Beginning with “Jesus Walks” on “The College Dropout,” Kanye’s catalog of work has illustrated a consistent and intentional wrestling with God, potential meanings of the divine and the very human character of Jesus Christ.
Despite this fact, some commentators have recently suggested that West parallels other artists in his late-in-life “born-again” experience.
The maelstrom of commentary that has recently enveloped West’s latest release, “Jesus Is King,” seems to echo this point. Many deem Kanye West’s so-called turn to religion troubling at best, and borderline heretical at worst. Some have even called out his approach to Christianity as one utterly devoid of anything representative of the Christian tradition. Such commentary does not seek understanding, but rather offers judgment as a form of celebrity policing.
Most (though not all) of the recent criticism of West says less about him and more about our collective expectations of him as a celebrity, and a person of color. In this sense, “Jesus Is King” is not an aberration, but rather the culmination of nearly two decades of award-winning work in the music industry as both MC and performance artist.
Unlike artists like Little Richard who experienced a revitalized interest in all things religion late in life, West’s relationship to Christianity is more akin to that of musicians like Bob Dylan or Prince, whose consistent wrestling with theological questions over the course of their illustrious careers has generated recent critical attention.
For better or for worse, West’s cultural productions have occupied a religious space in American public life for almost 15 years; at the same time, he has functioned as the most recognizable embodiment of what religion scholar Monica Miller has called the “civic face of hip-hop culture”: namely, how it is publicly portrayed, advertised and consumed by its listeners and commentators.
I’ve been a fan of Kanye West since before he released his debut album in 2004. I knew him first as a producer having composed some of the game’s most famous anthems including “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” by Jay-Z. In West’s “Jesus Walks” moment, he could do no wrong.
Both scholars and pundits were largely complimentary; for many, Kanye single-handedly made talking about religion in rap songs acceptable. At the time, West identified as a Christian, but not one necessarily understood in a born-again context.
The figure of Jesus, nevertheless, was still front and center. “‘Religion just means that you do something over and over,” West said in an interview at the time. ”I will say that I’m spiritual. I have accepted Jesus as my savior. And I will say that I fall short every day.”
Today, he’s widely considered borderline heretical — simply due to his recent associations with conservative figures of the proverbial cloth, including Jerry Falwell Jr. and Joel Osteen. Such a reading of West is further supported by the popular “born-again” narrative, which allows the interpreter in question to elegantly juxtapose West’s earlier, purer work with his seemingly more iconoclastic recent productions.
West may often declare himself to be a God to his various audiences, but he never forgets the fact that such Gods have the capacity to bleed — especially in America. As we are reminded on West’s “Blood on the Leaves” from his 2013 release “Yeezus,” Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” is never far from the collective consciousness of the people of God.
Due to these very public associations, however, as well as his incendiary reading of chattel slavery as largely “a choice” as first reported by TMZ, commentators have begun questioning West’s religion as well as his status as a black person in America.
Like many persons of color, West and his actions function as a prism through which many a commentator understands the efficacy of the black community, or lack thereof, and their varied religious and spiritual practices. In one moment in his career, West is a voice in the wilderness for America’s youth; in another, he’s its depraved prodigal son. Which is it?
Author and social commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates takes this troubling line of thinking even further by arguing that West literally reflects the narcissism and ignorance of the President. Coates accuses West of embodying and perpetuating a very particular, yet detrimental form of “white freedom.”
This is “not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more,” Coates contends, “but a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and f[***] you anyway, b[****].“
In no uncertain terms, according to this argument, Kanye West and his art have become the latest sources of Trumpist propaganda as understood through a form of racial guilt by political association. Kanye is neither fully Christian nor African American, but a deformed version of both.
Not all critics agree with such pronouncements, however; some see in West’s body of work a prescient genius. I hear in “Jesus Is King” the sound of West as the same artist he has ever been: one who continues to challenge conventional thought through a variety of cultural productions and aesthetic styles.
West’s consistent emphasis on “free thinking” may certainly be part of a larger marketing agenda, not unlike his Sunday Services, but at the end of the day West remains a problem to many — a state of existence that has characterized much of black life in American history.
Scholars and commentators who continue to consider West to be only a problem in these terms remain prisoners to our otherwise chaotic moment of racial resentment and political animus. We must do better if we are to truly understand what makes possible the unruly musings of this particular fallen angel, and more importantly, why we continue to listen and care.