Kanye West And The Cult Of Personality

When "Jesus Walks" by Kanye West went on sale in 2004, the song was praised for daring to introduce the debate of faith in the hip-hop genre. Fifteen years later, West contemporaries are still talking about its impact. In the first episode of “Hip-Hop: The Songs That Shook America,” an AMC documentary series that premiered on Sunday, singer and lyricist John Legend said: “Kanye made it okay to talk about your faith in songs that didn't They were Christian. ”

This constant reverie and goodwill around "Jesus Walks" is what West has bet on since the beginning of this year "Sunday Service" (which can be translated as "Sunday Mass"), a series of improvised meetings indirectly religious in the ones he presents to a gospel choir (who usually wears an outfit from the rapper's clothing line, Yeezy).

The list of songs changes from one week to another, but the axis of the productions, which flow harmoniously between songs of piety and salvation to new and more daring configurations of modern secular successes, lies in that simple subversive of their first album, "The College Dropout", in which the artist recites exultant the final verse of the song, stressing its cadence and alternating it with the intervention of the choir.

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Through a unique invitation (or in the case of Coachella last April, the excessive price of a festival ticket), the privileged few present at those meetings can rub shoulders with people like ASAP Rocky, Chance the Rapper, Brad Pitt and other characters from High profile of the show, while enjoying this “exclusive” experience. The events serve as a transparent attempt by West to, in essence, reorganize itself within the context of religion after a long series of controversies that deliberately border on the salacious, whether due to an unwanted reprimand to Taylor Swift, the fact that he uses the MAGA cap ("Make America Great Again", Trump's motto of "Let's make America great again") or a controversial appearance in TMZ in which he claimed that slavery was a "decision".

However, this initiative is interpreted as an appropriation clearly interested in the religious traditions of blacks, and the “Sunday Service” presentations are in fact no more than concerts that resort to vague aphorisms and West's personality cult , to the extent that it has become a recurring joke to say that he leads a true cult. Black Christians have expressed skepticism about the singer's intentions, and the rapper's previous comments about how he perceives the relationship between hip-hop and the Church justify his concern.

“Up to a point, hip-hop is a religion, rappers are preachers and music, the scriptures, do you understand?” Says West in an archive video that reappeared in the documentary series. “It's just like the Church, because you go to a concert, you raise your arms in the air, you sing songs and you definitely pay some money. As in the church. ”

The description of “Sunday Service” given by his wife, Kim Kardashian West, during an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” does not help: “There is no prayer or homily. There are no writings. There is only music and feeling. ”

Reducing the tradition of the black faith to "music only" is precisely what (in the case of some places of worship of the African-American community) has become a similar project to generate profits. For almost thirty years there have been Sunday tours of ecclesiastical services at Harlem landmarks, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church Sion (the oldest black church in New York City) and the Abyssinian Baptist Church, whose influx increased in early century. Tourists pay as if they were going to a concert to enter a sacred spiritual space and get an idea of ​​what a church's famous choir looks like, instead of attending a spiritual service and understanding the importance of church history. The gospel is reduced to a commodity, instead of being a legacy.

It was said that this tension was evident in the grandiloquent performance that West made in the Great Allen Cathedral last month, and that it took place during a confusing promotion of what is supposed to be his next album, "Jesus Is King" It was scheduled to go on sale on September 27, but has not yet been commercialized – although a complementary documentary of the same name is expected to be released on IMAX screens on October 25).

The initial and more conventional musical invocations of praise and faith of the choir gave rise to a freestyle performance, while West claimed to be a rapper "with a purpose, not just superficial." The choir, which occupied the first benches of the church and not its traditional place on the stage platforms, reacted euphorically, dancing, jumping and responding in unison while the parishioners – of which it is said that several left the church – watched.

These presentations have helped grant West a certain license that, it should be noted, has not been granted to slandered artists for committing similar sins on a smaller scale, such as Chrisette Michele, a singer with gospel roots that in 2017 was widely criticized by sing in President Trump's protest. The "Sunday Service" videos have circulated online with enthusiasm and proclamations, as if West were doing something unusual in music.

However, mixing a gospel song with an R&B song – Ginuwine's slow, romantic song, for example, "So Anxious," – is nothing new (Kirk Franklin and other gospel artists have been making mixes of secular songs in the church for years). Likewise, with “Jesus Walks,” West was just one of several rappers — which include M.C. Hammer, Diddy and DMX before him – who introduced a cycle of faith exploration into commercial hip-hop, as Billboard's Naima Cochrane and others have pointed out.

Even if “Jesus Walks” is not as entirely original as his colleagues want to make us believe, in the origins of the song a power persists that seems to have been lost today. The Choir of the Addiction Rehabilitation Center, directed by its founder, James Allen, recorded "Walk With Me," an arrangement of a gospel hymn, in 1997. In "The Songs That Shook America," a chorus member says that At that time, they were singing for their lives, like when they originally performed the song.

It is a clear call of faith and conviction, whose essence West, at its best, distilled in 2004 on the musical hook of "Jesus Walks", which includes a phrase of "Walk With Me": "God show me the way , because the Devil's trying to break me down ”(God show me the way, because the devil is trying to sink me).

However, when we watch the videos of the interpretation of West during the “Sunday Service” concerts, it seems like a copy of the feeling and legacy that it once represented, a mere interlude to convey nondescript phrases of “God is love” or selfish diatribes And on the defensive. During his recent service in Salt Lake City, West ranted against those who have criticized him for his friendly relationship with President Trump and the Republican Party: “I have never made a decision based solely on my skin color. That is a form of slavery, of mental slavery. ”

Iconoclasm, even in its most ordinary execution, is commonly full of the conventions of religion. If "Jesus Walks" is a song that West created to point out the sins of man, as his collector Rhymefest (whose real name is Che Smith) has stated, his first acknowledgment of guilt should be that of the paradox of spreading the farce of thought original seen through the prism of the Kanye West church.

* Copyright: c. 2019 The New York Times Company

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