The scene inside a conference centre in Pigeon Forge, a kitschy Appalachian resort town in Eastern Tennessee, is a very different America to the one I am familiar with. Collected there in the aircraft-hangar-sized hall are 12,000 teenagers. The crowd is very Southern, very religious and very excited. It is a Sunday morning. The occasion is Strength to Stand, a Christian youth conference run by Scott Dawson, an evangelical preacher from Alabama.
As the overwhelmingly white audience, the majority of whom are there with their church group, wait for the main event, they are shown slick advertisements for church-approved films, musicians and colleges. The names of actors, directors and pastors cross the screens around the room and the lips of compères on stage. None of them mean anything to me. The exception is the headline act, a performer who, were it not for the consistency with which he shocks and confounds, would have been impossible to imagine at an event like this only a year ago.
Kanye West is one of the most consequential musicians of the twenty-first century. The 42-year-old rapper from Chicago has nine number-one albums and dozens of hit songs. He has won 21 Grammys, sold out stadiums around the world and headlined Glastonbury. As a performer, he is responsible for some of the most exhilarating, era-defining, genre-scrambling music in recent history. As a producer, his fingertips are all over contemporary music. The list of people who have done more than West to determine the sounds that fill our ears every day is a short one.
Unless you have gone without internet access for two decades, you will know that West’s cultural footprint is even bigger than that of his music. Foremost among his other creative pursuits is fashion. Through his multi-billion dollar brand Yeezy, he designs otherworldly trainers and sells them at criminally marked-up prices. Then there is his blooper reel of egomaniacal boasts and PR blunders; a steady stream of micro-controversies has kept entertainment writers and tabloid editors busy ever since the release of his first album in 2004.
The most infamous of those mishaps came in 2009, when West interrupted 19-year-old Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for “Best Female Music Video” at the MTV Video Music Awards, snatching the microphone to claim that Beyoncé should have won. It is just one example of the irascible brattishness with which West has often conducted himself — and it may not be the worst. His wife Kim Kardashian West, whom he married in 2014, is arguably the biggest reality television star on the planet. (She has an equally strong claim to having the world’s most famous bottom.) It is not hard to understand why many see the braggadocious superstar and his selfie-obsessed sex symbol wife as the first couple of the vapid celebrity culture that dominates in the internet age.
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And yet here he is in Pigeon Forge. Or so Dawson assures the small gaggle of press, most from what I discover is known as “faith media”. “Kay Dubya is in the building,” says the Alabamian evangelist excitedly. How does Dawson explain the appearance? God, of course. “There’s no way I could have tried to orchestrate this. It is a ‘but God’ situation.”
A more temporal explanation would include a bit more context, including the moment about a year ago when West experienced a kind of religious reawakening. Shortly afterwards, one of the most powerful cultural figures in America made a choice to focus on his faith above all else. As he said in the not-so-humble third person in one interview: “Kanye West works for God now!” One another occasion he was even less modest: “The greatest artist that God ever created works for Him now.”
On the first Sunday of 2019, West hosted a performance of gospel versions of some of his biggest hits for a small A-list celebrity audience in Calabasas, the ritzy LA exurb where he, Kim and their four children live. After he did the same thing in subsequent weeks, videos quickly spread on social media: the phosphorescent lighting made for visually striking footage and fans were excited to see the artist revisiting some of his most treasured songs.
With every iteration, the event, which West calls Sunday Service, grew into something bigger and more explicitly religious. He took the production on an ad hoc tour around the country. Sometimes Sunday Service pitched up in the sort of place you’d expect to see West: at Coachella music festival or The Forum in LA. But other stops were more surprising.
In November, West brought his choir to the 17,000-seat megachurch in Houston run by the famous televangelist Joel Osteen. He performed at a small benefit for the victims of gun violence in Dayton, Ohio and even in two Texas jails — the footage shows West hugging inmates in orange jumpsuits and performing “Jesus Walks”, an early hit with a thumping a capella sample that evokes the chants of a chain gang, as the prisoners wipe tears from their eyes. Gradually, West’s newfound religiosity was starting to look like something more serious than a stunt from a superstar with a short attention span. A cultural giant was doing something that felt genuinely countercultural and new.
When west arrives to administer Sunday Service in Tennessee, most of the audience don’t notice. The lighting is low and there is little to distinguish him from the 60 or so choir members and small band as they process in single file towards the circular stage in the middle of the room. They are dressed identically in West-designed over-sized grey-beige garments that could easily have come from the Star Wars costume department. The choir forms a circle in the bright-white stage light, their backs to the audience, with West and half a dozen musicians out of sight in the middle.
Surrounding the stage is a meadow-like arrangement of 38,000 flowers (courtesy of West), tall, deep and beautiful in a maximalist, more-is-more way. “Is there anybody here at the Strength to Stand conference that loves the great name of Jehovah? The great name of Jeee-zus?” asks choir director Jason White as an electric organ plays. The teenagers scream and the choir launches into the first song, a religious reworking of West’s 2016 song “Ultralight Beam”.
Even your non-believing correspondent cannot help but be moved by the sound the choir creates as they blast the final word of each line:
We are steppin’ out on FAITH
His love is YOURS
We are SAVED
He is the risen LORD.
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The chain of events that led to Sunday Service started in 2016 when West experienced a very public personal crisis. After a series of unhinged onstage rants during a world tour to promote his seventh album, The Life of Pablo, and shortly after his wife had been tied up and robbed at gunpoint in a Paris apartment, West was hospitalised with exhaustion and the rest of his tour cancelled. It was the start of a turbulent few years, in which West grappled with mental health problems, was diagnosed as bipolar, developed and then eventually beat an addiction to opioids without ever fully retreating from the public glare.
In the midst of this personal tumult, West also underwent political excommunication. In December 2016, he shocked many when he appeared outside the golden elevator in Trump Tower for a meeting with the president-elect. The following year, he was more explicit, donning a red MAGA cap and declaring his support for the president.
In America’s ruthless culture war, there are few victories more cherished than a defection. On the rare occasion an actor, singer, author or sports star pops up on the other side of the fence, they are paraded like Stalin’s daughter in New York or Kim Philby in Moscow. Republicans have long struggled for street cred, falling back on ageing actors for celebrity endorsements, so the arrival of a black hip-hop superstar on their side of the argument was welcomed with a glee matched only by the other side’s outrage.
In 2018, West served up one of the most eye-popping scenes of the Trump era, holding forth to a bank of reporters alongside the president in the Oval Office. It was a manic performance in which he heaped praise on the commander-in-chief — and himself. One of the stranger moments in this strange event was when West pulled out his iPhone to show Trump illustrations of a hydrogen-powered aircraft he called the iPlane1 and argued that it should replace Air Force One. “We’ll get rid of Air Force One,” said the president. “Can we get rid of Air Force One?”
In some respects, this bromance is hardly surprising. West and Trump are both relentlessly boastful, have a boundless capacity to hold a grudge and make little effort to hide their narcissism (Or, as West put it in a tweet, both are in possession of the same “dragon energy”.) While the president’s children tweeted enthusiastically about West’s support for their father, liberal dismay was typified by Michael Eric Dyson, an African-American sociology professor at Georgetown University and public intellectual. Dyson described West’s support for Trump as “white supremacy by ventriloquism”: “A black mouth is moving but white racist ideas are flowing from Kanye West’s mouth.”
Republicans have long struggled for street cred, falling back on ageing actors for celebrity endorsements
Others took West even less seriously, reducing him to little more than a punchline on late-night comedy programmes. Some demeaned him, claiming with a patina of concern that West’s political views were no more than a manifestation of his mental health problems. All the evidence — from his work in music and fashion to his politics and faith — suggests that West has a powerful heretical impulse. Is it any surprise that he opted out of the wokeness arms race?
Given all the outrage and jokes at West’s expense, it is worth pointing out although West obviously admires Trump, he is not shy about making clear that there are many areas where he and the president disagree. Notwithstanding these disagreements, his support for Trump has brought him and his wife real political power. Kardashian West is a campaigner for criminal justice reform and on a visit to the White House in 2018, she raised the case of Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old given a life sentence for a non-violent drug offence in the 1990s. West doesn’t appear to want to limit his political influence to having the President on speed dial. For years he has teased a presidential run of his own. West 2024 sounds like a joke. But the man himself seems deadly serious.
Days later, Trump commuted her sentence and she walked free. By one count, Kardashian West has helped with the release of 17 such prisoners and her documentary on mass incarceration will be released next month. Criminal justice reform may not be at the top of Trump’s to-do list, but the fact that it is even on his radar is largely thanks to the Wests.
Meanwhile, West’s personal crisis was reflected in his music. “I hate being Bi-Polar it’s awesome” is scrawled in his handwriting on the cover of 2018’s Ye, his eighth and most troubling album. At the start of its opening track, West declares:
Today I thought about killing you
I contemplated premeditated murder
And I think about killing myself
And I love myself way more than I love you
Evidently, West’s struggle was not over. Shortly after Ye, he released “I Love It” with teenage rapper Lil Pump, a sleazy, nihilistic two-minute song built around the refrain “You’re such a fucking ho, I love it” and in which West mutters lines like “I’m a sick fuck, I like a quick fuck”. He had hit creative rock bottom.
Thirteen months on, with Sunday Service up and running and West’s creative energies dedicated to God, a new album appeared: Jesus Is King. The contrast with the work he was producing little more than a year ago was stark. It is an unambiguously religious album — and a musical return to form that went straight to number one. It did so not while espousing a feel-good, thank-you-Jesus Christianity one is accustomed to seeing on the awards show stage, but with a challenging and uncompromising interpretation of scripture.
The title of one song, “Closed on Sunday” is a reference to Chick-fil-A, a chain of fast-food chicken shops owned by Southern Baptists and famously closed for the sabbath. It is a two-and-half-minute rejection of modernity and an embrace of traditional fatherhood in which West instructs his audience to:
Hold the selfies, put the ’Gram away
Get your family, y’all hold hands and pray
When you got daughters, always keep them safe
Watch out for vipers, don’t let them indoctrinate
Raise our sons, train them in the faith
Through temptations, make sure they’re wide awake
Follow Jesus, listen and obey.
When recording the album he asked those involved to fast and abstain from premarital sex. He has spoken to his wife about dressing more modestly. He now requests that no one uses profanity around him, and he no longer performs the vast majority of his back catalogue that isn’t explicitly religious in its message.
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For all its religious force and popular success, West’s message makes for an awkward fit with the media world that created him. Interviewers are stumped by the radicalism of his message and the earnestness with which he delivers it. In a two-hour conversation with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, a former Radio One DJ whose default setting is obsequiousness towards whichever megastar he happens to be talking to, West revealed a conservative worldview that includes everything from a critique of hypersexualised pop culture to a plan for bringing his shoe company’s factories back to the US and a desire for a more humane kind of city planning that is centred on churches and schools.
In the National Review, the theologian Andrew T. Walker summarised the interview as follows: “West has the anthropology of C.S. Lewis, the economics of Wilhelm Röpke, the cultural mood of Wendell Berry, and the defiance of Francis Schaeffer.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lowe had no idea what to make of it.
In Tennessee, 45 minutes pass before West makes any audible contribution to the performance. The choir is left to spread his message and the exuberance of their praise music is infectious. The choir stops and sits on the stage while we hear a tanned LA pastor in skinny jeans deliver a sermon on the Prodigal Son. West’s first words come on “Closed on Sunday”; he delivers his verses with his eyes shut and his head bowed. The crowd sing along to the hook: “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A”.
When he performs “Jesus Walks”, one of his best-known songs and the most religious of piece of music he had produced until Jesus is King, West makes several modifications. Where he used to say: “I ain’t here to argue about His facial features/Or here to convert atheists into believers”, he now affirms: “I’m here to convert atheists into believers”. The original song includes the line: “I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid ’cause we ain’t spoke in so long.” Now it ends with a declaration: “I wanna talk to God, I ain’t afraid no more”.
Towards the end of Sunday service, West interrupts his song “God Is” to deliver “my testimony from someone who has experienced everything the devil has to offer”. As the choir sways, singing “God is” quietly and occasionally lifting their hands to mark something West has said, he tells his story: “It was a treadmill that never stopped. It was never enough. With Christ in my life, I’ve learned to take things one day at a time. To be patient, with a freed and restored mind. I say follow me as I follow God. All the controversial things that I stood up for, and that people didn’t agree with, were my truth and were only getting me ready for the Absolute Truth. I want to be able to name more rappers, more basketball players, more actors, more people in a position of influence not afraid to say Jesus’s name out loud. The devil is a defeated foe. God ain’t gon’ let them do nothing to me until he done with me, so we ain’t got nothing to be afraid of. That’s what God is.”
You might ask why we should care about one man’s self-proclaimed salvation — however happier he appears to be because of it. There is a temptation, especially from a British point of view, to see little more than comedy value in the very American earnestness of it all. Or to dismiss as cant a flashy LA billionaire preaching to his less fortunate fans one week and posing on the red carpet in a leather suit, sunglasses and a thick gold chain the next. Undoubtedly and understandably, the irony of the situation — a rapper with a messiah complex, whose 2013 album was titled Yeezus (a portmanteau of West’s nickname Ye and Jesus) and includes the song “I am a God”, devoting himself to Christ — will be too much for some to bear.
But the striking thing about West’s frustrations with modern life, are how, well, normal they are. This is not the affluenza of the super-rich. West is concerned that his kids spend too much time staring at screens, and that, until recently, he was watching too much pornography. He worries that we’re all too materialistic, too caught up in our work and spending too much time on social media and away from our family.
He craves solace in an increasingly frenetic-feeling world. While his celebrity and wealth might explain the outlandish ways in which these fears manifested themselves for West, none of them are especially controversial, or especially hard to relate to. And if West doesn’t always practise what he preaches, then that only makes him more like the rest of us.
In other words, West is an extraordinary American with ordinary fears about twenty-first century life. And that makes him one of the country’s most interesting, and important, figures.
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