How Kanye West's "Jesus Is King" is dividing the Christian community

In January 2019, West began his Sunday Service performance series in Calabasas, California, with the choir group The Samples and other collaborators performing a combination of hymns and secular pop songs rewritten with Christian themes. (Ginuwine’s sex jam “So Anxious,” for example, became “Souls Anchored.”) As the performances unfolded over the months, they drew skepticism from many online, who wrote that the exclusive, invitation-only events ran contrary to the open, communal spirit of church. Tobi Oredein, writing in Premier Christianity magazine, also pointed to the seemingly megalomaniacal nature of the events: “He’s employed a choir of people who are not only singing his songs, but are all dressed in his apparel. Is Christ really at the center of this gathering?”…

Alisha Lola Jones, a theologian and assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Indiana University Bloomington, says that ostensibly campy lyrics like the Chick-Fil-A line work for West on multiple levels: they ignite controversy, which increases discourse and sales; and they play to a “multiple consciousness” for younger black listeners who grew up listening to both gospel textures and hip-hop one-liners. “While he does gesture toward established gospel sounds and styles, he’s also allowed for a little bit of kitsch,” Jones says. “I can appreciate how he challenges the gospel idea where pitch has to be hit and everybody is a virtuosic singer.”

But Jesus Is King has been received coolly online, with many critics both inside and outside of the Christian community dismissing West’s pledges of faith as surface-level and disingenuous. Alicia Crosby, a minister, educator and activist, says that several key gospel elements—including musical underpinnings and sorrowful narratives—are wholly missing from the work. “You can have ‘Hallelujahs’ on a track, but it doesn’t make it gospel,” she says. “It’s weak theology, it’s not substantive, it’s not glorifying. This will confuse white audiences about what gospel is and isn’t.”

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