Kanye’s New Place in Christian Culture

Rozette Rago/NYT

Something very strange happened a couple weeks ago.

My mother texted me about Kanye West.

This was…unexpected. My mother has known for many years that I am a fan of Kanye West, but has always regarded him as one of my less admirable interests, like tattoos and liberalism.

And then, on Friday, as we waited for the arrival of Jesus is King, non-MAGA evangelical Twitter started tweeting about Kanye. There was even a disarmingly clever tweet from @ChurchCurmudgeon:

My father, who I believe has always regarded my Kanye fandom with a bemused expression, and who is a pastor (evangelical but not exactly non-MAGA) DM’d me on Twitter, sharing a Tweet referring to a reading of Kanye via Augstine:

This new, premarital sex-opposed Yeezy was obviously reaching a new audience in a new way.

And then the album arrived and there was a stampede of opinions and reactions which was as large as the herd of pigs into which Jesus sent Legion and charged downhill just as heedlessly. I expect many people are already done listening to it, but it’s clear we’re not done talking about it, as a variety of reactions continue to be published not only on the usual outlets, but on evangelical sites as well, such as The Gospel Coalition.

The writing and production of Jesus is King is almost besides the point.
The run-up, roll-out, release, and reception has revolved instead around this album as a very public, very high-profile declaration of Christian faith, and the conversation has proceeded accordingly. Opinions about the quality of the project are still coming, now that critics have had time to sit with it for a little while, but the discourse has been and remains concerned primarily with the Gospel declarations of a man who once styled himself as a god. One of the most famous celebrities in the world, and one of the greatest artists of his time, is praising God in public, and it demands a unique hold on the public imagination.

The week before, another rapper who is a Christian released a long-awaited album, significant for its musical quality as well a milestone in a fascinating career, only the most notable public discussion of it is from a guy on a blog called Intentional Nachos.

The album is Domino by JGivens, which appeared on streaming platforms on October 20 without any think pieces in The Atlantic or the protestant blogosphere. Domino arrives four years after J’s masterful Fly Exam. At the time of that album, JGivens was one of the rising stars in “Christian” hip-hop and signed to its best label (Humble Beast), exhibiting a unique artistic vision and unsurpassed lyricism affected by his personal demons and keen theology. In the four years since Fly Exam, JGivens left Humble Beast, came out as gay, and revealed that he is HIV-positive. The long-awaited follow-up album was released independently through a Patreon campaign.

And it’s *Tim Kurkjian voice* really good. It is, first and foremost, another excellent project from a talented and committed artist in command of his craft even as he pushes its limits. But Domino is also a compelling cultural artifact coming from a rapper who is gay, Black, and Christian. It’s a public expression of Christian life, even if its sound and style is a far cry from a Sunday sermon.

I do not mean to put up a fence between Jesus is King and Domino or between Kanye and J – in fact, JGivens has been outspoken as a prayerful fan of West. I also don’t mean to turn this into a complaint about which artists are and are not famous. But I do think it’s worth juxtaposing these two albums, artists, and their receptions in order to critique our reactions to public expressions of faith.

Rappers who are Christians are not new; Kanye won a Grammy for “Jesus Walks” 15 years ago, and the subgenre of “Christian” hip-hop has been producing first-rate music for at least ten years. And while some of us have engaged thoughtfully (and, well, not so thoughtfully in some cases) Kanye’s faith and CHH’s legitimacy have remained fairly niche topics. It has only been in the last few years that a larger segment of the population has latched onto this phenomenon, with the volume rising with the public declarations of Kendrick Lamar, then Chance the Rapper, and then Kanye [insert obvious Holy Trinity reference]. This has become a thing, and a thing for an audience that would have previously been unaware or uncaring. The reaction to Jesus is King is unprecedented.

But, as it so happens, the musical testimony with which we have decided to engage is so over-the-top that it renders our usual critical approaches insufficient. Just as the album goes for big sounds on a short run-time, it makes bold declarations of faith with bland platitudes. Like throwing a Clipse reunion on the same song with Kenny G, it implores listeners to trust in God while also making a defense for why Kanye’s merchandise is so expensive. It alludes to vulnerability but it also endorses the prosperity Gospel. Albums don’t usually sound like this, and artists don’t usually act like this.

But what this album doesn’t do is also significant and singular. Unlike most Christian rap albums, Jesus is King makes almost no reference to racism and other social issues. It does not utilize significant personal anecdotes. It is not countercultural, and it comes from a man who has given his approval to Donald Trump and suggested that slavery was a choice. The Christianity of Jesus is King is antiseptic and removed from its cultural context and the imperative of social justice, the kind of Christianity which edited out Kirk Franklin’s remarks at the Dove awards and the kind that led thousands of fans to desert artists like Lecrae.

An inordinate amount of attention is being given, then, to a public declaration which is fairly bland, simple, and commercial – words which don’t compute with subversive Christianity.

And yet, this album declares the glory of God. We can criticize the messenger and be skeptical of his motives, but Christians should celebrate when faith is declared to the masses. The Apostle Paul was not picky about how the Word got out. Christianity is a missional religion, and so millions of downloads of an album extolling the virtues of the Christian God is cause to celebrate and a reason to light up evangelical twitter. Quite unexpectedly, Kanye West becomes a Christian culture warrior, and Christians love when they find out a famous person is one of theirs. It’s why Tim Tebow’s fame outstripped his athletic merits.

But perhaps there is a little too much stock set in Christianity gaining celebrity endorsements. In the words of Bryan Winchester, aka Braille, (JGivens’ former labelmate), “We don’t need more superstars / We need more Gospel-centered churches.”[1] And it’s true; Gospel advancement is hindered far more by ineffective churches than by a lack of famous Christians. The Gospel Coalition writes much more, of course, about church life than it does about celebrities, but does this hold true for the masses? It is possible that celebrity Christians hold a a disproportionate importance in the minds of the average Christian, and that, in turn, Christians and Christianity in the secular imagination looks much more like its most famous adherents than it should.

People are talking about Jesus is King instead of Domino because Kanye West is one of the most famous people in the world and Jeremiah Givens is not. However, if fame is what determines which public declarations of faith are worthy of attention, then it is possible that public discourse will be dominated by personalities and projects that lack the traits which define voices like JGivens’. Domino is a more realistic, more human, more challenging portrait of a Christian. Jesus is King, with its overt, expansive, simple vision is easy. The latter may serve as a way to make much of God in public, but the former is moves us to answer the tough questions and to engage with what Christian faith means for humans as messy works-in-progress. Perhaps the audience of Domino is closer to two copper coins, but those can mean a great deal.

I am interested in how Kanye will continue to perform his faith in public, and it’s clear I am not the only one. But I’m also interested in following along with JGivens and the parts of his life he shares with the world. The fact that one of those stories caught the attention of my parents and the other remains underground is not surprising, but it is potentially concerning. The world is watching Kanye, but they’re also watching Christians, and the way we respond to celebrity faith will say a lot about where we are putting our precious time and attention. For where our treasure is, there are hearts will be also.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

~click the number to return to the text~

1 I have seen Braille rap this a few times when Beautiful Eulogy does “Exile Dial Tone” and it is awesome how the crowd gets so hyped about it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s