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At Kanye West's Sunday Service, 'He Is The Church'

Kanye West performs Sunday Service during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 21, 2019 in Indio, California.
Rich Fury
Getty Images for Coachella
Kanye West performs Sunday Service during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 21, 2019 in Indio, California.

Kanye West has been rapping about God from early in his career, hearkening back to one of his first hits, " Jesus Walks" off his debut album, 2004's The College Dropout.

Now, the 41-year-old rapper is hosting what he calls Sunday Services. They're exclusive, musical worship gatherings for the rich and famous, from Katy Perry and Diplo to Tyler, the Creator. "They're held in a field in Calabasas [Calif.] or in some sort of indoor studio that's always saturated with bright, colorful light and a really good gospel choir runs through some gospel songs [and] a lot of Kanye West songs,"Jia Tolentino, staff writer at The New Yorker,explains.

West's latest Sunday Service was held last Sunday at Weekend 2 of America's premier music festival, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The performance took place on a grassy hill in the middle of the festival grounds. Performers wore faded mauve ensembles for the occasion and a sermon was given by fellow rapper DMX. Tolentino, who watched this gathering closely, says that West's services aren't so much about piety as they are about self-promotion.

"With Kanye, it's always been this very complicated dance between whether he is worshiping God or subsuming God to his own ends," Tolentino notes. "He grew up Christian, he's spoken about that. There's always this sense though that he might worship God but never serve him. It's always seemed like God, in the end, would always serve him."

But while many celebrities have seemed to find solace in God through millennial-friendly mega churches and organizations like Hillsong Worship, the difference with West, Tolentino says, is that he is the point of worship.

"He is the church... he is the text of the sermon. It's his songs. He is the worship. He is creating a church in himself and selling it, really," Tolentino says, pointing out that the key selling point to the Sunday Service gathering at Coachella was exclusive merchandise for exorbitant prices — from $50 tube socks to a $225 sweatshirt with the words 'Sunday Service at the Mountain' across it. "It comes down to this complicated relationship between, you know, being a prophet or a supplicant," Tolentino says.

To many who've watch West in the past few years publicly grapple with his mental health and come under scrutiny for supporting President Donald Trump, these Sunday Services are a sign that the rapper is searching for redemption. Tolentino is not convinced.

"There's so much ambient hunger and desperation in so many aspects of our culture right now," Tolentino says. "The need, I'm sure is sincere. What kind of made me sad about watching it was it's just, 'Is this the thing that will fill it?' I'm not sure. It seems like the incorrect answer to an extremely real hunger."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Christina Cala is a producer for Code Switch. Before that, she was at the TED Radio Hour where she piloted two new episode formats — the curator chat and the long interview. She's also reported on a movement to preserve African American cultural sites in Birmingham and followed youth climate activists in New York City.