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From “Jesus Walks” to “Jesus is King”: The Evolution of Kanye West

Before the ranch, I had horses in the garage. When the Forbes cover was just a mirage. They had me chasing statues that’s on pride.

Kanye West recently bought a 4000-acre ranch in Cody, Wyoming. It’s a wide, sprawling expanse of land with nothing really there—endless empty plains; “the road, and then just God.” In a recent interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music, Kanye said he doesn’t yet want to talk about his long-term dreams for the land. “I have some visions,” he said, “but the more that I’m in service to God I just clear my head and just wake up more empty every day and let God do the driving and just use me as he may.” He says that he’s not thinking about anything more than 6 months from now. Considering how the last 6 months of his life have gone, one can’t blame him. If you haven’t heard yet, Kanye West is a born-again Christian.

By all accounts, this is something that has been in the process for a while but happened in earnest last April after an Easter Sunday concert at Coachella. In an appearance on The View earlier this year, his wife — Kim Kardashian, if you didn’t know — stated that “Kanye started this to really heal himself and it was a really personal thing, and it was just friends and family…He has had an amazing evolution of being born again and being saved by Christ.” And it is this “amazing evolution” that has led to the creation of the Sunday Service and the release of the album Jesus is King earlier this October. It has been a radical transformation of the trajectory of his life, catapulting him anew into the forefront of both the secular and Christian worlds. But how did we get here?

If you’re an OG, then you remember “Jesus Walks”, that punchy, military-type anthem from Ye’s first album, The College Dropout. Whatever else it may have been, that song was a genuine prayer. “God show me the way because the devil’s tryna break me down”. It was a cry for atonement from someone who didn’t necessarily know how to be close to God but wanted to be. The line, “I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid ’cause we ain’t spoke in so long,” embodies where Kanye was at the time; a rough-cut Chicago kid with a praying Mom, and a lot of dreams. 

The following 10+ years have been a wild ride. Fuelled by fame, money, sex, and an insatiable creative drive, Kanye West has risen to become one of the biggest, if not the biggest pop-culture icon of his generation. His albums are all chart-toppers. Yeezy, his sneaker brand, is among the top fashion brands in the world. His marriage to Kim Kardashian has been, to put it briefly, well documented. Kanye West was the man that had everything. 

But he didn’t have God. 

What he did have were family members that were praying for him his whole career. West says that “God was patient and my family was patient with me, when they were praying for me…all they could do was pray and be patient and it had to happen in God’s time.” (Apple Music) Those prayers were eventually answered, although not without going through the valley first. In 2016, West had a very public mental breakdown, was hospitalized, and subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, it was during that time that the first seeds of his transformation started to sprout. While in hospital he started reading the bible and wrote on a piece of paper, “start a church in Calabasas.”

Sunday Service

All my idols let ‘em go. All my demons let ‘em know: this a mission, not a show, this is my eternal soul.

According to Kim Kardashian, the Sunday Service is “a Christian service, a musical ministry.” The event, often held at the Los Angeles Forum, features a band, a choir, a choir director, and Kanye. Together, they form the Sunday Service collective. Only Christian music is played, (but one could say that it’s boundaries of Christian music that are being pushed); a mix of gospel classics, covers, — albeit, often Christian reinterpretations of pop songs — and Kanye songs are woven together seamlessly. The band is outstanding. The choir, led by director Jason White, is exceptional. Everyone is dressed in matching choir robes or sweaters.

Amongst them all, hardly distinguishable from the rest of the crowd, as if he were only a mere chorus member, stands Kanye. He raps, he sings, he tells stories, but he’s not making it about himself. It’s not a Kanye West concert. They are there to lift up the name of Jesus. When it takes place in the Forum, it is a circular stage, surrounded by flowers, and positioned beneath a large oculus. West was heavily influenced by architect James Turrell for the stage design and the oculus acts as a window to the heavens, projecting an image of pale blue skies above which reflects off robes of the collective below. 

The event is run like a church service because it is a church service. Along with the music, preachers and pastors come and speak at various times within the event. West has easily attracted what would be considered the “cool kids” of the contemporary Church scene. Mike Todd, Rich Wilkerson Jr., and Craig Groeschel have all been in Kanye’s circle. But don’t think for a second that it’s some wishy-washy, millennial gospel being preached. This is the real deal. Repentance and salvation through Jesus Christ alone is the message. At the end of the set, choir director White will ask if anyone would like to receive Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour, leading them in the sinner’s prayer. This is important since the audience is made up of believers and non-believers alike. Some are there to worship, some are there to watch Kanye, but no matter why they came, everyone hears the message of salvation.

In their interview, Zane Lowe unwittingly asked Kanye, “is there a desire to convert people, through this process?” Kanye’s response was immediate and unequivocal. “It’s not a desire, it’s my only mission and calling…to spread the gospel.” (It should be noted that this response was followed by seven whole seconds of complete silence and direct eye contact from Kanye.) Who knows how many people have already come to faith through the ministry of Sunday Service, but it could already be in the hundreds or thousands. There is something almost Billy Graham-esque about it all; it is the simple call of repentance to Christians and non-Christians alike. The only difference is that Kanye has a reach that the Church has never had.

The Sunday Service is not stationary either. Last month Kanye took it on the road to Houston to visit Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. While in town he also held a surprise service for inmates at the Harris County Jail. Regardless of your opinion of Osteen, you can’t criticize Kanye for making exceptions in where he goes. The message is clear, this is for everyone. 

Kanye and the Collective have also been anything but stagnant creatively. Their talents have not only manifested themselves in the form of an album and musical worship experience, but also an IMAX film directed by Nick Knight, and two operas, Nebuchadnezzar and Mary, directed by Vanessa Beecroft. The second Kanye/Sunday Service Collective album, Jesus is Born, will be released on Christmas Day this year, and plans for a third album in collaboration with the one and only Dr Dre, Jesus is King Part II, are in the works. It doesn’t appear that the Kanye West/SSC train will be slowing down any time soon.

Kanye worships at Sunday Service. Taken from Youtube: Kanye West – Jesus is King – Sunday Service Experience (The Forum – 11.03.19)

Reaction

Said I finna do a Gospel Album. What have you been hearing from the Christians? They’ll be the first ones to judge me. Make it feel like nobody loves me.

Reaction to Jesus is King and the Sunday Service experience has been as polarizing as we could have imagined. Reaction outside the church is one thing — many are thinking that this is just a phase he’s going through or a subject that he is exploring. But it’s the reactions within the church that are the most interesting. Some have said he’s not sincere, some have said he’s doing this all for financial gain, and some have said he’s starting a cult. Others believe that he is genuine, but still have reservations about his methods or personality. Perhaps the most important song on the album is “Hands On”. The song is a line in the sand declaration of service to God, but it’s also an appeal to the Church with Kanye asking fellow believers not to disregard him because of his past. The bridge lays it out in a very straightforward manner:

I deserve all the criticism you got
If that’s all the love you have, that’s all you got
To sing of change, you think I’m joking
To praise His name, you ask what I’m smoking
Yes, I understand your reluctancy, yeah
But I have a request, you see
Don’t throw me up, lay your hands on me

So how will the Church accept this new Kanye? Will they disregard him as a phoney, or will they lay their hands on him and pray?

For those old enough to remember, the church has already experienced a celebrity at the zenith of pop-culture coming to faith. Bob Dylan had a very public conversion to evangelical Christianity in the late 1970s, even getting to the point where he wouldn’t perform his previous, secular works. Dylan’s Christianity was heavily steeped in the Vineyard fundamentalism of the 70s, but his religious fervour faded with time and within a few years he had lost the firebrand religious zeal of Slow Train Coming and Saved, and instead returned to the brooding, pensive, and religiously unaffiliated Dylan of times past. God only knows where Bob Dylan stands now, but it does create a dangerous precedent: a cultural icon goes all-in on Christianity, only to burn out on God in a couple of years and rescind their position. Let us pray that the same thing doesn’t happen to Kanye West. For what it’s worth, it appears that West has established a solid group of fellow believers around himself, and for every voice of criticism, there are two or three supporting and cheering him on. International House of Prayer director Mike Bickle said recently:

“We need to be in a spirit of encouragement to him. And he might find some stumbling and some tripping, like all of us in our early days in the Lord…he isn’t going to come out of, “the spiritual womb” in perfect doctrine and perfect maturity and perfect humility…no one does. I’m encouraged by him…we’re going to give him room to grow, but we’re gonna be on his team…saying ‘we’re taking you at your word and we’re so grateful to the Lord.’” 

What the future holds for Kanye West and the Sunday Service Collective remains to be seen. But make no mistake, the sky’s the limit and it’s coming fast.

The Future

Use this Gospel for protection. It’s a hard road to heaven. We call on your blessings. In the Father, we put our faith.

Kanye West says he wants to use his ranch in Wyoming to build a campus for his fashion brand, Yeezy. He’s talking about creating a factory with full “seed to sew” sustainable fashion. He’s talking about bringing manufacturing back to the United States and providing employment for workers who are coming out of the prison system. He’s talking about changing the way communities are designed. In the Apple Music interview he expounded:

“What do we need for our Maslow’s hierarchy of needs chart? What are our personal needs as a human being? What we need the most is each other…and what is the best form of each other? Family, to keep our families close. But cities have been designed to create more problems that can create more industries…But to think of communities where the church is the centre of the community, and then the school, cafeterias, sustainable gardening and homes.”

These are incredibly complex and systemic problems, but who knows, maybe a Christian rapper/designer/innovator billionaire is just what we need. And you can call him crazy, but he’s also talking about one day being president of the United States. 4 years ago, that kind of talk would have been considered the most outrageous fantasy on the planet. Now it’s almost 2020, Donald Trump is in office, and anything is possible. Kanye West might not be the future president. Or he just might be. Regardless, Kanye’s plans to serve God go far beyond music, and while the church is debating amongst itself whether he’s legitimate or not, it looks like he’s just going to go ahead and carry them out. 

The two music videos that have been released from Jesus is King, “Follow God” and “Closed on Sunday” were both filmed on the ranch in snow. They feature his family, fully outfitted in Carhart winter gear, ripping around the vast Wyoming wilderness in tractors and ATVs that look more like military vehicles than farm vehicles. And perhaps it’s fitting because Kanye West is at war. When he wrote “Jesus Walks,” he said we were “at war with terrorism…racism…and ourselves.” These days, he’s still at war, but the enemy has changed. He’s at war with the past versions of himself, with a culture that made him its god for so long, and with the church’s expectations of him. But most of all, he’s at war with the kingdom of the devil. As Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”(Matthew 12:30) 

Well, Kanye West is for Jesus, and he’s gathering one of the motliest crew of celebrities, hip-hop fans, artists, believers, and sceptics that the world has ever seen. In a recent segment of Carpool Karaoke with James Corden (actually, it was on an aeroplane with the entire Sunday Service Choir) Kanye sang “Jesus Walks” again, but this time the last line was changed. Instead of the fearful, guilt-filled voice of young man, Kanye rapped, full of faith, “I wanna talk to God, I’m not afraid.” It’s that lack of fear that makes this journey so intriguing. We’re all along for the ride, so why not be a part of it?

Pray for Kanye. Pray that the true purposes of God for his life would be accomplished and that he would stand firm in faith under the glare of an incredible spotlight. Pray for his family, his ministry, his health, and his creative endeavours. The album Jesus is King, and everything that is following it represents a unique thing that God is doing in the life of one man. But this is only a small part of what God is doing in the earth. He is starting to take back the culture, the media, and the industries for the honour of his great name, because at the end of the day, “every knee will bow.”

Sources

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2S0N6vRYcTk (Sunday Service at The Forum)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuOCvKvrwI8 (Apple Music Interview)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2orVaJWto0M (Kim on The View)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJ49TTNwYdQ (Mike Bickle on Kanye)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pP0ipatVTag (Montell Fish reviews Sunday Service)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHef_mOYeUE (Harris County Jail Concert)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9dYenI2QOw (Joel Osteen and Kanye)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXwHM96rbyM (Sunday Service at Lakewood)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgJyhKEZ8QU (Vox on Kanye)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnIAsMQoOzg (IMAX trailer)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnIAsMQoOzg (James Corden, Airpool Karaoke)

https://www.complex.com/music/2019/11/kanye-west-nebuchadnezzar-opera

https://www.complex.com/music/2019/11/kanye-west-dr-dre-jesus-is-king-part-2-announcement

https://books.google.ca/books?id=dd5EmZDdScoC&pg=PA494&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

Image Credits

Kanye Kneeling: Rich Fury, 2019 Getty Images

Kim Kardashian: Jenny Anderson, Walt Disney Television

Joel Osteen: Michael Wyke, AP

Mike Bickle: Youtube, Mike Bickle //Why the Biblical View of the End Times Is Important /Onething 2016, Session 11 Teaching

Zane Lowe: The Face, What’s hot? Chatting music with Zane Lowe

Coachella Mountain: Rich Fury, 2019 Getty Images

The Forum: Wikipedia, The Forum (Inglewood, California)

Naked Eye Observatory at Roden Crater, Arizona: James Turell