk with us through the bad times, as well as the good. May we be heard and understood, from the suburbs to the hood.

CORNISH: Help us understand exactly if we're looking at an expression of faith (laughter), or if we're looking at kind of the latest iteration of a pop star performance.

TOLENTINO: Right. Well, with Kanye, you know, God has always been all over his music, right? You hear it with "Jesus Walks," "Ultralight Beam" and "Father Stretch My Hands" on "The Life Of Pablo" - you know, that was sort of his gospelish album. It's this ever-present sense of this kind of haunted glory and revelation that's always been a part of his music. It's always been this very complicated dance between whether he is worshipping God or subsuming God to his own ends.

CORNISH: Recently, we've seen artists like Justin Bieber talk about their embrace of Christianity. Is that what we're seeing with Kanye West? Has he joined a big formal church, or is this part of a new way he's talking to his fans?

TOLENTINO: The difference with Kanye is that, you know, he is the church, right? The music - he is creating a church in himself and selling it kind of literally. I mean, he sold $50 tube socks that say church on one side and socks on the other. At Coachella, they were selling $225 sweatshirts that said Sunday Service. This is invite-only Kanye-themed worship.

CORNISH: Kanye West has always been an artist who's been one to watch - right? - whether that's for his skill and talent but also for his erratic behavior. How does this fit into that? Does this look like a redemption effort in some ways?

TOLENTINO: It could. There's also, you know - Kanye West's mother-in-law, Kris Jenner, owns a church herself, and the Kardashian sisters have funneled a lot of money into that church. People have speculated that this might be sort of a tax shelter church, seeding the ground for that sort of situation. But I do think, absolutely - I mean, Kanye has a new album; his next album is going to be called "Yandhi," like Ghandi with a Y. And he is going to go on tour for it at some point, and it's very easy to imagine that it's sort of an aesthetic restart into this sort of normcore holiness.

CORNISH: Jia Tolentino's a staff writer at The New Yorker. Thanks for talking with us.

TOLENTINO: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ULTRALIGHT BEAM")

WEST: (Singing) I'm trying to keep my faith. We on an ultralight beam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.