It’s Sunday morning and I’m on my way to worship service—a normal part of my weekend routine except for the fact that it’s 4 a.m., I’m embarking on a five-and-a-half-hour drive from Sacramento to Southern California, and the service will be led by Kanye West.
Coinciding with the release of his much-anticipated ninth studio album, Jesus is King, West released $10 tickets for his “Sunday Service” at The Forum, a 17,500-seat stadium in Inglewood that formerly hosted the Los Angeles Lakers. I bought tickets on a whim and convinced my friend Vince, who is also a bit impulsive, to attend the show with me. Groggy and a little delusional, we laugh about what a bad idea this is (we also plan to make the drive home immediately after the show).
We listen to the new album on repeat as we drive, dissecting each bar and rating his tracks as I quietly hope that the performance will paint a clearer picture of West’s new status as an unlikely evangelical darling. But when we arrive at the venue, the tangle of contradictions only seems to grow.
By the time we arrive, the typical pre-concert rituals are already underway, but against the backdrop of the album’s strong religious message and iconography the scene is disorienting. Masses wait in line to snag limited edition Yeezy merchandise—one crewneck with pictures of a medieval dark-skinned Jesus runs for $250—a woman poses provocatively in front of a banner that read “Jesus is King,” and the unmistakable scent of California kush punctuates the air.
“He’s tapping into an urban market,” says Susie Seiko, an LA musician and longtime West fan. Seiko, who frequents multiple churches in the area including Hillsong Church LA, is excited about Kanye’s new direction. “He’s showing the world that you can believe in God and still be excited and lit about music.”
Called “Sunday Service,” these pop-up worship events were originally described by Kanye’s wife Kim Kardashian West as a “healing experience” to “start off your week.” The initial events were usually private and hosted Hollywood A-listers like Brad Pitt and Katy Perry. Back then, I couldn’t help but assume that the services were more about self-promotion than sincerity, and that like many artists before him, Kanye was commodifying the church experience for clout and profit.
But following a widely attended Sunday Service at Coachella earlier this year, where the visibly distressed rapper wept during the performance, something changed. West said that afterwards he became “born again.”
In the following months, the title of his impending album Yandhi was changed to Jesus is King and he announced that he would no longer be making secular music. The internet swirled with reports about how he had confronted his wife about modesty, that he was asking album collaborators to fast and abstain from premarital sex, and that his latest spiritual mentor Rev. Adam Tyson, a graduate of John MacArthur’s The Master’s Seminary, was teaching him about the Five Solas of the Reformation.
With most shows now open to the public, the crowd, filled with the inevitable mismatch of hypebeasts and hipsters drawn to LA headliners, seems to validate Seiko’s claim. His most diehard fans seem to be taking this newfound faith to heart. Juan Rosales, an LA native who calls West “one of the greatest rap artists ever,” has not attended church in years, but says that the lyrics of “Closed on Sunday” are making him rethink the idea of the Sabbath. “The Bible says you shouldn’t work on Sunday, so I want to use that day to reconnect with family members and go to church more often.”
While many are embracing West’s new God-centered music (some have even skipped their weekly church service to attend the event), others from non-religious backgrounds say that West is their first real exposure to Christianity. Pasha Esmaili has never stepped inside a church before but loves to watch the services online. “[Kanye’s] the only person who can make me like this kind of music. I’m not religious, but even him playing this makes me feel some type of way. It’s weird,” he says.
Considering West’s seemingly endless stream of controversies, the impassioned support of his fans is notable. Perhaps numbed by the artist’s many scandals, fans are quick to forgive his past transgressions.
“As Christians, we can’t judge anyone—only God can judge,” says Seiko, who added she’s been personally praying for West since his mother passed in 2007. “You shouldn’t judge someone based on their past. You cannot say that someone is always going to be this way.”
But not all Christians have received his new identity with celebration. While many have welcomed him as a new bona fide evangelical (some hip megachurches are already playing his new album in their lobby), others have argued that West is appropriating the sounds of gospel music with white evangelical theology while neglecting the genre’s theology of resistance. His predilection for sporting Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat and his claim that Democrat-voting blacks are trapped in “mental slavery” have only added to that disarray.
Reflecting on the rapper’s numerous blunders over the years, I have held substantial misgivings about his overnight popularity among evangelicals, questioning whether West’s rise to contemporary Christian music stardom was in spite of these perceived missteps, or because of them.
The list of West’s unsubstantiated, ahistorical (though often well-intentioned) “hot takes”—from calling Chicago the murder capital of the world to claiming that slavery “sounds like a choice”—are too arduous to mention and to purport such ideas while wielding his level of influence is dangerous.
Though the Bible encourages believers to extend a charitable view towards those who profess belief, I found myself, like the Apostle Thomas, skeptical and looking for proof. I was willing to drive almost 400 miles to find it.
Centered inside the arena floor is a round, green-matted stage wrapped with vibrant potted flowers—bright yellow sunflowers, deep red roses and lavender irises. Beyond that, tendrils of green foliage weave out from the center stage, stretching towards the stands. It’s a striking set; it’s Eden.
In silence, a stream of over 100 singers dressed in all white spiral in a circle and stand silently on the darkened stage as the crowd cheers with anticipation. Choir director Jason White, who has been directing the service since it debuted in January, stands at attention and, with one swift wave of the hand, summons the chorus to life.
“Je-sus is Lord! The Lord of Lords! Our God he reigns for-ever!”
Their singular and unflinching voice silences the crowd and the words ring in the air. The refrain repeats several times before their voices are replaced with the soft picking of a guitar and West’s voice filled the room.
“Closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-fil-A.”
I chuckle at the transition. Scanning the stage, I look for the source of West’s voice, but struggle to spot him amongst the crowd of singers and instrumentalists. Suddenly, the blare of trombones reverberate through the arena and the previously standstill choir bursts to life. Their rhythmic bodies sway, and from afar they are a singular hypnotizing organism.
“I bow down to the king up the throne / My life is his, I’m no longer my own.”
Finally, West appears. Standing atop a small platform in the middle of the chorus, a fitted black vest is the only thing that distinguishes him from the crowd.
The song finishes and as the thundering chorus softens, West steps down and disappears back into the chorus. I expect him to greet the crowd. But instead, it’s White’s voice, not West’s that speaks to energize the crowd. In fact, as the show progresses, and the band works their way through its repertoire of new and old songs—“Every Hour,” “Saint Pablo,” a cover of Steve Green’s “Hallelujah, Salvation and Glory”—West, apart from when he sings his lines, is uncharacteristically quiet. Instead, he wanders the stage, smiling and singing with the chorus off mic. As he lifts his daughter North onto his shoulders, sometimes handing her the mic and encouraging her to sing along, it finally dawns on me that this is not a concert—it’s a family worship service.
After a rendition of “Follow God,” the Rev. Adam Tyson takes the stage. Drawing from the former song’s refrain, he proclaims, “We stretch our hands out to God, but I’ve got good news for you today—he stretches his hands out to us.”
In a service that has remained broad in its appeal, with songs speaking generally on God’s goodness and love, Tyson hones in on a specific call to action: repentance. “It doesn't matter how many steps you’ve taken from our great God. It just takes one step of repentance, one step of faith,” he declares. “God’s calling you back.”
In his nine-minute sermon he speaks with striking clarity and conviction. He warns the crowd that God “sends unrepentant, unbelieving sinners to hell,” a line that receives stiff silence, but quickly pivots towards Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. Tyson knows that some of these faces might never step into a worship setting again, and he takes care to emphasize each beat of the gospel.
“There’s room at the cross for you this day,” he says, his last words before he steps down to a smattering of applause. “Come to him and be born again by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Come to him this day and declare that Jesus is king.”
The show quickly moves on as a series of West’s high-profile collaborators take the stage to perform—Francis and the Lights, Clipse (the brothers No Malice and Pusha T), and saxophonist Kenny G. The service’s penultimate number is a sultry rendition of his 2004 hit “Jesus Walks,” the lyrics of which have been notably changed to replace “I ain’t here to ... convert atheists into believers” to “we’re here to convert atheists into believers.” A verse about police brutality has also been omitted.
I scan the room and as White leads the crowd in “Jesus is Lord,” a simple song with the refrain, “Every knee shall bow / Every tongue confess / Jesus is Lord / Jesus is Lord,” I see arms outstretched, eyes closed and people lost in worship. Even Tyson, whose seminary is notorious for stoic and unmoving worship posture, can’t help but raise his hands.
Before closing, White addresses the crowd one last time, exhorting them to put their trust in Christ and leads the room with a version of the sinner’s prayer. I look for West again in the crowd, but I can’t find him. He’s already disappeared, and it occurs to me, that for the last half of the show, I had barely thought about him at all.
“I need prayer, not judgment,” West says at the opening of the following week’s service, once again held at The Forum. “We need a chance to learn God at our own speed. We’re human beings trying our best, repenting from our sins and learning and growing every day. And we need your hands on us, your prayers on us. Pray for me.”
If anything has resonated with me, it is the sincerity of West’s testimony. As I stood in the stands, the earnestness of his songs and prayers often gave me chills. And to his credit, West has never struggled to bear his soul.
But sincerity alone is not the fruit of salvation. For a peek into West’s unsteady steps into evangelicalism, the past few weeks alone should suffice: he reportedly struck up a controversial friendship with Liberty University president Jerry Farwell Jr., he claimed that God granted him a $68 million tax return in response to his conversion, he argued that Democrats have “brainwashed” black Americans in an interview with radio host Big Boy, and at a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, show on November 1, West held an altar call where 1,000 people reportedly raised their hands to accept Christ.
Driving home from the show, I found myself listening to “Street Lights,” a remnant of the old Kanye from his 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak. His soft repetitive refrain is tethered by the album’s minimal synth-pop style. Speaking just above a whisper, he sings, “Let me know / Do I still got time to grow? / Things ain't always set in stone.”
And as the endless California farmland stretched out before me, I was reminded of the ease with which West’s fans extended their absolutions. “We’re not all perfect,” Seiko had told me. “I just think there’s a little Kanye West in all of us.”
I was reminded that perhaps the best response is not less grace, but more.
Curtis Yee is a writer in Sacramento, California.