Kanye West has seen the light, but what does that mean for the rest of us?
Kanye West's Jesus Is King asks a lot of questions of the listener, though maybe not the kinds that its creator intended.
Then again, for thousands of years, the Bible itself has been raising questions that seem to have nothing to do with its actual text.
One question: If we could erase the events of the past few years—if we could spin time back to before the MAGA hats and the "slavery was a choice" comments—how differently would we receive Jesus Is King? One would imagine that though it might disappoint some West purists and ingratiate some evangelicals, many of us wouldn't have been quite as struck by it as we are. Musically, Jesus Is King is a collage of gospel and rap, a choppy and inconsistent mix of revelations and verses. Technically, it fits into West's varied but always innovative catalogue. And yet, because of the cultural context into which West has released it, and because we can't turn time backwards no matter how hard we try, it's hard to see it as separate from politics.
West isn't the first musician to have a born-again experience. Great musicians often take a sharp turn for the spiritual at some point in their careers, and Christianity seems to be the most common choice. There was the time that Bob Dylan began preaching to audiences, telling them that Jesus was the final product of the a-changing times (he later converted back to Judaism). Elvis created an entire album of gospels (though he was also blamed for the downfall of Christianity). The theme is most prominent in black American music, and West is operating in the tradition of figures like Little Richard, who veered towards rock and roll's satanism in the 1960s, then became an evangelical minister.
Interestingly, most of these artists went through a kind of "wilderness" period, a time when the public turned against them. Many turned to drug use and then to Christianity, and back again, seeking escape and redemption through ecstatic experiences.
Anyone who's been on the Internet in the past five years will know that Kanye West has always sought out ecstasy, and he's been wandering through the wilderness for a while now. He's clearly seen God on some mountain, become convinced that the gospels are the way out of the darkness. And he's known darkness: He suffers from unmedicated bipolar disorder, a consistent theme that can't be ignored in a discussion of West's new work.
This raises other unanswerable questions about Jesus Is King, such as the looming question of just how much Kanye's mental illness has to do with all this. Mental illness and spirituality do tend to run close together, with many revelations resembling hallucinations and sages and the faithful being written off as madmen, and art has balanced on the seam between madness and the sublime since time immemorial.
Christianity's Problem of Evil: Kanye West's Reckoning
West has flirted with Christianity and all its questions since before he was born again, blurring his own selfhood with Jesus Christ since he began creating. His ability to fuse the Bible with camp and sex is what gives a lot of his early work so much power.
A lot of West's best work utilizes Christianity in a healing and humanizing way that's almost entirely absent from Jesus Is King, though at some points, like in "On God" and "Use This Gospel," flickers of the sublime seep through. It's the same sublime that you can hear in full and undistilled form on older songs like "Saint Pablo," ringing clear through lyrics like, "Looking at the church in the night sky / wondering when and where God's gonna say hi." The song takes on Biblical proportions, invoking a sense of spirit even in the most secular listener, perhaps by evoking some Bible verses. "When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place," reads Psalm 8:3. "I see Thy heavens, a work of Thy fingers, Moon and stars that Thou didst establish."
Objectively, the Bible is an extraordinary body of work, one that taps into the primal desires that unite humankind. How else could it have flooded so many millions of people with a fiery, supernatural kind of passion? There's something alluring about its promise of sacredness, it's clear pathway to heaven, its promise that no matter how much you've sinned, all you need to do is swear your soul to Jesus just before you die, and you'll be redeemed. If you've ever really regretted your past actions, if you've ever felt truly lost, you can see why Christianity is so appealing. At the core of Christianity is the promise of unconditional forgiveness through faith alone.
Perhaps (and here's where I buy my train ticket to hell), that promise of easy forgiveness has something to do with why Christianity has incentivized so much evil. Hatred for those who sin is written into the Old Testament itself, which legitimizes the genocide and massacre of the Canaanites (Numbers 21:2-3; Deuteronomy 20:17; Joshua 6:17, 21) and other societies, and the god of that holy book is vengeful, vitriolic, and totally unforgiving.
None of this is to say that Christianity is evil. Undistilled, in its perfect form, tempered by Jesus Christ's gospel, Christianity—like most religions—is a pure and compassionate religion, dedicated to getting people to be kind to their neighbors and to treat themselves and others with love. There are also countless different forms of Christianity, and it can never be distilled into the binary of good or evil (even though much of the faith is built on that very binary). Christianity also has a sacred and ancient position in the black church, one that West is definitely channeling. "Gospel is a music of the overwhelmed, the weary," a genre built on a sense of "black perseverance" which "comes and goes on Jesus Is King," according to Vulture.
But to make a sweeping statement, when Christianity meets the brokenness of humanity on Earth, when it brushes up against the chaos of the contemporary world and all our human greed and desire and falls into the hands of the ruling class, it seems to have a tendency to grow contorted and cruel. This rarely causes it to lose its persuasiveness, though, and because of this, it has too easily become a powerful weapon that legitimizes colonization, enslavement, fear of otherness, and all manners of evil masquerading as holiness.
So it is with Jesus Is King, an album that performs faithfulness and promises redemption but cannot be taken out of the context of who Kanye is and what he seems to stand for. Perhaps West's new album is, if not perfect, pure in intention. But when it crushes up against the reality of what's going on in America right now, when it's listened to through the lens of West's values and politics, it begins to crumble.
Empty Promises: America and the Church
Jesus Is King is not an empty album, but it's built on empty ideals. Pitchfork called it an "album of slogans," and its few non-denominational verses are full of consumerist statements. The Ringer calls it an "altar call to the captive Instagram generation propped up on the most digestible bits of Christianity, diluted in the language of self-care." Often, the album's message only highlights the emptiness of the foundations it stands on.
This emptiness is not new. It's existed in every church that preached kindness but burned dissidents at the stake. It exists in governments that preach liberty but incarcerate their poor for minor offenses. It's at the heart of the Trump Administration, and in this day and age, West's music—no matter how holy it seems to be—can't be extricated from West's relationship with Donald Trump.
Though the president hasn't yet commented, West's album has pleased Donald Trump Jr., who Tweeted, "Kanye West is cracking the culture code." It's been praised by Pamela Geller, notorious for her anti-Muslim sentiments. As Jay Connor writes, "All the wrong kinds of people love Jesus Is King."
Kanye West is cracking the culture code. @kanyewest’s new album #JesusIsKing is the epitome of fearless creativity… https://t.co/FAGcAFYR5W— Donald Trump Jr. (@Donald Trump Jr.) 1572310554.0
Is it wrong to denounce Jesus Is King because of West's politics? There's a fundamental dissonance here, perhaps a central dissonance of our time. Can we separate the art from the artist, the church from the state, the politics from the human? What could be wrong with a religious album, one that preaches love—and isn't it hypocritical to let political differences get in the way of this love?
The problem here is that, from a liberal or humanist perspective, it's simply impossible to extend love and compassion to people who are willing to deny others' humanity and right to exist. Christians have the right to be Christians, obviously, but worshiping Jesus Christ shouldn't give you permission to be a terrible person.
In the middle of Kanye West's Sunday Service, a preacher stands up and delivers a sermon about John 3:16, which he describes as an "ocean of love written in blood." "You're invited today," he says. "It doesn't matter how far you've fallen... It just takes one step back. One step of repentance."
WATCH FULL STREAM | KANYE WEST | JESUS IS KING | SUNDAY SERVICE EXPERIENCE | THE FORUM | 10/27/19www.youtube.com
But does love have to be written in blood? Does repentance always equal redemption? Why is a religion that preaches love and life so popular with a political party that is allergic to the concept of taxing a wealthy few in order to support the weak? None of these questions can really be distilled down to the level that statement implies, and yet more and more, I find myself asking these kinds of questions, getting lost in their loopholes, realizing that political differences can stretch as deeply as religious differences, and that both conservatives and liberals see the others as Satan.
Waking Up from the God Dream: Where Does Kanye Go from Here?
As I wrote this article, I was listening to Kanye perform his Sunday Service experience at the Forum in Los Angeles. He alternated new songs from Jesus Is King with some of his more religious old songs, including the chorus of "Ultralight Beam," a song I once listened to with the same reverence I imagine some people cling to Bible verses with.
The Sunday Service version was beautiful, but I missed the rap verses. I missed the anger, I missed the raw humanity that gave Kanye West's music its sense of true ecstasy.
Still, I understand his decision to defect to Christ. There's so much fear around, it's easy to want to find a solution in a man who promises he'll save you, be it Trump or God, in someone who promises he'll smite anyone who gets in the way of your right to liberty and redemption.
I know that no matter how much any of us says or writes against Kanye, I understand why he chose to defect from the pain of reality, into the sweet dream state of Jesus Christ's forgiveness. I think to survive everything that's coming, we do need spirituality. We need to confront our minds before we can change our reality, and we cannot survive and change the world while believing that we have no purpose or guiding light.
But we don't need the kind of Jesus Christ that Kanye West is preaching about right now, not the kind that believes in covering up and ignoring the horrific evils of America in exchange for a perfunctory faith and a deluded nationalism. We need (or perhaps I dream of) the kind of Christ who appears on "Ultralight Beam," who exists in the nightclubs as well as at the altar, who doesn't tacitly endorse hate or forgive just because he's been asked. West is so close. Perhaps he's just a revelation away from embracing a more empathetic and socially aware kind of understanding. If he ever does, that's a Sunday Service I'd wake up for.
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