It was announced just two days prior: Kanye West would stage an opera at Art Basel on December 8. Directed by frequent West collaborator, artist Vanessa Beecroft, Mary is the latest in a string of religion-oriented works from the artist—from his gospel album Jesus Is King, to his cloistered Sunday services and his first opera, Nebuchadnezzar, which debuted last month at the Hollywood Bowl. (Today, West announced a second showing of the opera, at New York City's Lincoln Center on December 22.)
Mary opens with an assemblage of performers in flowing robes and silver face paint walking across a floating platform to a barge anchored in the water. Singers unleash their voices in unison; hymns radiate from the stage. West sits, obscured by the speakers, reading a Biblical account of the Virgin Mary’s encounter with the archangel Gabriel. In the crowd, people lift their hands into the air—many contain smartphones, but some are empty, raised in praise. Church, it seems, is in session.
After the performance, West meets with me at Cliff’s, a Jamaican restaurant near Miami Shores. Christmas decorations dangle above us, an array of red, blue, and green lights. He sits directly in front of me, ready to talk, so I listen. What he wants to discuss most is his faith, which he addresses with the passion he invests in everything—from fashion to his art—and without cynicism. It has enabled him, he says, to relish life more intensely. “I thought I had it all figured out,” says West, but none of it really satisfied him. God has changed “everything, my ego,” he says.
West, who once communicated his fears, anger, and passions in rap music, has done some reflecting on the genre. In rap, he says, you don’t hear a lot of scripture; these new pieces offer words and scenes directly from the Bible. He wants to use the grand medium of opera to make music that is a “beacon of light.” Or to be a channel for it: “God put it all together,” he says. “I’ll tell you what, when I don’t apply grace, I don’t get the results I’m looking for. Everything must be done with grace. That’s one of the things I pray for—and I need to pray for more.”
His faith, West says, is an amplifier for everything he does, including music; he also thinks it’s helped him evolve as a human being. “The true principles of Christ can and will make you a better person,” he says. Yet his outspoken defenses of faith have met with some skepticism, as West himself notes in Jesus Is King track “Hands On”: “What have you been hearing from the Christians? / They’ll be the first one to judge me / Make it feel like nobody love me.” Despite that complaint, West is circumspect about how even high-aiming beliefs can play out in reality. “A lot of times, people try to point out the flaws of people who are Christian. But always remember, Christians are not Christ,” he says. “We fall short. We all fall short of the glory.” West offers up a secular analogy: “It’s like, there’s a lot of people with 23 on their backs, but there’s only one Jordan,” he says, laughing. “You can’t really compare most people with 23 on their backs to Jordan at all.”
Originally, the opera was going to be called Birth of Jesus, but West thought it would be more interesting to tell the story from Mary’s point of view; unlike Jesus, a divine being, Mary was just a human, petrified by the angels’ message and brilliance. Her story took over West’s life for a time—because it was so all-consuming, he took the opportunity to talk to his children about the Bible. Teaching North, Saint, Chicago, and Psalm about Jesus, he thinks, will make them better people.
Religion has been part of West’s life for a long time. But his recent focus on God—he refers to having been saved earlier this year—resembles that of an apostle who’s seen the light. He now chooses to surround himself with people who will help him to maintain this transformation: “You can pick your influences,” he says. “I sought out to have Bible study, and to be around other Christians who could keep me accountable.”
At the end of our meal, West wants to know what I thought of Mary. “When you saw it, what was your thought about the work that went into it? What did you think?” he asks. When I consider the show’s blend of gospel, avant-garde art, religious narrative, and pure emotion, it feels difficult to pin down. It wasn’t a performance, I say. It was something else. “Yes,” he says. “I couldn’t find a word for it either.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue