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."
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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The Trump-Twitter Industrial Complex continues to fester and mutate.
This week, President Donald J. Trump tweeted a false statement about mail-in ballots.
He wrote that secretaries of state were sending mail-in ballots to every person, when actually states are only sending out ballot applications. For the first time, Twitter jumped in to fact-check Trump's statement, adding a link to a webpage full of information about mail-in ballots.
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Was the Jimmy Fallon Blackface Skit Intentionally Released as a Distraction from the Murder of George Floyd?
Racist police violence is a modern epidemic. So why are we talking about an SNL skit from 2000?
At this point, celebrity apologies are incredibly common. In 2020, it seems like some formerly beloved actor or TV personality is being put through the wringer of public opinion a few times a week.
Most recently, Twitter canceled Jimmy Fallon after an unquestionably racist skit from the 2000 season of SNL resurfaced online. The skit features Fallon impersonating Chris Rock, complete with black face and an offensive imitation of Rock's speech patterns.
Jimmy Fallon Blackface youtu.be
This quickly led to the hashtag #jimmyfallonisoverparty trending on Twitter. While fans seemed split on whether Fallon should be forgiven for the 20-year-old misstep, most everyone agreed that Fallon should apologize regardless. This morning, he did just that in the form of a tweet.
As far as celebrity apologies go, Fallon's is a pretty good one. He doesn't try to sidestep the blame, he doesn't bring up the fact that there were undoubtedly many, many other individuals involved in the creation of the skit, and he doesn't even mention the fact that in 2000, many people still thought it was possible for black face to be done in the spirit of fun, because the deeply racist nature of the act was largely ignored in mainstream (white) media. Of course, we know better now, and it's easy to see that a white person doing an exaggerated imitation of a black person—darkened skin included—can only be a racist, belittling act with a long, dark history of racial oppression. With that in mind, Fallon's only option was to apologize without caveat or reservation. Indeed, it's refreshing to see a celebrity apology that doesn't try to justify or minimize their own misstep. While we can all agree Fallon made a terrible, racist choice 20 years ago, we have to believe that, like all of us, he's grown since then. If cancel culture is to have any efficacy in making the world a better place, it has to leave room for forgiveness and growth. Hopefully, the whole affair will leave Fallon (and those who witnessed it) more racially sensitive.
All of that being said, one has to ask why the clip was brought up now, given that it's been circulated around the Internet before, and the specific YouTube clip that was shared was posted on the site over a year ago. It's also worth noting that the version of the clip that was going around Twitter has a text overlay that reads: "NBC FIRED MEGAN KELLY FOR MENTIONING BLACKFACE. JIMMY FALLON PERFORMED ON NBC IN BLACKFACE."
Megan Kelly, an outspoken conservative, was indeed fired from her job at NBC because she defended the use of blackface in Halloween costumes, saying on her talk show, "Truly, you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who put on whiteface for Halloween," she said. "When I was a kid, that was OK as long as you were dressing up as a character." While Fallon's instance of racial insensitivity was in 2000, Kelly defended blackface in 2019, long after society at large had begun to acknowledge the hurt that blackface and other forms of racial impersonation could cause. This fundamental difference aside, Kelly also has a long history of racial insensitivity that Fallon does not, even once saying, "What is the evidence that what happened to Eric Garner and what happened to Michael Brown has anything to do with race?" in a conversation about the epidemic of racist police officers in America.
Given the text overlay, it's pretty clear that whoever began the #jimmyfallonisoverparty was not necessarily seeking justice for the black community, but was instead trying to imply hypocrisy in the cancellation of Megan Kelly, given that Fallon (who has been outspoken about the flaws of the Trump administration and political pundits like Kelly) is still on the air. One even has to wonder if, given that it's obvious that the #jimmyfallonisoverparty trend was begun by a conservative individual or group, if the trend was meant to be a distraction from the widespread racist police violence that has been emphasized in recent weeks by incidents like the death of George Floyd, a black man who was murdered in Minneapolis by a white police officer on Monday. It seems oddly coincidental that the clip of Fallon should flood the Internet with controversy the day after Floyd's murder, unfortunately serving to help steer conversation away from Floyd's unjust death.
Indeed, under the unquestionably racist Donald Trump administration, more and more black people are being harassed, attacked, and murdered at the hands of racist white civilians and police officers. But Trump and his supporters don't want you to focus on that–so much so that it doesn't feel impossible that the Fallon skit was intentionally weaponized as a distraction.
In the last few weeks alone we learned that Ahmaud Arbery was murdered senselessly by a white man while simply out for a jog, and we all witnessed the harassment of Christian Cooper, a black man who was threatened by a white woman in Central Park who didn't want to put her dog on a leash. It's clear that racism in America cannot be reduced to insensitive skits from 20 years ago but is instead a current and deadly problem. What Jimmy Fallon did in 2000 was racist, yes; but don't let that distract you from the deadly consequences of racism in 2020, don't let celebrity apologies make you take your eyes of our lawmakers, who aren't doing enough to protect people of color in this country. Don't let the latest "#_____isoverparty" trend distract you from the deadly consequences of racism in our laws, culture, and criminal justice system.
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