Ye Is Risen: Welcome to the church of Kanye West
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.”
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.