Church in the Wild: One MC’s Take on Kanye West’s Religious Evolution

Musician JP Reynolds contextualizes Kanye West’s movement and new album, Jesus Is King.

(AllHipHop Opinion) Long ago I began casting down idols, even if they truly inspired me. But here ‘Ye go again with another iteration of helping to shape how I approach what I create, even if this time it’s from a place of what I don’t want to do. Because a background in ministry roots so much of the music I make, people have been asking me for months what I think about Kanye’s current movements.

A little context. I happen to be a hip-hop artist who has also been a spiritual journeyman within and without Christian communities. I was raised and am licensed to preach in the (black) Baptist church. My Sunday school classrooms displayed images of black Moses, black Jesus, as well as Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X (who wasn’t even Christian). I went to a Lutheran middle school; I was a youth leader in both a Vineyard church and a Presbyterian church. I believe the Bible and the Koran are sacred texts, among others like Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And I once performed for His Holiness the 17th Karmapa at a historic interdenominational church .

I believe my unnamed ancestors carry me – especially those who engaged with African indigenous spiritual practices and performance that was infused with Christianity to create what now looks and sounds like the black church experience. While I attended Yale Divinity School I had to reconcile the thick identity of my blackness with the realization that I had been following the same religious belief system manipulated to build capitalism and oppress my ancestors. Black Liberation and Womanist Theology got me there. Do your googles b.

Although I honor and cherish the holiness of any human connection to Spirit, I call myself a follower of Jesus because I’ve had multiple encounters. Including the one where my grandmothers literally prayed me into the world in Jesus’ name after labor complications left doctors determining that I would be born brain dead.

Somewhere along the way I fell in love with music. Honestly, it was probably in church. I definitely used to rap in church. “Jesus Walks” showed me that I could somehow blend my passion for rap with a unique perspective on the world grounded in spiritual curiosity and black identity. And then Ye went on, prophetically, to say “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” I was in High School and needed that type of representation. Where that Kanye has gone, I don’t know. But I do know that he has always operated with a controversial fervor. I don’t think that has shifted.

I think Kanye is earnest. I think he believes in everything he’s doing. When has he ever lacked conviction, for better or worse? So, I disagree with writers and pundits who say he’s being manipulative. I don’t believe he, himself, has any clandestine mission to use religion just to sell merch. These types of conspiracy theories belittle an orientation towards vulnerability that so often escapes black cishet men, a vulnerability that Kanye has carried (again, for better or worse) throughout his public career. But, maybe that’s another article.

I also think Kanye has had serious spiritual warfare for some time now and he’s seeking freedom in a real way. You know a tree by the fruit it bears, and we can hear the warfare riddled across his music if you listen with a compassionately discerning ear. On his latest album Jesus is King, particularly “Water,” there seem to be flashes of the sincere light and clarity Ye’ is seeking and wants to reflect. But also (and maybe this is just my issue with Western Christianity in general), Kanye’s theologies and ideologies are aligned with the same white supremacist articulations of faith and history that kept black folks enslaved and other non-’default’ folks discriminated against. This alignment triggers the crisis I confronted in divinity school. So, to me it only makes sense that Kanye has publicly and resiliently supported someone who has manipulated a belief system to attain power. Kanye regurgitates these theologies and ideologies in some places on the album, as well as throughout his Sunday Services. It’s limiting. It’s restrictive. It’s ahistorical. It’s not oriented toward the abundant life Jesus calls us toward.

But because Kanye is putting a black musical mask over white supremacist ideology, it can be intoxicating. If Jesus is King says anything, it says that Kanye is still really good a making music (not necessarily lyrical content). And he can still move people. Musically, what he’s doing – blending sounds and genres – isn’t really new. The blend reminds me of Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary, Lecrae, Big K.R.I.T. and Chance. But he is putting his quintessential ‘Ye sound on it. The abrupt yet crispy sample chops, the distortions, the use of the voice – it’s all there. But lyrically there is so much left to be desired. In so many spots I just wanted him to let the music rock without his raps, much like “Every Hour.” And from what I can tell, Christians accept it at the outset without true examination. Some folks just want to hear Jesus. ‘Ye is giving that. I get it.

It’s not lost on me, though, that Kanye seems to be at a pretty early stage in his faith journey so we get some Bible thumping and fervent legalism. Truthfully, most folks assume this type of posture when introduced to a belief system or experience that changes their entire life. Think about your friend who just turned vegan. Or your cousin who just started high-intensity interval training. Or your aunt who just got introduced to Facebook or Apple products. Folks do too much. Kanye is no different.

The truth is, there are so many of us artists who actually are in tune with political realities and cultural queues; who have our feet on the ground, our hearts on our sleeve, and our heads in the clouds; who are creating fire music, provocative content and innovative experiences for such a time as this. It is possible to follow Jesus, be black, and radically critique the religious systems that claim Jesus as their head. It is possible to explore freedom without condemning other paths towards similar destinations. And it is possible for unique people to contain complex identities while also creating beautiful things that move the crowd. So back to the gumbo I go…

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JP Reynolds is an innovative artist, performer and songwriter with an eclectic sound. As the creator of “rap gumbo,” JP’s music is a powerful blend of hip hop, jazz, funk, gospel and soul. His persona and style is often described as a love child between Lauryn Hill and Jimi Hendrix. In addition, he performs with a full band, which further defines the overall musical experience of seeing JP live. He is the founder of Peace and Power Media, an artistic hub that produces music, visual content, and written text. Catch up with him here.