Kanye West's Sunday Service — a Religious Experience or a Celebrity Cult?
Kanye West’s Sunday Service has become a private affair that looks more like a celebrity cult — the spectacle of it all playing into the artist’s ongoing redemption tour after having such a divisive and polarizing 2018.
Kanye West has a God Complex. The Chicago artist pulled out of this year’s Coachella in early January after asking the organizers for a dome to be custom-built in the middle of the festival grounds.
“When senior executives from Coachella parent Goldenvoice explained that the dome would be impossible to build in four months and would require the AEG-owned concert promoter to rearrange the entire festival site and remove a large section of portable bathrooms, West became irritated, declaring that he was an artist with a creative vision who shouldn’t be spending his time talking about port-a-potties,” Billboard reported.
Months later, Coachella offered Kanye something more fitting of a man who calls himself a God — a mountain.
“We were out in Palm Springs and they took us to a little campground because we were thinking about a little performance in Palm Springs, just a little one. Then they had a mountain, he had a mountain waiting for us,” West said during a March 31 Sunday Service. “He had a date waiting for us. Only one date that mountain would be available to us: Easter Sunday at Coachella.”
Kanye West's Sunday Service on Easter, Weekend 2 🙏 pic.twitter.com/jFIcLYNUlV
— Coachella (@coachella) March 31, 2019
West’s Coachella Easter Service will be the first time he has offered the experience to the public. His weekly Sunday Service has become a private affair that looks more like a celebrity cult — the spectacle of it all playing into the artist’s ongoing redemption tour after having such a divisive and polarizing 2018.
West has been hosting weekly Sunday Services since early January 2019. The locations themselves vary: the group has performed in a dome in Adidas’ North American HQ, and the cops were called on a recent congregation in the Hidden Hills after numerous noise complaints. The services themselves feature West as a rapper-turned-preacher in front of a live band and choir who are dressed in matching monochrome uniforms — reminiscent of Black Baptist congregations — alongside special guests and collaborators like Kid Cudi, 070 Shake, Charlie Wilson, and others.
Although the services are non-denominational — West’s cousin and collaborator Tony Williams explained that “the goal is to administer and communicate the message of love effectively” — they are an aesthetic celebration of Black Christian music in its myriad forms. The setlist draws heavily from West’s own catalog — religious in its own right — but the choir also dips into the songbook, putting their spin on gospel and R&B classics from Soul II Soul‘s “Back To Life” to Fred Hammond‘s “This Is The Day.”
#thisistheday I know I’m late but the nephew @ypj Told me about this but when I heard and seen it … um um um 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥 #kanyewest flipped it! Save the negative comments about this Luke 19:40“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out #choirmusicrocks pic.twitter.com/U94Nh3kR7n
— Fred Hammond (@RealFredHammond) February 25, 2019
The guest list is invite-only and star-studded. There’s even a pre-service brunch. Attendees include Diplo, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, David Letterman, DMX, Courtney Love, Tyler, the Creator, Orlando Bloom, and others. Although attendees are reportedly required to sign a strict non-disclosure agreement forbidding them from speaking to the press, footage inevitably surfaces online, usually through West’s spouse, Kim Kardashian — who has also functioned as the group’s de facto spokesperson. The vibes are half Hillsong — the super-church attended by celebrities like Justin Bieber and Kourtney Kardashian — half Rajneeshpuram, the intentional community set up in the hills of Oregon by the followers of the mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
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Kanye West has been a religious artist — and a deeply devout one — from jump. The College Dropout‘s “Jesus Walks” was such an important song to the emerging West that he produced three music videos for the conceptual single, two of them paid for out of the artist’s own pocket. But despite the Holy Trinity of “Jesus Walks” premieres, The New York Times wrote that West at that time “refused to describe himself as religious.” “Religion,” according to the rapper, “just means that you do something over and over. I will say that I’m spiritual. I have accepted Jesus as my Savior. And I will say that I fall short every day.”
West’s faith has continued to play an integral part in his art since. 2013’s Yeezus was an unapologetically brash and explicit expression of West’s faith and ego, particularly on tracks like “I Am A God” and “New Slaves.” His tour in support of Yeezus was heavily reliant on religious imagery too, even featuring an actor who portrayed Jesus. This tour also served as the introduction to his sermon-like “visionary stream of consciousness” or “rants,” West often referencing Bible verses in them.
“When someone comes up and says something like, ‘I am a God,’ everybody says, ‘Who does he think he is?'” West said during a BBC Radio 1 interview that same year. “…to say you are a God, especially when you got shipped over to the country that you’re in and your last name is a slaveowner’s. How could you say that? How could you have that mentality?”
The Life of Pablo, West’s 2016 self-professed gospel album, elevated this concept even further. The eponymous Pablo is not just Picasso or Escobar but St. Paul the Apostle, one of the 12 disciples who knew Jesus personally. On the tour supporting the album, West was literally suspended over his fans and followers, many of them outfitted head to toe — like the Sunday Service choir — in pale, sandy merch and matching Yeezy Boosts.
After Pablo, West seemed to lose faith. There were the erratic tweets, the “Make America Great Again“ hat selfie, the chaotic Dragon Energy. West had pivoted away from religion and into politics with disastrous results. Standing in front of the TMZ staff, West proclaimed that slavery “sounded like a choice,” his statements alienating broad swathes of his fanbase. His vocal support of Donald Trump for the past two years further alienated his fans, West’s championing of the controversial president coming to a head when he visited him at the White House in October last year.
But before that, there was Wyoming, arguably a prototype to the Sunday Services. A part of his rollout for the album ye, West invited media figures, social media influencers, artists and celebrities to a listening party on a ranch in Wyoming, the rapper having created a moment of intrigue and hysteria that outlived the album it was meant to promote.
Sunday Service is West’s attempt at redeeming himself from all of this. To return to religion is to imply a want for forgiveness, and the cultish air of the services promotes that without reproach. It seems as if some fans have even returned to West, viral videos like the artist chopping up Hammond’s “This Is The Day” on an MPC, hinting at the return of an “old Kanye” in favor of who he is now.
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In these services, West can do no wrong: he can heal and maintain a cult of personality. And even if he does happen to get called out for a remark made during a service — like when he seemed to be alluding to the documentaries made about R. Kelly and Michael Jackson at a service in January — there’s Kardashian to clarify and dilute the controversy as nothing more than something taken out of context.
I’m going to nip this in the bud right now. Kanye was speaking about his own experience of everyone quick to say they are cancelling him because of differences in opinion & not being perfect. The analogies were in context to his own experiences, not defending anyone else.
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) January 14, 2019
I want to make it very clear, he is not condoning anyone’s actions or unacceptable disgusting behavior. My husband’s words are being taken out of context due to timing.
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) January 14, 2019
If anything, the services are a case-study in damage control.
Considering West’s last several albums were accompanied by extravagant rollouts, it’s possible that his Sunday Service is for Yandhi, an album that was supposed to be released last year but is still nowhere to be found, seen, or heard. He could use his Coachella appearance to premiere it, offering fans an intimate and distinct experience of the music before it’s properly released. Or, he could cancel the album altogether — either would be classic ‘Ye.
Whether Sunday Service lasts beyond the weekend is uncertain, too. Maybe it’s the precursor for a larger idea West has in mind for the 300 acres of land he recently acquired in California. Maybe it’s not. But Sunday Service is undoubtedly West’s latest iteration of his relationship with faith, him embarking in a religious aesthetic that, even in its sincerity, is just provocative and unsettling enough to fit West’s subversive persona.
Ben Roazen is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. You can follow him at @broazay.