Controversial rap artist Kanye West recently announced that he had become a Christian. In October, he produced a Christian-themed album, Jesus is King. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya examines the diverse media reaction to the album and reflects on how modern artistic forms can help new generations to engage with the life of faith in a divided society.
As someone who works with young people in a parish setting, I am always excited to see innovation within Christianity that has the potential to reach more young people in a way that makes sense to them.
I do not believe that those who insist that young people should just accept that “this is the way things have always been” necessarily have the best interest of the Church and the faith at heart.
The truth might stay the same, but every generation learns in a way particular to their time and their situation. It is probably why Jesus, despite being a carpenter, preferred agricultural metaphors and symbols for what was an agrarian community.
It is also the same reason that Caucasian Europe made Jesus white – and radical black activists and Africanists rejected Christianity on the false basis that a white Jesus could not free black people from the oppression caused by other whites.
Symbols matter. Young people must be reached in a language and through artefacts they understand and use.
That is why I was excited to hear that international rap star Kanye West had released his latest work, Jesus is King in which he takes a radical turn in his artistic life.
I imagined that at least in theory, we could have had as part of the Solemnity of Christ the King liturgy, the music of Kim Kardashian’s husband. She also revealed in October that she was baptised along with her children at the Etcmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia – her family’s native homeland.
Opinion divided on Kanye’s conservativism, musical craftsmanship
As he has done for most of his public life, Kanye is dividing opinions. There are some who believe that he is desecrating Christian worship by bringing in the ostentation of showbiz to the altar. One of his defenders is renowned Gospel singer and songwriter, Richard Smallwood.
“The traditional Christian church has always frowned upon anything that is new and innovative,” Smallwood told TIME. “He’s singing about Jesus Christ and God—and that, to me, is the bottom line.”
More fundamentally, not everybody is impressed or convinced by Kanye’s apparent conversion. Like it happened with the freshly repentant Paul, there are those who remember him as Saul.
Many remember his public endorsements of Donald Trump, breaking bread with right wing conservatives and his describing of slavery as a choice.
“West falls in line with all of the conservative Catholics and select evangelicals of varied races and ethnicities who claim to love and live for the teachings of Jesus Christ, but, in terms of their respective political ideologies, wouldn’t bother spitting on Jesus if he caught on fire while trying to cross Trump’s pretend border wall with terrorized migrants in need of salvation,” writes Michael Arceneaux, the author of the book “I Can’t Date Jesus”.
Arceneaux continues: “They boast of a love of God, but by and large, their greatest faith lies with the patriarchy, white supremacy and/or money. We know for whom he would vote, we can now confirm that, Black choir or not, he’s worshipping the way so many bigots across America do, and it’s clear his embrace of Jesus comes as much from a love of money and power as a love of God. Jesus might be king, but it’s not at his altar that Kanye is worshipping right now.”
For some the criticism is not so much about his politics but rather his bad verse.
“Confronted with the task of creating songs about religion, West delivers a set that lyrically is as thin as Bible paper. As you would expect, there are plenty of assertions of his faith: “When I get to heaven’s gates / I ain’t gotta peak over,” he jerkily raps over the organ chords of Selah before the rapturous choir chants of “Hallelujah” set in. In Closed on Sunday, he suggests turning off Instagram to spend more time praying with family, a statement that would spark significant eye-rolling from kid worshippers if they heard it coming from the church pulpit,” wrote Dean Van Nguyen in UK based publication, The Guardian.
Whatever one ultimately makes of Kanye Wes or his intentions, his life or his art, his music has been able to begin conversations about the role of faith in society. Whatever his true intentions might be, we can only thank God for giving us Kanye to help us reflect on our life of faith in a society divided by colour, class, race and patriarchal heteronormativity.