How Kanye West Embeds Black Gospel Music in White Evangelical Theology

American rapper Kanye West poses before French fashion house Christian Dior Autumn/Winter 2015/2016 women’s ready-to-wear collection show during Paris Fashion Week March 6, 2015. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Kanye West has officially stepped away from his persona as the brash, profane performer who vacillated between flaunting his opulence and battling his demons. With the long-awaited “Jesus Is King,” West is now a gospel artist, pivoting from the devil’s domain to the glorious light.

Proclaiming attachment to gospel music is a tricky proposition for an artist who is so famously self-absorbed. Black gospel music, which goes back to the 17th century with its roots in the black oral tradition and strong Christian lyrics and dominant choral vocals. By identifying himself with this tradition, he connects to a larger responsibility of soul, inspiration, healing and service.

In “Jesus is King,” West attempts to combine a theology rooted in contemporary white evangelicalism with black gospel music, perhaps unaware that white evangelicalism has a tendency to celebrate black conversion while “editing out” black resistance. Despite his personal honesty and story of redemption, listening to the album will likely leave many black Christians wondering, “Does Kanye’s Jesus care about “the disinherited?”

Why ‘Jesus is King’ resonates with white evangelicals

Many evangelicals have expressed enthusiasm for West’s conversion, bordering on hyperbolic praise. In National Review, evangelical Andrew Walker writes that West has the anthropology of C.S. Lewis, the cultural mood of Wendell Berry, and the defiance of Francis Schaeffer, comparing his potential to spark a revolution to the 19th-century abolitionist William Wilberforce.

Walker echoes evangelical confidence that Kanye’s conversion could serve a larger role in the pursuit of reforming culture, a responsibility that the artist is happily embracing. In a recent interview with comedian James Corden, West proclaimed referring to his wealth and business success: “God is using me … to show off. Kanye West works for God, and he about to show out.”

In his ode to Chick-fil-A, West reflects the admiration white evangelicals have for a company that shuts down on Sunday due to their religious beliefs. And his emphasis on the importance of fatherhood and defying culture appeals to this subculture.

“Raise our sons, train them in the faith

Through temptations, make sure they’re wide-awake

Follow Jesus, listen and obey

No more livin’ for the culture, we nobody’s slave”

The lyrical content intermingles personal anecdotes with simplistic expressions of superiority (“greatest artist resting or alive”), signifying the internal struggle he faces on his spiritual journey.

West takes aim at his newfound faith community, scolding them for prematurely judging him (“What have you been hearing from the Christians? They’ll be the first ones to judge me, make it feel like nobody love me”) while simultaneously soliciting their intercession (“Don’t throw me away, lay your hands on me. Please pray for me.”).

As much as the album title and marketing centers on Jesus, the content is largely about West. And much of the Christian reaction to the “New Kanye” has hinged on an evaluation of his authenticity. Is he a sincere searcher or a snake oil salesman? To properly understand West, we look at who he is being influenced by, including powerful pastors and politicians.

Kanye West’s ties to powerful leaders

With this album, he has clearly captured Christians’ attention. While he has in the past received spiritual guidance from famous young Pentecostal pastor Rich Wilkerson, he was viewed with suspicion. Previous albums with graphically explicit content distanced him from the Christian community and perhaps most jarringly, he portrayed himself as Jesus with a crown of thorns on a 2006 cover of Rolling Stone.

But even more recently, during his Sunday Service Church tour that began earlier this year, West attempted to change his image by enthralling large crowds and mesmerizing black megachurches to advance his message and market the music. His current mentor, Pastor Adam Tyson (considered to be a more theologically conservative evangelical than Wilkerson), exhorted attendees to repent from their sins.

Now, West has reportedly struck up a friendship with controversial Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and has fielded invitations from Houston-based televangelist Joel Osteen. Perhaps his alliance with a conservative political agenda and recent bold advocacy for chaste living make him a more likely recipient of white evangelical support.

President Trump and his family have been effusive in their praise for West, with Donald Trump Jr. proudly labeling the artist “a pioneer.” In various ways, Osteen, Fallwell and the Trumps represent an upper echelon of Christian cultural power. This album and movement seem especially designed for powerful people like them. Following Jesus is a different experience for those who have enough privilege to insulate themselves from inevitable persecution.

Since his explosive interview at TMZ Headquarters in 2018, West has skated on thin ice with the black community. The same rapper who famously defied the Washington establishment by saying “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” referenced 400 years of slavery as “a choice.” West has also called Trump’s MAGA hat “God’s practical joke on liberals” and brazenly criticized black community’s loyalty to the Democratic Party as “brainwashed.” West has continued to extol a president when many black Christians believe character still matters and his policies harm them and their neighbors.

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Source: Washington Post

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