Kanye West and the Cult of Personality

Originally published for the New York Times.

When Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” was released in 2004, the song was praised for boldly bringing discussions of faith into hip-hop. Fifteen years later, Mr. West’s contemporaries continue to speak of its impact. In the first episode of “Hip-Hop: The Songs That Shook America,” an AMC docu-series that premiered Sunday, the singer-songwriter John Legend said, “Kanye made it O.K. to talk about your faith in songs that weren’t Christian songs.”

It is this persistent reverie and good will for “Jesus Walks” that Mr. West has banked on since starting Sunday Service, a series of obliquely religious pop-up gatherings featuring a gospel choir (usually wearing attire from the rapper’s clothing line Yeezy) this year.

The set lists fluctuate from week to week. But the linchpin of the productions, which segue from traditional songs of mercy and salvation to bolder reconfigurations of modern secular hits, is in that subversive single from his debut album, “The College Dropout” — the artist jubilantly recites the final verse of the song, flexing his cadence in lock step with the choir.

On an invitation-only basis (or in the case of Coachella last April, the price of a steep festival ticket), the select few present at these gatherings get to rub shoulders with the likes of ASAP Rocky, Chance the Rapper, Brad Pitt and other high-profile entertainers while partaking of the “exclusive” experience. The events serve as a transparent attempt of Mr. West to fundamentally regroup himself within the context of religion after an extended run of willfully courting salacious controversy, whether it be for an unsolicited dressing down of Taylor Swift, his wearing of a MAGA hat or a contentious TMZ appearance in which he claimed that slavery was a “choice.”

But the endeavor reads like a blatantly self-serving appropriation of black faith traditions, and the Sunday Service performances are in fact little more than concerts trading in aimless aphorisms and the cult of Mr. West’s personality — so much so that it has become a running joke that he’s running an actual cult. Black Christians have expressed skepticism about his intentions, and the rapper’s past comments about how he views the relationship between hip-hop and church provide reason for their concern.

“Hip-hop is a religion to a certain extent, and the rappers are the preachers, the music is the scriptures, you know?” Mr. West says in an archival clip resurfaced in the docu-series. “It’s just like church, because you go to a concert, you raise your hands in the air, you sing songs and you definitely pay some money. It’s just like church.”

Choir members performing with Kanye West in Indio, Calif.
Choir members performing with Kanye West in Indio, Calif.Credit…Rich Fury/Getty Images

The description of Sunday Service provided by his wife, Kim Kardashian West, during an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” doesn’t help: “There’s no praying, there’s no sermon. There’s no word. It’s just music, and it’s just a feeling.”

The reduction of the black faith tradition to “just music” is precisely what has become of a similar profit-making endeavor for some black places of worship. For nearly 30 years there have been Sunday church service tours of Harlem landmarks such as Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (New York City’s oldest black church) and Abyssinian Baptist Church, with foot traffic accelerating at the turn of the century. Tourists pay concert ticket prices to enter into a hallowed spiritual ground for a glimpse of a famed choir, as opposed to consuming a spiritual service and grasping the significance of the churches’ histories. Gospel is reduced to a commodity, as opposed to a legacy.

That tension was said to be evident in Mr. West’s grandstanding performance at the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral church last month, which occurred during a confusing promotion for what is supposed to be his forthcoming album, “Jesus Is King.” (The album was slated for release Sept. 27, but has yet to be made commercially available — although a complementary documentary of the same name is to open in IMAX theaters Oct. 25.)

The early, more conventional musical invocations of praise and faith from the choir gave way to a freestyle performance, as Mr. West claimed to be a rapper “with a purpose, not just for surface.” The choir, filling in the first few pews of the church as opposed to the traditional positioning on the stage platforms, reacted exuberantly, dancing, jumping and engaging in unison while the churchgoers — several of whom reportedly walked out — looked on.

Kanye West is mining black faith traditions for his music.
Kanye West is mining black faith traditions for his music.Credit…Getty Images

These performances have helped grant Mr. West a certain grace that, it should be noted, has not been afforded to artists who have been maligned for similar sins of a smaller scale, such as Chrisette Michele, a singer with gospel roots who in 2017 was widely criticized for performing at President Trump’s inauguration. Clips of Sunday Service have been circulated online with enthusiasm and proclamations as though he were breaking new ground in music.

But a mash-up of a gospel song with an R&B song — Ginuwine’s romantic slow-jam “So Anxious,” for one — is hardly novel. (Kirk Franklin and other gospel artists have been remixing secular songs in church for years.) Likewise, with “Jesus Walks,” Mr. West was just one of several rappers — including M.C. Hammer, Diddy and DMX before him — to usher in a cycle of faith exploration in mainstream hip-hop, as Billboard’s Naima Cochrane and others have pointed out.

Even if “Jesus Walks” isn’t as wholly original as his peers would have you believe, there remains a power in the song’s origins that seems to have been lost today. The Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir, led by its founder, James Allen, recorded “Walk With Me,” an arrangement of a gospel hymn, in 1997. In “The Songs That Shook America,” a choir member says that they were singing for their lives as they originally performed the song.

It’s a distinct call of faith and conviction, the essence of which Mr. West, at his best, distilled into the hook of “Jesus Walks” in 2004, which samples “Walk With Me”: “God show me the way, because the Devil’s trying to break me down.”

When viewing clips of Mr. West’s performance of the song during Sunday Service halls, however, it registers as a facsimile of the sentiment and legacy it once represented, a mere interlude for conveying nondescript “God is love” statements or defensive, egotistic rants. During his recent service in Salt Lake City, he railed against those who have criticized him for his friendly relationship with President Trump and the Republican Party: “I ain’t never made a decision only based off my color. That’s a form of slavery, mental slavery.”

Iconoclasm, even at its most crude execution, typically runs afoul of the conventions of religion. If “Jesus Walks” is a song that he created to focus on the sins of man, as his co-writer Rhymefest (born Che Smith) has stated, his first reckoning should be with the paradox of spreading the farce of original thought as dictated through the filter of the church of Kanye West.