When I was a little girl in church, I would often hear my pastors warning us to not get caught up in the feeling. We were admonished to not worship God based on our emotions because feelings are temporal, but to worship God in spirit and truth simply because it is our due diligence as Her children. Recently, Kanye West released his anticipated “Jesus Is King” LP, a collection of secular-turned-sacred music inspired by his impromptu “Sunday Sermon” tour across the country.
I haven’t listened to the album. Frankly, I don’t plan to ever listen to the album. As a daughter of the Black church, secular-turned-sacred worship is neither new nor unfamiliar. I grew up hearing Just My Salvation by Rance Allen, a cover of the iconic Temptations song of a similar name. My music collection nestles “Jesus is the Best Thing (That Ever Happened)” by James Cleveland between former club bangers like Stevie Wonder-influenced “You Brought the Sunshine” by The Clark Sisters (and Charles Nicks and the St. James Choir) and “Stomp” by Kirk Franklin.
It has long been a practice of the Black church to find acts of worship beyond the sanctuary. Hearing a riff of 2pac or Blackstreet from the musicians is as common as hearing a hallelujah in many Sunday services. I have no desire to be a gatekeeper of gospel music nor do I stand in critique of the soundness of Kanye’s theology. If his album lacks cohesive, sound theology, then he finds himself in the company of many contemporary gospel artists whose music also lacks in that area. Yet despite a rush to call Jesus is King a transformative work, I’m compelled to ask as Jesus did in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:16, whose fruit is ’Ye?
Fruit of Anti-Blackness
No stranger to controversy in his career, we’ve witnessed Kanye West snatch mics with declarative statements of Black value — from “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” in 2005 to storming the stage of 2009 VMAs with his (perhaps unsolicited defense) of Beyonce. Which is why we were collectively shocked when he suggested in 2018 that 400 years of chattel slavery and institutional oppression of Black bodies in the west was a “choice” on our behalf. We could argue that this is prior to West’s recent conversion — or as the saints would say, a return from his backslidden state.
Yet, fresh off the heels of his Jesus is King album, West continues to remain relentless in his devotion to antiblackness and declaring that Blacks “do not drive culture” and that Blacks are, in fact, “culture-less.” The irony lost upon him, however, is that it is Black culture that birthed him to superstardom and it’s certainly Black church culture upon which he hopes to prop his next commercial windfall with Jesus is King. It is Blackness and all that it entails that gives soul to the sacred and the secular. It is Blackness that continues to forgive and enlarge itself to make room for his redemption even when he decides to merely spit back in our faces.
Fruit of White Supremacy
West’s unrepentant devotion to the current White House administration and all it continues to do to further white supremacy cannot be separated from his newfound faith. As I’ve written before, when we view faith and politics as mutually exclusive others rather than the bedfellows that they have always been, we fail to acknowledge the pervasiveness of white supremacy within our worship. To see God as both for and within this current political regime and not as a heinous sin against the humanity of so many is to believe in white evangelicalism. Without a doubt, white evangelicalism is white nationalism.
The immutable doctrine of white evangelicalism is the concept of biblical inerrancy, the idea that a sacred text put together by selection of a few councils can and should be cited as the ultimate authority. It is this invention of biblical inerrancy by white evangelicalism that allowed for a biblical defense of the morally reprehensible transatlantic slave trade, legal subjugation and marginalization of non-white bodies, and the election of Donald Trump. West’s unyielding devotion to and support of a political house built upon this foundation is a gatekeeping of white supremacy. Oh and his budding friendship with Jerry Falwell Jr. doesn’t help matters much.
Fruit of Misogyny
Not far from my mind is West’s brazen misogyny and misogynoir of years past. Notwithstanding his self-fulfilling prophecy of the tendency for Black male entertainers to “get on and leave yo’ ass for a white girl”, of course. Who can forget his candid slander of Amber Rose, a woman he once claimed to love, after their breakup on The Breakfast Club? In that interview, he reveals that if his fantasy woman, Kim Kardashian, had entertained him after his initial shot there would be no Amber Rose. He drives his point home further, adding “It’s very hard for a woman to want to be with someone that’s with Amber Rose…I had to take 30 showers before I got with Kim.”
But he’s saved now. So his dream girl, a woman known for her unabashed sensuality (and an infamous amateur adult film), must clean up her act too. A man who once thrived on exploiting his wife’s body as an extension of himself now wants to repress that same sexuality. Recently a video clip was released of Kanye criticizing her hypersexual dress choice for the Met Gala. He’s [reportedly] demanding that she covers up and runs her clothing choices by him when going out in public since her image should now align with his newfound Christian devotion.
A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. tweetMatthew 7:18 NRSV
Certainly, I’m in no position to judge Kanye West. What I’m offering here is in fact not a judgment. Yet, in the words of my godsister’s beloved grandmother, “No, we can’t judge nobody. But if we’re all fruit, certainly we can all be fruit inspectors.” What we’re experiencing is not the fruit of a good tree, but the emotionalism the elders warned me not to get caught up in as a little girl. West has produced the feel good ravings experienced by every new convert but lacks both experience and critical interrogation of the faith or the text. The rush to crown him as the new voice of an unchurched generation is a grave mistake.
If we truly believe that God can use anybody, women and queer led worship spaces would be the norm. Instead we continue to demonize queer bodies in the pulpit while shrouding them in an unspoken don’t ask, don’t tell ministry ethic as they lead our worship and arts ministries. If we believed in the boundless power of God, we wouldn’t whisper in confusion about queer-led churches or fervently pray the gay away.
If we truly validated the divinity of all bodies, we wouldn’t still find denominations and congregations who refuse to ordain women in 2019. Women who preach would be an expected mainstay on our church programs and ministry conference rosters rather than only trotting us out to preach Esther and Ruth in March and May and telling us that God has called for our silence in the other 363 days of the year.
Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote. tweetIsaiah 29:13 NRSV
To call this exercise in vainglory by Kanye the presence of the Lord is to be both uncritical in our faith and ignore the demonstrated fruit of the vessel in question. A colonized Christ enshrined in capitalistic gain and topped with a MAGA cap is a far cry from the Christ who was murdered by the state, in front of His mother, for rejecting the institutionalized marginalization therein — even if the beat slaps.