Depending on who you talk to, Kanye West is one of two things: A newfound voice for Christianity in a pop culture wasteland, or the new heavyweight champion of prosperity gospel.
Personally, as a guy who hasn’t identified as a Christian, per se, in more than a decade and someone who lost interest in Yeezy after 2008’s “808s and Heartbreak,” I’ve got no real skin in the game either way, but it is a fascinating phenomenon to behold.
Just in case you needed additional evidence that we’re living in strange times indeed, consider this: Conservative Christians are hailing music made by a guy who has, in the past referenced bleached rectums, sex toys and using the clenched fist sign of black power during intercourse, while hip-hop heads who once lavished praise upon Kanye as one of the fiercest, freshest voices in rap are now dismissing his work as the ravings of a street corner sandwich board preacher.
Clearly, he’s made a solid business decision: Every song on his new record, “Jesus Is King,” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and the album itself landed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Forbes recently estimated his net worth at $240 million and projected his fashion line would top $1.5 billion in revenue this year; reportedly, Kanye was so insulted that he wasn’t hailed as an entrepreneur with wealth in excess of 10 figures that he suggested changing his name to “Christian Genius Billionaire West” for a year.
So is this a “prosperity gospel cash grab,” as my coworker and friend, Wil Wright, suggests? (Wil’s bonafides include one of the hottest local rap ensembles in the East Tennessee music scene, LiL iFFy. My dude knows a thing or two about hip-hop.) I don’t want to sound like a jaded hipster, but consider the news that came out about Kanye this week: Sunday, he’ll pay a visit to the church of Joel Osteen, the leading evangelical figure of prosperity gospel, for a sit-down interview and a performance.
(And in case you’re a little in the dark about prosperity gospel, I’ll let a quote from Osteen’s own book explain it: “God has already done everything He’s going to do. The ball is now in your court. If you want success, if you want wisdom, if you want to be prosperous and healthy, you’re going to have to do more than meditate and believe; you must boldly declare words of faith and victory over yourself and your family.” In other words — if you wanna get paid, you gotta hustle.)
Again, it’s not for me to say one way or the other whether Kanye is aiming for a payday, both financially and for his ego. It might even be, as Wil suggests, another bipolar moment that’s being played out painfully in a public setting. I would be a stronger believer in the righteousness of his conviction if it weren’t for the tepid songwriting on “Jesus Is King.” As someone who was a fan of Kanye in his heyday and still has respect for his abilities, all it took was a couple of listens to his new record to determine that Yeezy has made a mall-rap record for Christians who have heretofore never given him the time of day. The Biblical references are pedestrian, Wil agrees, and support the idea that it’s a gimmick.
“This doesn’t sound like salvation, really,” Wil told me. “It sounds like a concept record geared at something folks are already too invested in to ignore. The idea of capitalizing on people’s faith is just so wild and complicated, and goes back as far as faith itself. And now we’re here, far from Jesus flipping out on the Temple’s merchants and money changers, in an age of private jet prophets and crypto-tithing.”
And yet … in the end, Wil points out, there may be a hidden value to the whole thing regardless. Which brings me to my old roommate, John.
When I met John, I was going through a divorce with my first wife. My world was pretty well upended, and I struggled to get my bearings. I had recovery, but my spirit was thirsty, and when I found out John had a sweat lodge at his house, I asked him if I could come pray. I had no idea what I was doing, only that it felt like what I needed, and over time, I discovered that John was part Lakota Sioux, had lived for a while on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and prayed in the old ways of his ancestors.
We became roommates and had a sweat lodge in our backyard in Alcoa, and we prayed every weekend, and over the next year, my life got better. I healed. I found a spiritual path that was far more rewarding than anything I had experienced with Christianity. And then John moved away, and I found out almost everything he told me had been a lie. He had learned about the ways of the Lakota from Native American friends and had lived on Pine Ridge for a while, but everything else was made up. He didn’t even have a drop of native blood in him. I found out a couple of years ago that he got caught up with the militias in Oregon and is now in federal prison for threatening to kill former President Obama, so clearly John had some problems … but did the false pretenses under which he presented himself make my spiritual experiences null and void?
No. Not one bit. And in the end, I think that’s why, regardless of whether Kanye’s latest is a cash grab or a publicity stunt or just the feeble creative gasp of a man who’s run out of ideas and can’t write a rhyme to do his former greatness justice … none of that matters. Consider: Kanye’s “Sunday Services” are being lauded as tent revival altar calls for thousands of new Christians (literally — more than 1,000 concert-goers dedicated or rededicated their lives to Christ during one of the events earlier this month, according to news reports). Social media fervor is at a fever pitch celebrating Kanye’s conversion, and how his most recent work is leading others to Christ.
In a sense, what he’s done has become greater than him, and “Jesus Is King” has become both a part of the zeitgeist as well as a contemporary Christian milestone that’s electrified Jesus culture in a way few acts or artists have done in several decades.
“It’s the work of a guy with a lot of resources who must know folks are going to buy in, but just like Joel Osteen, the hidden value might be that folks find personal peace in it, in spite of itself,” Wil says.
Very complex, as Wil notes. And absolutely fascinating. What a time to be alive.