Ye Is Risen: Welcome to the church of Kanye West

Kanye West performing Sunday Service at Coachella. Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella

If you would like to own a $225 crewneck sweatshirt that says HOLY SPIRIT, you can buy one on Kanye West’s website. Also available for purchase are $50 socks labeled JESUS WALKS (and another pair that reads, CHURCH SOCKS). The merchandise went on sale the same day as West’s churchy “Sunday Service” performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., on Easter Sunday.         

The public first caught wind of the weekly Sunday Service ceremonies in early January, when Kim Kardashian West posted videos of the inaugural gathering on Instagram. Every Sunday since, a large, mirthful choir dressed in monochrome has trilled gospel music while congregants sway, bob and clap. A video posted in March shows West and his daughter, North, dancing joyfully to the choir’s rendition of West’s 2018 song “Lift Yourself.”

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A number of locales have played host to the spectacle: the Kardashian-West estate in Hidden Hills, Calif.; the Adidas headquarters in Portland, Ore.; various undisclosed outdoorsy spaces; and, most recently, Coachella, where performers wore springy, washed-out shades of lilac and lavender.

The website Refinery29 has called Sunday Service a “weekly jam session.” Rolling Stone says it is a “gospel-inspired performance.” New York magazine’s The Cut describes it as an “open-air religious gathering of Southern California’s elite.” The Easter edition excepted, the ceremony is invitation-only. Guests are required to sign nondisclosure agreements. In an interview with Elle.com, Kardashian West explained that it is “a healing experience for my husband. It’s just music; there’s no sermon. It’s definitely something he believes in—Jesus—and there’s a Christian vibe. But there’s no preaching. It’s just a very spiritual Christian experience.”

Like much of West’s 2010s oeuvre—the post-apocalyptic fashion line, the D.I.Y.-adjacent, work-in-progress albums—Sunday Service has the feel of messy, money-grubbing performance art.

Since his career began in the mid-2000s, West has explored themes of transcendence, temptation, the sublime and spiritual dryness through his work. “I want to talk to God, but I’m afraid because we ain’t spoke in so long,” he raps on “Jesus Walks,” from 2004. “I want Jesus/ God show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’ to break me down.” He has also incorporated messianism into his brand, posing on a 2006 cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns, calling himself “Yeezus” and releasing an album of the same name in 2013. (A new album, “Yandhi,” was supposed to come out last year but has been delayed.) In “I Am a God (feat. God)” a song off that album, West riffs on the act of creation, rapping, “I am a god/ Even though I’m a man of God.”

Other songs showcase a striking humility, like “Ultralight Beam,” from 2016’s “The Life of Pablo.” Zac Davis, writing for America in 2017, lauded the song, arguing that West has heralded a sea change in rap, making it “perfectly normal (and commercially viable) for rappers to express their emotions.”

Like much of West’s 2010s oeuvre—the post-apocalyptic fashion line, the D.I.Y.-adjacent, work-in-progress albums—Sunday Service has the feel of messy, money-grubbing performance art. As a fan of West’s music, I am conflicted, teeter-tottering between cynicism and curiosity. If you list all the details, the ceremony starts to sound like the invention of a heavy-handed satirist. The mystique hinges on the event’s exclusivity: Katy Perry, Courtney Love and Tyler, the Creator have all made appearances. And the theology is fuzzy. Feel-good New Age vibes are blended with Christianity and individualism, shaken and muddled until sufficiently cloudy, and distributed for consumption, like margaritas in the Southern California heat. “Here’s a Snippet,” tweeted Kardashian West on Jan. 21, adding “#SundayService #RealLove.” Courtney Love’s March 10 Instagram post included the hashtags “#jesus #god #calabassas [sic] #gospel #holyspirit #transcendent.”

It’s easy to be cynical about the Kardashian-West machine’s preternatural ability to turn a buck. Amy Chozick, in a recent feature article for The New York Times, demystified the Kardashian family business model, wherein scandal and spectacle translate into television viewership and social-media influence, which in turn yield branding opportunities and deals. And as The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino has noted, Kris Jenner, Kim Kardashian West’s mother, is already the co-founder of a church in Agoura Hills, Calif., that has failed to pay taxes in the past.  

As a fan of West’s music, I am conflicted, teeter-tottering between cynicism and curiosity.   

With the Coachella deal, West monetized the mystique. The moment told fans: You, too, can worship at the church of Kanye, for the price of transportation to the Colorado Desert and a Coachella ticket.

The fact that West is earning money from his church does not mean that his spirituality is insincere. But it does call to mind other megachurch brands, especially televangelists like Theodore Dexter Jakes (whom West follows on Twitter). In Brand® New Theology: The Wal-Martization of T.D. Jakes and the New Black Church, published in 2017, the Rev. Dr. Paula McGee analyzes self-branding and theologies of prosperity. She presents the televangelist Jakes as a case study: a disconcerting marriage of liturgical and corporate—part Billy Graham, part Donald Trump.

Jakes, like West, “proudly touts the trinkets of American financial success: a Bentley, a private jet, expensive suits, and a mansion.” Unlike late-20th-century televangelists, today’s megachurch moguls use social media to fortify their brands. Jakes boasts 3.51 million followers on Twitter (which is more than many 2020 presidential hopefuls) and manages an online store with items like a black baseball cap that says, “Do Not Worry” and a “Bling Pink Mug.”  

“Unlike traditional liberation theologies,” McGee writes, “which interrogate and challenge social structures, the theologies of prosperity offer solutions within the orbit of capitalism. Instead of a preferential option for the poor, they offer a preferential option for the rich, which ultimately blames the victims for their own poverty.”

Maybe rich Coachella kids in neon and macramé are looking for something, too, and attended his set because they wanted see what it was all about.

West’s ideological commitments are firmly individualistic. He believes he possesses “dragon energy” and delights in his role as an iconoclast who perceives liberal politics as groupthink: “All blacks gotta be Democrats, man,” he raps on 2018’s “Ye vs. the People.” “We ain’t made it off the plantation.”   

Maybe Sunday Service does satiate a deep personal need for West, as Tolentino suggests it might. And maybe rich Coachella kids in neon and macramé are looking for something, too, and attended his set because they wanted see what it was all about. West’s search for meaning is fascinating not only because we’re also searching for meaning and deliverance, but because his highly public search has been so messy. And something about that messiness, that brokenness, will always feel real, tragic and profound.  

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Christopher Lochner
1 month ago

As to whether or not his sprituality is sincere, I doubt it. A real and actual spitituality or faith cannot be codified but you know it when you see it. Now as a money maker, and there are many who claim "spirituality" and "belief" in a pursuit of pure money and power, this is pure gold. What else is there? I've been to many parishes that talk it but dont walk it. Good P.R. and a sales job usually triumph over any inner value or meaning especilly when the book deal is signed. What was it about honoring with their lips when their hearts were far away? The takeaway is, if you are broken, make certain profit can be made; the foolish will always deliver the goods.

FRAN ABBOTT
4 weeks 1 day ago

Gosh, all I can say is, “Who am I to judge?” Human beings are so complicated — that’s the way God made us.

Robert Dowd
4 weeks 1 day ago

......Come on America Mag...you’re turning goofy on me....why would you give this guy any ink to acknowledge his new venture. There are many stories to be told but this is not one of them.!

Jack Mallory
4 weeks 1 day ago

"West’s search for meaning is fascinating."
Is it really? That seems like a flawed premise for an article. Sometimes there's no "there" there.

Michael S
4 weeks 1 day ago

This sort of article amounts to free publicity for this fool. Try and find something more uplifting to fill the space.

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
4 weeks 1 day ago

Ms. Abbott, Mssrs. Dowd, Mallory, and Swanson - good points! Do you think that maybe, just maybe, this liberal rag called America Magazine may be trying to crush Mr. West because he came out in support of President Trump? It wouldn't be the first time. I've noticed that NPR's on-the-hour newscast used to include stock reports on DOW, S&P 500, and NASDAC. However, once the S&P downgraded the U.S.' credit rating early in the Obama administration they largely refuse to report on the S&P in the stock market hourly report. Perhaps America Magazine is taking a page out of NPR's playbook - only liberal, left, and socialist is in favor.
As well, the point some of you made that this is a waste of print space is right-on-the-mark.

Christopher Lochner
3 weeks 6 days ago

To be fair, the articles writtem by Fr. Terrance Klein are uplifting and of the Spirit (IMHO).

Jay Zamberlin
4 weeks 1 day ago

Is there a point to this article?

Los Angeles celebs have, for decades, conducted these type of cult-of-personality churches, and they are most often on the fringe, mostly smallish, outside of what we'd construe. normally speaking, to be any sort of Protestant mainstream, some venturing toward the new age, e.g.: Della Reese, O.C. Smith (God Don't Make Little Green Apples) Ben Vereen, Diane Cannon, Solomon Burke, Al Green. The way I've experienced it, these people are so used to being the center of attention that the "platform" (can't say its equivalent to a Catholic Sactuary, but "up front") is what they'd see as the normal place for the most charismatic influencer in the room, which is what they are -- which is not that much different than how we'd see Protestant ministers, especially the more well known ones, more generally. Was not the Chrystal Cathedral's (also a stone's throw from Hollywood) weekly TV fare just a serving up of this or that celeb's "testimony" and their personal ideas about God, (or some god, not necessarily the God a Abraham, Issaac and Jacob, David, Solomon), along with the notoriety of the minister himself, Robt. Schuller, and upon the death of the same, the whole ministry folds up and sells to the RC Archdiocese of Orange. That is just normal for "cults" of personality, they never last past the last breath breathed by the founder. The people are left to pick up and seek a new "saviour."
But none of that is, or should be, news. America should be looking past the obvious and finding out what drives all of this, other than the idea about money. Kanye doesn't need the money, nor did some of the celebs I mentioned. I know at least one really PAID out of his own pocket just to keep that going, and I would not think that an anomoly either.

Now, all of this IS a subject worth delving into, the philosphy, the hows and whys and whos, as a broader treatment, or if you were able to even get a phone interview with the main subject, which seems did not happen (did you even try?)
but this ditti would seem to be just a compilation of already available news; sort of a "drive by" piece. America, your standards should be a bit higher, but that sort of self-aware self-censoring deosn't seem to exist withing your province, certainly it would have had to in the past, otherwise who would take this magazine seriously, at all?

This article, as with so many puff pieces today, is more about the writer's own subjective reaction and so it's really NOT about Kanye or that church idea that he's promoting, at a certain point. Why would any of this matter, at all, to a Catholic? This has not really much, at all, to do with religion, but is just one more politically driven (because Ye was one of the few black celebs to openly embrace DJT - I see this as but one more attempt to paint Ye as an "off the wall" eccentric. I mean, 'who knew?') delve into the social-political realm, which is fine, but if you're going to GO there, actually do that; GO THERE.

Will Christie
4 weeks ago

I would have preferred an author who was NOT enamored by West's music. I am trying to ascertain whether I want to subscribe for $60 to America. I am looking for a CATHOLIC magazine that reports and editorializes on Catholic events. This article belongs only on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT or perhaps PEOPLE magazine. I agree with another commentator - what has this got to do with Catholicism? Can someone point to another publication that is progressive (which I believe Jesus was in terms of social welfare) and manages to stick to the subject of Catholicism?

Brien Doyle
4 weeks 1 day ago

Mention of a god requires evidence to prove that god!!
(you cannot just make claims based on erroneous presumptions...)

Will Christie
4 weeks ago

Wasn't Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines for 20 years, a perfect representative of this crowd? I understand she had a Catholic Rosary made out of expensive diamonds, along with her supposed 4000 pairs of shoes and elegant gowns in a poverty stricken poor nation. These people would not know true humility and surrender to God because they assume that they share the podium with him and have reserved seats (perhaps to his left) on his heavenly throne. Of course, I do not know any of these people so perhaps I am staining their souls based on a stereotype of the rich privileged shallow Hollywood overpaid star. But when your own personal EGO is your god, then the real God of traditional religion must serve that EGO. If these people were to go to a Catholic Mass and kneel during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I suspect they would do so only as long as cameras were flashing and video was being filmed. Coming to Church is NOT a religious feel good orgy on behalf of the human ego. It is a humbling, a classic "come to Jesus" moment that does not involve aggrandizement of self but instead surrender to a higher will. I am sure there are wealthy socialites and media stars capable of this, but I suspect they are not at one of these religious drag acts where West anoints himself as the new John the Baptist. I do not mean to be vicious. I am just old. I have seen media darlings come and go. They blaze bright and eventually fall to earth wearing golden parachutes. Meanwhile, back in the real world, we common people go to Church, confess our sins, and with grace leave our egos at the door.

Stanley Kopacz
3 weeks 6 days ago

I don't understand why many of the commenters are upset with this article. Reportage of anything touching on religion and faith has always been one of the hallmarks of America Magazine. Awareness of all things in the general world has always characterized Jesuits. In the bizarro world of 21st century America, how can one ignore phenomena like West and Trump. West is a Trump supporter. When reading West's incoherent mental gymnastics, one can see his affinity to the ADHD ping-pong brained president. I'm glad that America Magazine is including younger writers into its staff. Unlike myself and probably most of the commenters, they will have to deal with this bizarro world much longer than any of us.

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