The familiar sounds of a three-part chorus filled my bedroom as I did the first listen of Jesus is King. Anticipating the iconic gospel/rap mashup, I looked forward to something fully black with melodies over heavy beats. This album, however, missed the angst of “Jesus Walks,” the complication of “Ultralight Beam,” and the epic production found on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. JIK was light, lacking bass lines and specific supplications to God asking to keep Kanye West safe and hopeful. Instead, it delivered vapid lyrics (“When I thought the Book of Job was a job,”) or ’Ye talking about a time when he did not know Christ but apparently, he’s converted and healed and his work is done.
Kanye uses gospel music as a generally Christian genre—not as a musical experience sacred to black people’s theology of hope, righteous anger and liberation—to reel in white supporters and prove to them that black people can, too, believe in a God that aligns with the evangelical values of a self-sufficient faith that will shower us with wealth, success and health.
Jesus is King and Kanye’s Sunday Services would have been a continuation of his rap career, which bent genres and leaned on gospel samples. But he missed the mark. When I first encountered the Sunday Services through a brief YouTube clip, it brought me back to my freshman year of college when Ye released The College Dropout and helped me navigate my experience in college as a lost religious person.
Many evenings I sat alone in my dorm room on campus at the University of Michigan, terrified of studying without the guidance of my teachers and parents, frightened at the idea of making new friends when my social identity was defined for me in high school, and hesitant to choose a major, because if I was not excelling in academia, there was no way I could do well in an undetermined career path. Insecurity confined me to my thoughts and the four beige walls of my dorm room with only a bed with no headboard and a roommate that wasn’t family.
Kanye West’s timely release of The College Dropout ripped open the folly of education, insecurity and self-reflectively poked fun at Ye’s own toxic ways in shopping and addiction, and encouraged me to do the same. Kanye West made my desperate and lonely experience comedic and comforted, knowing I was not the only person who experienced college in this way.
Throughout the album, Kanye included gospel samples, organ riffs and alto runs, which solidified my way of relating to him. I too could seamlessly sing a hymnal like “I’ll Fly Away” and take out my angry frustration with professors or new bosses and cheekily threaten to assault a manager. I could simultaneously be a faithful person and struggle with insecurity and my place in the world.
Back then, Kanye used gospel music’s alignment with liberation theology, the hope of heaven, or deliverance, or whatever words we choose to use for freedom while imagining. Today, his gospel music is coupled with the troubling white supremacist theology of self-sufficiency, defiling a sacred genre.
I knew about Kanye’s decline, but I wanted to cling to my positive memories of Kanye West.
I scrolled past updates on Facebook on his visit to the White House, refused to open links when my friends texted alerting me of the “slavery is a choice” comment, and I stuck my fingers in my ears during his rants until I could turn on The College Dropout.
I didn’t want to trouble myself with what I knew to be true. Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Kanye has aligned himself with Trump’s campaign, taking a flippant “all is love” tone towards the president, whose rallies often incite violence between supporters and protestors; who has lumped all Mexican immigrants together as drug dealers, criminals and rapists; who insists that a border wall be built; and whose jingoistic rhetoric incites more violence against Muslim and Sikh Americans.
Kanye defended Trump on SNL, dismissing the president’s racist remarks as a function of living in America, saying, “If I was concerned about racism I would have moved out of America a long time ago.” Ye, taking this tone that we need to be in dialogue with people like Trump to create change. On October 11, 2018, he met with Trump, speaking in bizarre platitudes like, “We shouldn’t assume black people have to be Democratic”; he said he couldn’t align himself with Hillary Clinton’s campaign because her slogan “I’m with her,” didn’t speak to him as a man. He compared the 13th Amendment to a trap door.
It’s hard to follow, but generally, Kanye has adopted the male-centered language of many Trump supporters, preferring the image of a decisive and unhinged man as the head of the country, while using the quintessential American Christian principles of love, forgiveness and acceptance, and an individual faithfulness that would liberate us from racism and poverty.
Yet, still clinging to that relative comfort I felt at 18 in my college dorm room listening to Kanye’s gospel interpretations, I was elated to attend Kanye’s Sunday Service at Coachella this past spring. I rose at 6 a.m. and rode to the campground, marched with the other Kanye lovers through the dry grass, stomping through the dust. I chitchatted with other fans, amazed that we would occupy the same space as West, and squealed in excitement when we discovered the choir was already assembled on the manmade hill as we approached. The music hummed through the speakers, playing the instrumental to “Ultralight Beam,” with which they began, and it sounded even more gospel than the original. It was interpolated with DMX’s “The Prayer VI,” originally released in 2006.
The choir’s voices rose in the familiar soprano, alto and tenor parts, using the common bass lines and drum beats to slide seamlessly into funk and R&B artists like the Gap Band, Marvin Gaye and Usher. The musicians played traditional gospel songs like the “Hallelujah” chorus but adding the four bass lines found in hip-hop.
The organ sounds rose. The drumbeats were there. The choir director exclaimed, used worship language, interjecting “Hallelujah!” and “Praise Jesus” throughout the service. All the signs of worship were present, but the worship practices fell flat like someone missed the keys on the organ.
At one point, Jason White, the choir director of the Sunday Service, exclaimed: “Everyone raise your hands!” At “everyone,” I knew to throw my hands up. The fellow white concertgoers hesitated, succumbing to peer pressure when the choir and a few sprinklings of people outstretched our arms. White led the audience in a pseudo-worship experience with “How Excellent,” a song that brings me to tears almost every time I hear and sing it. This time, people who didn’t know the song surrounded me. Instead of freely singing along as I usually would, I was starkly aware of how the fellow white concertgoers gazed at me, expectantly watching my mouth to mimic the chorus and notes.
I knew then. The Sunday Service did not serve as a redemptive moment to God and black people for Kanye; it was a show for white audiences that black people can kowtow to the religion that is American white supremacy.
What was sacred—what was comforting my first year in college when I thought I would lose my religion with my doubt that the world was designed for me as a black person—twisted into a performance, and I was a primary actor.
When we remake our music for our audience, we do it for a group of people with a shared experience and a deep understanding of how racism affects us in this country. Subtle remixes are only for people that understand the history of the music and know that there was once a time when black people could sell out shows but not find a hotel to stay in.
Black music, gospel or otherwise, is sacred. It is not a performance for Christianity or to deny whiteness’ murder of our culture. It is not supposed to placate white evangelicals who encourage individuals to equate their faithfulness with their position in society.
It is not Kanye’s chance to demonstrate his alignment with white supremacy. It is for us to perform, so white people can gaze at our music from the outside and decide that we can come together with the music and not the true language that liberates us.
It is intended to express the breadth of a constant war against racism, a hope that God will deliver and the joy of creating music simply for celebration.
We don’t need Kanye to remix our liberation.
Emma Akpan is a wayward church girl, taco enthusiast, and the best in the group chat. Absolutely her mother’s daughter. Emma lives in D.C.