In this op-ed, writer Tayo Bero shares why she believes Kanye West’s latest album, Jesus is King, is an exploitation of gospel music and its listeners.
“I told you. I’m only afraid of God…I’m only afraid of my daddy,” Kanye West declared defiantly in an interview with radio host Big Boy this past week. Both the statement and the conversation are a testament to his state of mind, his politics, and the direction of his music right now — a sentiment that has culminated in his newest record Jesus Is King.
Released last Friday, Kanye’s much-anticipated ninth studio album features 11 aptly titled tracks including “On God,” a song about perseverance and faith; “Closed on Sunday,” a song about sacred time with his family; and a sobering number called “Use This Gospel,” which reads like a psalm but features Kenny G and Clipse. And so far, audiences have responded well. The record’s accompanying short film — of the same name and released on the same day — brought in over $1 million worldwide over the weekend and early projections have already placed the album at the top of the Billboard Hot 200 charts.
Kanye releasing a full gospel album is not unexpected, and this moment is the product of a much more pious, hyper-Christian figure who we’ve seen emerge over the last year or so. Take Sunday Service, his weekly religious-adjacent live show of musical performances. Originally an exclusive gathering for his and Kim Kardashian’s A-list friends, he’s since taken the event on the road with a debut public show at this year’s Coachella, performances in churches across the country, and even an “airpool” karaoke edition of James Corden’s beloved Late Show segment this week.
So what’s really going on here? This come-to-Jesus moment seems to be as much about Kanye’s own redemption, as it is an exploitation of the gospel genre in order to engage Blackness and Black spaces.
Thanks to his very public support of Donald Trump, opinions about slavery being a “choice,” and a world of other equally ignorant and frankly unbelievable soundbites, Ye has been on very thin ice with Black people. And his wielding of gospel as a tool for that vindication makes sense when you look at the role the genre has played within Black American communities throughout history. From the cathartic comfort of slavery-era spirituals to the more contemporary gospel that formed the soundtrack of Black resistance during the Civil Rights era, it’s a way to both unite its custodians in a shared experience, and redeem them through that spiritual cleansing.
And to be fair, this is far from Ye’s first foray into expressing his faith through his music. It’s why some people don’t necessarily see his latest moves as completely disingenuous. “Kanye has always incorporated gospel into his music, as early as his debut,” says A. Harmony, a music journalist and critic based in Toronto. “He’s just never made this much of a spectacle of it before.” And while she agrees that Jesus Is King lacks the same sincerity as previous efforts (i.e. 2004’s “Jesus Walks”), she says this album is much more about him than about speaking to any particular audience.
“In true Kanye West fashion, he manages to center himself on Jesus Is King in ways that a true gospel album shouldn’t. It all feels rather hollow. But I don’t think his goal was to engage Black audiences specifically. Kanye craves attention and this album is just another way to shine the spotlight on himself,” A. Harmony says.
For me though, there’s something a little more troubling about this manipulation. It appears to be a neat and convenient way for Kanye to not only absolve himself of those pro-Trump wrongdoings — which he’s yet to address as harmful because of how it will affect the same disadvantaged communities he makes music for — but also repackage his political views to a now captive audience. Gospel brings together spirituality, salvation, and Blackness in a way that makes it easy for him to both get back in with Black people and maintain his position on the very politics, people, and views that are harmful to them.
And contrary to the radicalism and freedom of thought that he would like us to believe underpins a lot of his actions, what Kanye is really doing is buying into a set of already established ideas and stereotypes about Black people and using gospel-adjacent music to make himself impervious to any critique of that heavenly message.
His salvation after all, is on the line.
Thankfully though, many people simply aren't buying it. After a Howard University performance where he doubled down about his comments regarding slavery as a choice, he was called out on both the statement and the irony of his even speaking about it at the historically Black institution.
The intention behind Jesus Is King is truly not to bring people closer to God or even to each other, as many have so generously suggested. In fact, I think it has very little to do with any intention so noble. As usual, this is Kanye having a Kanye moment, centering himself in the midst of a practice (gospel music) that is so traditionally self-effacing, so radical, and so deeply in service of Blackness that the whole thing almost feels like one big oxymoron. For me, that kind of insincerity is the last thing gospel music needs or is about.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue