Rapper Kanye West is one of the biggest pop culture personalities of our time. His critically-acclaimed and chart-topping music, premium fashion line, controversial public persona, blunt political opinions and his marriage to Kim Kardashian West keep the Chicago hip-hop artist consistently in the news.
Last week, West finally released his much-teased and highly anticipated album “Jesus Is King.” In much the same fashion as anything West does, the reaction to an album full of gospel music and theological lyrics has been enormous and polarizing.
Some Christians see Kanye’s life as just the highs and lows of an extreme and public display of what it looks like to walk with God over the course of a life. Others may see his conversion as more of a linear event that culminated sometime in the past year, which included this album and also the beginning of his hosting pop-up Christian services around the country.
How you understand Kanye’s conversion probably depends on the spiritual tradition someone comes from says Femi Olutade, one of the hosts for the hit music podcast, Dissect.
“If you come from more of a classical evangelical background, there’s a lot of focus that’s on kind of conversion stories and this kind of momentary ‘born again,’ born from above kind of experience, where everything changes,” said Olutade. “You have this overwhelming sense of emotion or thought that is just radically different before and after.”
But not all Christians have the same understanding of conversion.
“I would say that in the largest span of understanding Christian faith and life, [conversion] is one moment over a much larger period of what it means to follow God,” said Olutade. “...And I think it’s something that's a constant struggle, that takes constant repentance, constant forgiveness, constant tears, and constant working through.”
Olutade joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and Wes Jakacki to discuss Kanye’s long relationship with Christianity and what is and isn’t different in 2019.
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Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #184
What do you make of all the reactions to this new album from Kanye? Is this like the normal volume of chatter that you're used to seeing when it comes to a Kanye album, or is there something different that you see about this reaction?
Femi Olutade: There is definitely more. And for historical context, the last time Kanye released something was in 2018—and it was actually more than one thing. There was kind of a series of projects, they're all kind of shorter sessions he did where he's been in Wyoming—and so he released his own album. Yay.
He released a collaborative album with another rapper named Kid Cudi that was called Kids See Ghosts. And then he also produced some albums for some other really big-name hip hop artists, including Pusha T who is actually featured on this Jesus is King album, and one for NAS, who is often considered one of the top five greatest hip hop artists ever and has also used a lot of Christian imagery in his music.
Within people that pay attention to music and pay attention to media, I think people looked at these works, they watched it, they talked about it. But I would think that in that era, a lot of the talk was largely connected to a lot of Kanye's statements, particularly around Donald Trump and around slavery and things. And I think people were largely disappointed with Kanye because they felt that he had kind of sold out the black community. Particularly people from a liberal perspective felt that he was doing a disservice and even creating problems and that he was dragging people down. There was definitely a lot of talk related to political ramifications, and I think that overshadowed the musical work that he made and produced for other people.
There is still a decent amount of buzz related to what was going on in his political statements because we're still in that era of this somewhat unexpected kind of Kayne in terms of his political kind of musings, him wearing a Make America Great Again hat and things like that, so that's still a part of people's mindset about where Kanye is. But additionally, he's releasing a Christian album. This is a Christian album. He said it was going to be a Christian album. He released it and it is a Christian album.
Depending on who people are and how much they listen to hip hop, I think it's important to understand that it is very, very common to have religious wording, imagery and devotion talked about and depicted in hip hop. It is amazingly uncommon. In the era that Kanye was coming up, it was actually very uncommon to like never mention anything religious and it was very uncommon to have a view in which religion or a faith tradition had no relevance to one's life. I can just point to so many examples: Tupac, NAS, Jay-Z. Even outside of Christianity, there are large numbers of references to the Nation of Islam in NWA and Ice Cube. And so it runs through the history of hip hop.
It might be a little bit less now because the black community and hip-hop culture has changed so much, and I think the modern views of spirituality has adopted much more of the mainstream secular view of it. But you have to remember that the black community is very influenced by faith traditions. It has grown up very strongly within it, and it's throughout the music. And hip hop itself is used to sampling gospel and soul music in terms of the foundations of where the music is. So it's just really embedded within the foundations of hip hop.
How it's been used, particularly in the 90s, has been to show contradictions. So in that way, how Kanye has talked about his faith in Christianity is actually par for the course with how hip-hop talks about contradictions. The difference is that when Kanye released College Dropout in 2004 that was an era in which gangster hip hop was the dominant force. That is the era where 50 Cent was dominant in New York and across the airwaves. That is the era where Jay-Z is still regarded at the top. You couldn't really be a rapper unless you had street credibility unless you had sold cocaine, unless you had been in gangs or you talk about that. And Kanye West grew up in a middle-class environment, his parents were educated, he was supposed to go to college—he was very, very different than everything that was going on in hip hop at the commercial level in the 90s and 2000s.
The difference about Kanye when he comes onto the scene, it's not that he added Christianity, it's not even that he used contradictions. The difference is that overall, the College Dropout was an overall positive version of expression of hip hop, which was not seen since the late 80s. He was such a throwback in that way, that he was bringing this kind of positive outlook. And this was actually before he was really controversial. So what the difference was is that his contradictions were not necessarily with the drugs and the violence and things. He was more relatable; he had this certain way where the contradictions were more everyday life.
Kanye came from this background that is more digestible to a wider degree of people, so that's what's different about how we've seen Kanye's form of Christianity.
Do you know that much about Kanye, his own religious background?
Femi Olutade: I have impressions of it, but I'm not confident in terms of how much I can really speak to it directly.
My impressions are that he grew up going to church in Chicago. He grew up going to a church that would be in the African American spiritual tradition. I can't speak to what percentage of Sundays he would have gone to church or things like that, but he clearly grew up in that environment.
We've been talking about his music a little bit, so let's talk about some of his songs in particular. I'm going to name one of Kanye's songs and then I'd be interested in hearing the way that you see his understanding of faith being on display or showcased or what it says about it at that time.
Let's start with "Jesus Walks."
Femi Olutade: This wasn't the first single that Kanye had, but it was one of the singles from College Dropout, which was his debut album in 2004. It's a really interesting song. There's a story about this and in the effort, it took to get this released as a single. A lot of people in the industry didn't think that you could do that, which Kanye actually mentions in the song.
"Jesus Walks" actually opens up with this intro that says, "we at war, we at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all, we at war with ourselves." It is this exploration and commentary about struggle, about the conflict that is going on at a societal level, but even more so going on inside of us.
Kanye will particularly point out things about police brutality and harassment, about police officers in black communities insulting black people, following them, harassing them, and then at the same time, kind of implicates himself or people that would be like him that might be trying to sell cocaine, even doing it against the wills of their parents. So he's just picking all these things that are showing both the oppression and the wayward wickedness.
The point of this is that even in the midst of all the oppression that’s going on and the wicked choices that we're making, Jesus is present and is walking with us on this journey. He's going on a journey with us in spite of us, and in spite of what has been around us. And that's largely what the first verse is about.
The second verse extends that out past one person and talks about that in terms of people that might be strippers or murderers or drug dealers and saying that this is everyone's story in the black community in particular. He focused on the fact and says, "I need Jesus. I don't know about you guys, but I need Jesus." And that's what I want to assert here, and I want people to all know that I need Jesus. And similarly, these other people that are in these situations and in this particular perspective, people that are welfare, people that are suffering, that are living in hell on earth, they all need Jesus.
And that's kind of what the assertion of "Jesus Walks" is about.
Wes Jakacki: I believe "Jesus Walks" was the fourth single off of College Dropout. I think people often think of "Jesus Walks" as the Christian song off of his debut, but that was also followed immediately by "Never Let Me Down," which says, "when it comes to being true, he's true to me. One thing I've found is you've never let me down." Which then is followed by "Get 'em High," which you can imagine what that's about. So there is the contradictions inherent in his music and part of what makes it so interesting.
But yeah, "Jesus Walks," you talked about him mentioning in the song, "they said you can rap about anything except for Jesus, means gun, sex, lies, videotape. But if I talk about God, my record won't get played." Kind of inherently, he's saying he can't talk about this and so he's going to, which is kind of interesting as well.
I think "Jesus Walks" is really probably the start of where he's ended up now. Kind of the origination in his musical career.
Femi Olutade: I think I'll add, as you kind of alluded to, it's not the only thing on the album that speaks of Christianity. There's actually a full gospel song, he brings in a choir and sings "I'll Fly Away." That's actually earlier before "Jesus Walks." It's actually a very interesting section of the album because there is, "I'll Fly Away," and then the next song is "Spaceship," which uses the image of a spaceship that's taking him away from his kind of dead-end job and kind of conflict over race and other things like that as he's trying to work. And you kind of envision this spaceship that's going to carry him and fly, fly away, similar to the Negro spiritual. And then "Jesus Walks" comes after "Spaceship" and then right after that is where you have "Never Let Me Down."
And you have other things like that also later, like in "Through the Wire," when he talks about how he got into a car crash and it means he must have an angel cause death missed him. But it goes to my point, of what I think we've established, that it's very much throughout Kanye's album and it's in line with how hip-hop works.
Morgan Lee: The next song I have for you guys is "I am a God."
Femi Olutade: This was released in 2013. I believe it's from his sixth album. So after College Dropout, he had Late Registration,Graduation, 808s & the Heartbreaks,My Beautiful Dark Fantasy, and then after that, he did Yeezus. This is 2013. It is an entirely different world at this point, in every sense—this is the Obama era, hip hop is fundamentally different, he is married or at least engaged at this point.
So Yeezus is very interesting because the album before that was like this stillness and samples an old sound, it's very beautiful, very orchestral, and Yeezus is essentially trying to make you uncomfortable at every single turn. And how he produces it, he doesn't sample things, he doesn't have these warm things. It's very harsh, things are very offbeat, the content is very grating and internally controversial as well too. So it's, it's just, it's a different world.
The album name comes from merging his nickname, Ye or Yeezy with the word Jesus and forming Yeezus. Essentially what it seems like with the album is that he's trying to compare himself to Jesus in a proud way. Of saying that he is maybe close to, maybe actually things equal to, and at the very least that he's much higher above all you other humans. That's kind of the essence of what the name of Yeezus represents, and it is very much at the ethos of the entire album, including the song "I am a God."
He makes room for God being the God of Israel, Yahweh, Elohim, but essentially, it's about Kanye's power and how people should serve him. So he's like, "Where's my message? Where's my Minaj? Get my car out of the garage?" Essentially talking about that people are there to serve him, his body, his sexual needs, his cars. He puts himself as kind of like a pagan deity who is hungry and in need. It's exactly what a lot of like the first 11 chapters of Genesis are trying to critique—these gods of the Mediterranean and the Near East that were these gods that were hungry and need humans to cook their food and give it to them.
Of course, there's the idea that the image of God exists on earth though the representative of God, a term that was applied to kings, to people who ruled over their societies. They were supposed to be treated like the gods because they were "God on earth." They were God's representatives and you needed to serve them. And that's essentially how Kanye thinks of himself here.
And it is exactly contradictory to the Biblical story and what Jesus is talking about. That when we are made in the image of God, it's humanity, all of humanity together functions as the representatives of God and no one human is above another. We're supposed to learn how to rule like God in this humble way. Kanye basically becomes his own pagan deity. He still makes room for God in the sense that he talks about, that he's a man of God, his life is in the hand of God. In the second verse actually, Jesus talks to him. But he talks about how, "He's the most high, but I'm a close high."
I would describe it as a Tower of Babylon. It's just pride. It's saying that you're above everyone else and acknowledging that there is this guy that is in heaven and the most high, but I'm pretty close to that. With no irony at all.
Wes Jakacki: From my perspective, the most fascinating part of Kanye's career, partially from a musical perspective, is that he went from 808 & the Heartbreaks, which is this very emotional, heart on your sleeve album to this extremely cold, industrial, Avantgarde sound with Yeezus.
Also, I saw Kanye during his tour for this album, and the best way to describe the show is like a church Easter passion play, but if your church had $5 million in diamond masks and all sorts of other things. Because while he's in this period where he's deifying himself, there's angels, there's demons, there's a Jesus he bows down to. It's kind of a five-act play. Our human rebellion rising, our pride falling, the tragedy in his life, searching and finding.
With each of these, he displayed a definition of each of them. As an example for finding, he said, "God arrives right on time. He's not hiding or sleeping, but on the move revealing. He lifted me out of the ditch. Pulled me from deep mud. He stood me up on a solid rock and put a new song in my heart." So even in this period, even within the same show—he spent probably 20 minutes comparing himself to Walt Disney and Leonardo DaVinci and Steve Jobs and how he's this creative genius— even within this, there's this incredibly profound spiritual element and, he even ended the show, the last thing you see on the screen is "He'll give us what we need. It may not be what we want." So kind of dealing in this reality of having lost his mom and still looking to God and realizing that he'll supply what we need even in times of tragedy.
So it is amazing that even through this dark period of time where he is kind of deifying himself and lifting himself up, there is still this profound, inspiring spiritual element to his show.
Morgan Lee: Next song: "Ultralight Beam."
Femi Olutade: So this is a song that is on this album called The Life of Pablo, which was released in 2016. Kanye actually said that this album was like a gospel album with a lot of cursing. He was inspired by the life of St. Paul, his conversion experience from having gone killing Christians in the early parts of Acts to having this transformational experience and then becoming one of these greatest messengers of Christianity. And in particular, because Paul had come from outside of the Judea experience—he had grown up in Greek areas of the land, had studied philosophy and Greek thought—he was able to bring the gospel message to the world because he knew the culture, he knew the language, he actually was a citizen, he had certain privileges and status and insight that enabled him to spread it to Jews, but even more so to non-Jews.
So that is part of the analogy that is going on here. And so this song is the opening track of the album. It is very gospel-oriented. It starts out in this very strong, black charismatic tradition, very much this kind of church music. Within all that, the theme of light is, of course, super, super important. It's important here, it's really important throughout Jesus is King. And it's very important within the Biblical narrative and the understanding of the identity of Jesus. It's the idea that in the beginning, God said, let there be light. God created light, and then if you fast forward to the gospel of John, John basically is parodying or he's basically, I'm kind of bringing in the story of creation in Genesis 1 into the prologue of John.
And then later on in John 1, John summary of the gospel in the first letter is amazing. It is the good message that God is light and in Him, there is no darkness at all. So all of this is played into this idea of "Ultralight Beam," of this kind of high ultimate light. This light that at the end of Revelation when it talks about the idea that there is no sun in the new creation, because Jesus, the son of God, is the one that provides light to all creation.
So that is all that is going on in this ultimate light imagery for "Ultralight Beam." It's really, really, really strong in terms of the gospel message. And in the middle of that, there's also this refrain that says, "I'm trying to keep my faith, but I am looking for more." So even with all of that is there and this recognition, there is a sense of that it's not enough and that there is more to be looking after and there's more that one needs.
Also, the main verse of "Ultralight Beam" is actually by Chance the Rapper, who his faith is very well interwoven within his work. And so that kind of even augmented it in terms of how much it was definitely perceived and received as this Christian intent. And additionally, it has Kirk Franklin. Kirk Franklin actually ends up at the end of the track and prays at the end of the song.
So interesting when you go back and listen to things like that, cause it does represent a certain moment in Kanye's life. It's very easy to feel like there's too many times Kanye has said, I'm sorry. There's too many times that he's messed up. There's too many times that he hasn't been good enough. But then this idea that there was this hope woven within the song that if he holds onto his faith and he doesn't relinquish it, that there is this kind of this freedom that he can happen, he can actually be transformed by the light.
Wes Jakacki: I think there's no Jesus is King without "Ultralight Beam." You mentioned Kirk Franklin, Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price, who's a gospel singer is also on the song, and he performed the song on Saturday Night Live and Kirk Franklin pretty much gives a prayer, almost mini-sermon on national television. So kind of first real big pronouncement of the gospel from Kanye.
So let's go to a song off the most recent album, Jesus is King called "Selah."
Femi Olutade: Really, really important track. That's the first time you hear Kanye because the first track is a straight gospel song called "Every Hour" that only has a choir, Kanye is not in it whatsoever. And it says, "every hour, every minute, every second... we need you, we need you, we need you." And sing till the power of the Lord comes down. That song is really important in that it functions in a couple of ways. It's an invocation and calling for God to be present in the form of His spirit throughout the album. And then it kind of cuts very abruptly to "Selah."
Selah is a Hebrew word. It's all in the Psalms, it's used like 74 times or so. It's not fully known what it actually means. Often interpretations include that it means to kind of like lift one's voice higher. Some people interpret as always or forever, which kind of would somewhat connect to the idea of lifting them was higher and stronger and kind of on and on. There's one that's about a pause, where there might be reflection or, like, a musical interlude. So that's where the name comes from.
In terms of the function, this song really introduces many of the core motifs and the themes in the album. My current impression is that the idea of needs is the central theme of the entire album. What do we need? How do we get what we need? When do we have enough of what we need? And how do we hold onto the things we need once we've received them?
When "Selah" opens, his first words are, "That is the King. We are the soldiers." So tapping into Jesus as King, the idea of the kingdom of God, a God is King. We are the soldiers is this idea that there is a battle, that there is antagonism against this kingdom from the forces of spiritual darkness.
You have the comparison where he compares himself to Noah. Noah is this person that live in a wicked generation, God called him to save humanity by following God's commandments, building like a boat, a vessel, an arc, a box, and bringing his family along with all of like the pairs of animals. So Kanye is comparing himself to Noah in this sense that he is somebody that is living in this wicked generation. He's a person that is hearing from God. He's this person that is creative, that creates things, creates physical products like a boat. He is this person that is bringing his family onto this boat to save them from the waves and the destructive forces that are coming if they stay and live amongst this current culture and this current generation. He along with that cares about the earth and about the environment and about creating, creating new life in it.
It talks a little bit about not being in bondage to any man. He actually directly quotes from John 8:33 and 8:36.
He mentions that "you've saved a wretch like me," of course, referencing "Amazing Grace." This analogy is powerful for many reasons. One, because "Amazing Grace" is a song about being lost and found, being blind and now seeing—very, very important words related to his life—but also this idea that he's almost putting himself in the role of John Newton as somebody that used to be leading other people into slavery. That through his actions, through his lyrics, through his talk of sex and money, his glorification, Kanye has led people into slavery. And that this moment is him both rescuing his own soul in terms of coming out and turning to God, but also him working now to undo what he's done previously bringing people into slavery.
Do you see Kanye's life as just the highs and lows on an extreme and public level of what it looks like to walk with God over the course of a life? Or do you see it a little bit more linearly where Kanye was trying to figure out what was happening, but in the past year, he's really had a true conversion moment?
Femi Olutade: I think that how you view it really largely depends on your spiritual tradition that you come from. And I think you will largely read that tradition into his story. If you come from more of a classical evangelical background, there's a lot of focus that's on kind of conversion stories and this kind of momentary "born again," born from above kind of experience, where everything changes. You have this overwhelming sense of emotion or thought that is just radically different before and after. And you can kind of go back to that moment. And those moments definitely happened, and they're really, really powerful moments. And for some people that is really clearly what happens to them. And they're really, really phenomenal and they're really at the heart some of the greatest parts of the evangelical tradition.
That being said, I would say that in the largest span of understanding Christian faith and life, that is one moment over a much larger period of what it means to follow God. That story of following God is becoming an Israelite, a child of Israel. Israel means one who wrestles with God, and life is this wrestling. And if we think that any one moment is going to mean that's it, we've done it, then we're going to fall short of what it means to create new life, to become the source of life, to become this tree that it talks about in Psalm 1 or Jeremiah 17, to become this force of the kingdom of God, to be able to be perfected, to be people that can love our enemies and to do good to those that persecute. These are very high standards that Jesus talks about in the kingdom of God. And I think it's something that's a constant struggle, that takes constant repentance, constant forgiveness, constant tears, and constant working through.
And if you listen to Kanye in the album, he's still not really believing that he has enough, but in the middle of the track, the hook comes back in and says, " so we got everything we need." It's an amazing, amazing line because he sits there and recognizes, wait, we've taken some of this. This wasn't all just given to us. We've taken this and this is going to lead us to destruction and death. We need to actually reverse this. We need to like put it back. We need to get rid of some of this because it's going to lead us to destruction, but at this point, the apple, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that's already been turned into juice. So essentially what we need to do to have life and to grow is allowing God to do the impossible, to teach us how to through His grace and through our work with Him to put this apple juice back around that tree and to stop picking the apples.
It's in this struggle that it's not an individual moment. It is a moment over a whole lifetime. It's a moment that's over generations, a moment over all of humanity. It is this cosmic story and narrative that is constantly playing out, and I think that is ultimately where Kanye has arrived and reached.
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