Kanye West exposed audience to religion, now church leaders are conflicted10 min read
On a quiet October afternoon, Kanye West slunk into a choir rehearsal at Iglesia de Jesucristo Monte de Santidad, a church in Northridge. Clutching a microphone tightly to his face, he softly sung the words to the Christ for the Nations’ song “When I Think About the Lord,” riffing on harmonies before breaking out in hallelujahs as the song reached its chorus.
His reserved demeanor, captured on video, as he bowed his head in the middle of a prayer circle, stood in stark contrast to his offensive remarks that have sucked up much of the attention in recent weeks. Since debuting his “White Lives Matter” shirt during Paris Fashion Week in early October, West has incensed a number of different communities. . He’s victimized himself as a Black man being oppressed by clothing conglomerates while simultaneously claiming George Floyd died from fentanyl rather than former police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for nine minutes. (He later called the mother of Floyd’s daughter “greedy” for suing him.)
Beyond this, he’s repeatedly made antisemitic claims, while accusing Jewish people of conspiring to suppress and sedate him as part of a larger plot to “control” Black people across America.
The outbursts quickly sacked much of his portfolio and influence. Adidas, Gap and Balenciaga have cut ties; members of his team and teachers at his Donda Academy school have resigned in protest; and he’s repeatedly been banned from Instagram and Twitter.
His activity also stands in contrast from his previous efforts to put God at the forefront. For the past several years, West’s Sunday Service choir had put a renewed spotlight on gospel music, empowering young people in the church as he sought to make Christianity “cool.”
For many who drew strength from his God-focused music, the past month stings particularly hard.
“One group really thinks [“Jesus Is King”] was just a one-off album and he was just being creative, so they don’t really attach Christianity to Kanye,” said Pastor Michael J.T. Fisher of Greater Zion Family Church in Compton. “Then there is a group that really took his album and the things he said in that season, as him turning over a new leaf and he’d found this new relationship with God. I think they’re very disappointed with the direction he seems to be heading in.”
When West launched his Sunday Service campaign from a secretive Calabasas location in 2019, the backdrop wasn’t the rosiest.
He’d spent much of the previous year sporting Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat, telling the then-president he felt like “Superman” each timed he donned the red cap. Appearing on TMZ Live in May, he made the infamous comment that 400 years of slavery “sounded like a choice.” Within his music, he engaged in a sizzling beef with Drake, going so far as to “poopity-scoop” his way over a beat titled “Lift Yourself” to troll the Canadian megastar after they’d previously worked on the song together.
So when he held his first Sunday Service in January 2019 — two months after ranting on “Saturday Night Live” in defense of Trump and against the “liberal” media landscape — it was met with mixed emotions. Although he’d began his career with soulful, gospel-tinged production and a Christian club banger titled “Jesus Walks,” the pivot directly contrasted his more recent “Yeezus” album, on which he flirted with self-deification on confrontational songs like “I Am A God.”
“As a pastor, it always makes me nervous when creation wants to outdo the Creator,” Fisher said. “When he turned in that direction, it made me very nervous, because it was him creating the platform where he kinda says whatever he wants and does what he wants, with no level of accountability.”
Still, many in the church community rejoiced at seeing a Goliath in pop culture put Jesus front and center. Sunday Service sprouted from Calabasas and became a traveling phenomenon, landing at Coachella on Easter Sunday and stopping in various churches across America.
Pastor Jamal Bryant, who leads New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in the Atlanta area, welcomed West to worship with his Sunday Service choir in September 2019. Bryant opened the door with enthusiasm after getting the call, taking it as an opportunity to reach new audiences.
“A whole swath of people who don’t ordinarily go to church came,” Bryant said. “It was a major outreach opportunity. Churches are getting older, so to see a rush of young people who are excited about God in the church with one of the largest living musical legends of this generations, it was impactful.”
After Bryant’s sermon, West took the stage cloaked in white for almost an hour, while the choir before him sang beautifully harmonized gospel classics along with reworked tracks from Ye’s own catalog. Bryant recalled West and younger churchgoers being “over the moon” about the experience, although not everyone in attendance understood the hype.
“My older generation didn’t have a clue who he was,” Bryant said with a laugh.
Both pastors drew joy from West’s subsequent “Jesus Is King” album, released in October of that year. The album debuted atop the Billboard 200 and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album, but the two were more grateful for the way it put Christianity at the forefront in a brighter light than the faith was typically portrayed.
“In no other atmosphere would you hear about the church on TMZ,” Bryant said.
By the time “Donda” arrived, dents in the armor had resurfaced. West struggled through a trying, public divorce with his wife, Kim Kardashian, while his on-again-off-again beef with Drake had again rekindled. Although “Donda” kept its gospel core as a dedication to his late mother, the album and its rollout were complicated by questionable decisions, perhaps most notably when he included accused sexual abuser Marilyn Manson as a guest on the track “Jail Pt.2″ and invited him to stand by him at one of the album’s listening parties.
“If we’re keeping in mind that Kanye is an artist, we have to keep in mind that the artistry is always going to reflect where he is internally,” Fisher said. “With ‘Jesus Is King,’ internally he was really focused on his spirituality. When we hear ‘Donda,’ we can hear conflict happening. He was going through a hard time with Kim, the church didn’t necessarily receive him like he thought it would. So his mind was all over the place.”
That conflict has boiled over in the past month. Some pastors and members of the Christian community have been hesitant to publicly admonish him, hoping to stay in the good graces of such a powerful figure who’s claimed to follow God’s word.
Others feel compelled to speak out.
“I think what we’re watching is a signal of a breakdown,” Bryant said of West’s behavior in the past month. “People are looking at it as internet fodder, when this is clearly someone without any boundaries, borders, protection or authentic support. I’m not in any way legitimizing or excusing what he’s saying — all of these statements are reckless.”
Fisher similarly views Ye’s recent antics as signs of unprocessed trauma. He also noted how its distracting from the message of godliness West had claimed to live.
But Fisher went further to say the church should own some of the responsibility for accepting West too soon, without ensuring his heart and mind were all the way aligned with his words.
“The church needs to do a better job in discipling these celebrities when they become interested in the teachings of Jesus Christ,” Fisher said. “When Kanye decided to say ‘Jesus is King,’ where was the teachings? I don’t know who he sat under. Now many years later, we have all this hatred still coming from him, because he hadn’t finished being discipled.”
Still, both pastors agreed West deserved all that’s came to him for the words he’s putting into the world.
“This is the price he’s paying for the help he refuses to get,” Fisher said. “The help he needs is his responsibility, and until he shows himself responsible for his mental health and emotional well-being, I believe it’s not wise for any company to stay aligned with him.
“The only thing that disturbs me, is that it took him talking about our Jewish brothers and sisters to say, ‘oh now we have a problem,” Fisher continued. “I just would like for our culture and our world to stand up for all marginalized groups. The moment he spoke against our ancestry, about slavery, and spew out the rhetoric he was spewing about the Black community, I would have loved to see Adidas cut ties with him then. I would have loved to see the chief editor of Vogue dismiss him then. I wish it was the same outcry as what’s happening now.”
While taking aim at Jewish people during interviews and on social media, West has routinely claimed he can’t be antisemitic because “Black people are the true Jews.” It’s a sentiment that’s been mirrored in recent weeks by basketball player Kyrie Irving, recently suspended by the Brooklyn Nets after posting a link to a documentary that accuses many famous Jews of worshipping Satan, among other antisemitic claims.
West’s statement aligns with the historical theory of the Hebrew Israelites, who believe Black, Indigenous, Latino and other people of color are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites. According to the doctrine, the ancestors of Black and other oppressed people strayed from God’s favor by living lives of sin, committing themselves and future generations into turmoil until their descendants repent and obey God’s commandments.
The movement, which dates to the early 19th century, has seen a recent resurgence in the midst of high-profile incidents showing a lack of regard for Black life.
“It fills a really fundamental need, and that is, how do you answer racism’s negation of Black life and of Black history?” said Jacob Dorman, an associated professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who wrote the 2013 book “Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions.”
“Since we live in a world still permeated by anti-Black racism, it’s an endless need,” Dorman continued. “What Hebrew Israelite-ism does so well is it says not only is racism wrong — not only are Blacks not subhuman, as racism claims — but Blacks are actually the chosen people.”
True Nation, an Israelite congregation in Los Angeles founded in 2007, welcomes as many as 100 people to service each Sunday. Lead bishop Tazayawan Ahrayahla was raised as a Christian in Los Angeles, but eventually lost faith in the church and gravitated toward Hebrew Israelite teachings after searching for answers.
He wasn’t surprised to hear Ye’s statements, after hearing him allude to Black people being descendants of Moses in a 2021 Drink Champs interview.
“I had heard him say some things about the Tribe of Judah,” Ahrayala said. “Many artists have said things to let the world know they know. But then they get reprimanded, and then they shut up about it.”
Hebrew Israelite theory is not inherently antisemitic, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Some Hebrew Israelite followers even make it a point to seek common ground with Jewish people — such as Rabbi Capers Funnye, the cousin of Michelle Obama, who leads Chicago’s Beth Shalom synagogue (which routinely welcomes Black members along with white people, Latinos and former Christians and Muslims).
However, some individuals and subgroups cross boundaries into the realm of hate, and accuse Jewish people of “stealing” their birthright while aiming to assert themselves as the ruling tribe.
Dorman said the majority of Hebrew Israelites he’s encountered have not been antisemitic, but laid out the groundwork for how to spot individuals in any community who are.
“If you’re labeling an entire group, that’s the first sign that something’s amiss,” Dorman said. “The second, is that if you’re saying all Jewish people, or even Black people, are part of a vast conspiracy that is negative and deleterious to the world.
“Some Jewish people are very powerful in the academy, in the NBA, and Hollywood,” Dorman added. “But that doesn’t mean there’s an entity called ‘the Jews,’ and that they’re controlling it.”
Unlike the companies who have dropped him from their roster, Christian pastors haven’t yet given up on the multitalented artist.
“I think he needs to come out of a public space, go into intensive therapy and meet with pastors for prayer,” Bryant said. “You can’t heal in public.”
Fisher invited onlookers to peer inward as they reconcile with West’s actions, should he attempt to seek forgiveness. But he stressed that the primary responsibility rests squarely on Kanye’s shoulders.
“My concern isn’t that he’s imperfect, because we’re all imperfect,” Fisher said. “But the message has got to be solid. So bringing people to Christ through his music — great. But we have to work on the message he’s spewing out when the track stops, because it’s counterproductive. It goes against the things he’s singing about, and it goes against the God he says he represents.”