On his 2004 hit “Jesus Walks,” Kanye West pleaded, “God, show me the way, because the Devil’s tryin’ to break me down … And I don’t think there is nothing I can do now to right my wrongs. I want to talk to God, but I’m afraid because we ain’t spoke in so long.” Fifteen years later, West, the mega hip-hop star and fashion mogul (and husband of Kim Kardashian), appears to have found his way back to God.
His new album, titled Jesus Is King, is heavily influenced by gospel music. The album’s opening track, “Every Hour,” features a choir intoning the phrase “Sing ‘til the power of the Lord comes down,” referencing the classic gospel song of the same name, as well as the Book of Psalms from which the phrase is derived. On the next song, “Selah,” West envisions, in his unabashedly conceited way, his final destination: “God is king, we the soldiers/Ultrabeam out the solar/ When I get to heaven’s gates/I ain’t gotta peek over.” Later in the song, he advises, “They say the week start on Monday/But the strong start on Sunday.”
The album’s fourth track, “Closed on Sunday,” has a more direct suggestion: “Hold the selfies, put the ‘Gram away/Get your family, y’all hold hands and pray.” It’s a lesson of faith West aims to impart not just to his fans, but his collaborators, too. “There were times where I was asking people not to have premarital sex while they were working on the album,” West said in a recent interview. “Families who pray together stay together.”
This year, ahead of the release of Jesus Is King, West has been conducting Sunday services across the United States, featuring the album’s choir and other associates performing gospel standards, Kanye classics – minus the expletives – and updated versions of classic R&B tunes. (In perhaps his most godly feat, West has managed to resurrect the career of Jewish jazz saxophonist Kenny G, who appears on Jesus Is King track “Use This Gospel.”)
The first such Sunday service took place in January at an unlikely location, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. There was no stage, just a circle of musicians and singers – West meandering among them – performing on a hillside for thousands of millennials. “It’s just an idea we had to open up our hearts to make music that we felt was as pure and as positive as possible, and just do it for an hour every Sunday,” West explained on Netflix’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman.
Sunday service performances are free to stream online, and viewing them, you get a real sense of the power of music in support of religious service. It’s a concept that is admittedly unfamiliar to my Jewish upbringing (though, of course, many Jews participate in choir singing and musical interplay during their Shabbat services). But watching West work through his faith live on stage is a powerful experience. You can see exactly how the singers and musicians, not to mention the audience, are helping him along a spiritual journey. It’s inspiring – and the music is good, too.
The other Saturday, I was walking with my kids to (Orthodox) shul when we chanced upon an outdoor Shabbat service in a park. A rabbi with a guitar was singing songs as parents clapped and kids danced along. There was a lot of joy happening. We stopped to take it all in, and for maybe the first time in my life, a musical service didn’t feel
like a weird way to spend Shabbat morning.