Since January, Kanye West — one of the most influential rappers of the last two decades — has been publicly re-fashioning himself as a practitioner of gospel, hosting a series of “Sunday Service” events which feature him performing with a full choir. The crowning touch on this foray into inspirational music is his new album, Jesus Is King, which flirts with choral textures and references scripture. West also announced plans to release a follow-up, Jesus Is Born, on Christmas.
If these albums are a success — and Jesus Is King is already on pace to out-sell Ye by a solid margin — it will be a major boost for West: a bounce back after the worst-selling album of his career, a public battle with mental health, and a series of PR nightmares. But does gospel stand to benefit from the association?
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West’s venture touches a raw nerve for gospel insiders. When a secular artist experiments with gospel, mainstream listeners often see it as a bold stylistic leap. But those same listeners rarely give contemporary gospel artists the same (or any) consideration — the mainstream is happy to absorb gospel as window dressing and then stuff it back out of sight. Adding insult to injury, if gospel acts attempt to court mainstream interest, their core fanbase often turns against them.
“There’s always a lot of excitement when rappers do something in gospel,” explains Birgitta Johnson, an associate professor of ethnomusicology at the University of South Carolina. “We saw that when DMX started doing prayers on his album. ‘Oh wow, he’s going to go into gospel rap!’ He never went into gospel rap. We’re still waiting for a secular artist to bring recognition to a genre that already has gospel rap.”
Derek Harper, program director for the Atlanta station WPZE (Praise 102.5), also notes the existence of this cruel double standard. “The challenge is, you have gospel and inspirational artists that do what Kanye does, but [mainstream listeners] don’t pay them any attention,” the program director says, pointing to the Truth, Lecrae, and other “holy hip-hop” acts that get little notice from rap fans. “Then when this artist decides to do something for the inspirational community, you embrace it immediately.”
West’s latest gospel adventure comes at a time when a number of gospel artists are collaborating with mainstream acts. “Gospel artists are trying to get more exposure, get discovered by an audience that otherwise might not know they exist,” says Aundrae Russell, who has helmed the weekly gospel show Spread the Word on KJLH in Los Angeles for more than two decades. “A gospel artist will grab a secular artist, a secular artist will grab a gospel artist — you see it more, and it’s becoming more acceptable.” In the last three years, Kirk Franklin has worked with West and Chance the Rapper; Kim Burrell assisted Jay-Z and Frank Ocean; Tasha Cobbs connected with Nicki Minaj and Common.
Yet it’s hard to see the tangible commercial benefits of these collaborations for the gospel acts. In 2015, Franklin’s Losing My Religion peaked at Number 10 on the Billboard 200; despite his recent string high-profile collaborations, his latest album, Long Live Love, couldn’t make it past Number 20. Burrell was not even listed as a featured performer on Jay-Z and Ocean’s albums. “I’m Getting Ready,” Cobbs’ collaboration with Minaj, has more than six million streams on Spotify, but that’s less than any song on Minaj’s Queen album; it doesn’t seem like the rapper’s considerable audience turned out in force to hear her work with a gospel act.
Gospel artists who try to incorporate sounds from secular music aren’t just facing mainstream indifference — they also have to deal with resistance from their own listeners. Franklin is probably the most successful fusion artist so far, and he has fielded plenty of backlash for his interest in hybrid sounds. “[God]’s creative, so why shouldn’t my music be creative, too?” Franklin asked The New Yorker in 2017. “But everyone in my community, and especially the consumers, they don’t see it that way. Which is weird for me. It makes you feel good when you do a song that, sonically, can fit right next to Drake. But our audience, they don’t care. And it hurts that they don’t care!”
Franklin’s hit albums in the late Nineties and early 2000s caused hand-wringing in gospel, but the genre still polices its borders today. In 2015 and 2016, a new fusion dubbed “trap gospel” — see Erica Campbell’s “I Luh God” and Tye Tribbett’s “Work It Out” — gained momentum. Russell was not a fan. “Trap gospel wasn’t going to have a whole lot of longevity,” he says. “I think a lot of those artists were just trying to find their way onto radio or into people’s playlists. I don’t think their hearts were in it.”
Even last year, when Snoop Dogg recorded a gospel opus, the gospel singers who worked with him faced censure. “You’re not supposed to mingle with what the church calls people in the world,” explains Fred Hammond, a gospel artist who recorded with both Snoop Dogg and West. “If they don’t sing gospel exclusively, then you are trying to cross over, you’re a hypocrite, God don’t love you no more. [After I worked with Snoop Dogg], I lost a couple best friends — a husband and wife team walked away from me, called me a sinner.”
Paradoxically, even as gospel gatekeepers remain wary of fusions that might appeal to those outside of the gospel community, they still hope that Jesus Is King might help their genre. “People are gonna get excited about gospel music again,” says Jay Nyce, who programs the gospel station WFAI in Wilmington. “If we’re trying to attract a younger audience, we can use Kanye West,” adds Vernon Kelson, the operations manager for multiple radio stations in Baltimore, including the gospel outlet WWIN.
Hammond acknowledges that gospel acts are forced to tiptoe in ways that mainstream artists are not. But, he adds, “Snoop ended up having me come to Essence Festival and be on stage with him. I’d never been on the main stage. I had to have a rapper bring me to that stage in front of 8,000 people.”
“God does things strange,” Hammond concludes. “I don’t question Him no more.”
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