Kanye West performs onstage during his "Jesus Is King" album and film experience at The Forum on Oct. 23, 2019 in Inglewood, Calif.
Kanye West performs onstage during his "Jesus Is King" album and film experience at The Forum on Oct. 23, 2019 in Inglewood, Calif.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for ABA

Using This Gospel: The Black Community's Skepticism of Kanye West's New Direction

Kanye West starts conversations and debates. He’s provocative by trade -- it gets the people going -- especially over the last almost two years. 

The rapper emerged in early 2018 from an uncharacteristic period of quiet sporting a MAGA hat, doubling down on support of Trump, and proclaiming slavery "sounds like a choice.” In many Black conversations online, in print and in person, the tone regarding Kanye used to be a bemused but still warm and sometimes empathetic recap of his antics -- a “bless his heart.” Sentiment is now overwhelmingly “enough of him, already,” or even a straight “f--k Kanye.” 

When Kanye was just disrupting telethons, crashing award stages, and ranting about fashion conglomerates, there was at least the sense that the rapper was fighting, in his own maybe misguided way, for a greater collective good. Now, after years of extending West grace -- because of the tragic loss of his mom in 2007, because of his mental and emotional health, because of his talent, or just because the Black community’s instinct is to protect our men publicly -- the collective Black “we” are largely done trying to decipher his motives and intentions. 

West, the son of a noted English and African-American Studies professor and a former Black Panther, emerged in the music scene as a semi-”conscious” rapper, addressing racial inequality, oppression and community ills in his lyrics along with the standard rap fare of money, clothes and women. Music fans who weren’t of age during the first conscious era of hip-hop in the early ‘90s found something in West’s music that was missing with 50 Cent, Ja Rule, and even Kanye’s “big brother” and frequent collaborator Jay-Z, the hip-hop chart dominators of the early to mid-’00s. 

In his 2018 essay for The Atlantic, “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye,” Ta-Nehisi Coates examined West’s seeming separation from his Blackness, and how far away it is from the West fans love: “When I heard Kanye [through production on Jay-Z’s Blueprint album], I felt myself back in communion with something that I felt had been lost, a sense of ancestry in every sample, a sound that went back to the separated and unequal, that went back to the slave.” Now, the man who once famously declared the president didn’t care about Black people on live national television has put on a MAGA hat, said it made him “feel like Superman,” and publicly supported a president whose apathy and abject disdain for anyone “other” leaves marginalized people as vulnerable as those Katrina victims Bush failed to aide.

“Kanye’s always said f--ked up or off the wall things,” hip-hop writer and historian Dart Adams remarks to Billboard. “But this is it. Now, he’s doing serious damage. And the thing is, his following is so large and so young… he can say the most false thing. The wrongest thing ever. Things that aren’t even based in fact. But, because Kanye said it, they’re going to defend it.” 

“Harmful” is a descriptor often used, now, in reference to Kanye’s impassioned, on the fly rhetoric. In his mind, he’s just being a “free thinker.” But there’s a correlation to a figure as influential as Kanye continuously comparing being a Democrat to slavery, and the President and his supporters thinking nothing of comparing being investigated to “lynching, in every sense of the word.” Nah, fam. 

For a while, we pondered, “What happened to the old Kanye?” Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Kanye’s longtime creative partner, co-writer of some of his strongest work including “Jesus Walks” and “New Slaves,” and a collaborator on Jesus is King, believes the conversation around West is unfairly limited. “I don’t know what to tell you about an old person or a new person,” he says. “That’s Internet banter.” 

In a similar vein to West’s own arguments about not being constrained to monolithic thought, Smith points to the idea of duality in artists -- essentially being able to view both the person and the art, not just one or the other.

“People go straight to Donald Trump [when discussing West]...Who you choose to polarize in terms of how you view a person doesn’t make it the whole of that person,” he explains. “We understand dualism when it comes to Tupac. We understand dualism when it comes to people who are dead, like Nipsey Hussle. But when it comes to politics, our dualism shuts down… We are throwing culture and art away over this enemy [of Black people] or the next one.” (Smith says he sees no difference in Trump or former VP and current Democratic candidate Joe Biden when it comes to harmful policy.)

But as previously mentioned, West’s contributions to art and culture were a large factor in overlooking things like him using the Confederate flag in his merch, or even saying that Black people need to stop talking about racism. But his Trump support (even as he admitted he doesn’t vote, a problem in and of itself), his amplification of harmful rhetoric, and his refusal to listen even to people close to him, proved increasingly impossible to reconcile with the music we’ve loved. The current national climate that doesn’t allow the luxury of half-baked and incendiary public dialogue, and West has been in Calabasas for a long time. To some, that’s part of the problem — he’s untethered from the Black community, in a bubble of privilege.

T.I. went to talk to Ye about his Trump support, and was shocked to learn that West wasn’t even aware of some of the administration’s more harmful policies, like the travel ban. "He loves the thought of [Trump].... he defied all odds… and in his mind, that's how it is,” Tip told The Breakfast Club’s Charlamagne. “He don't know the things we know, because he has removed himself from society to the point that it don't reach him." In a conversation about West’s visit to the White House last year, former S.C. State Representative and CNN commentator Bakari Sellers put it more succinctly: “Kanye West is what happens when Negroes don’t read.” 

Smith called West out publicly last year for losing sight of his roots and community, but then reconciled with his friend and brother. “Right after that public argument... Kanye came right back to Chicago, and made some investments…. And it wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about Donda’s House (charity), it was about ‘Come back to your village’... Kanye came and sat at my dinner table, and I said, ‘How long has it been since you sat at my dinner table? That’s my problem with you and our brotherhood.’ And he was able to say ‘Yeah, man... I f--ked up.’”

For years, we made up our own excuses for Kanye, needing to identify an impetus in his erraticism. “It’s the Black ethos of -- you got the family, and you got the black sheep of the family, and they do things that make people look at them crazy, but they’re still part of the family,” Adams explains. “We’ve applied that to Kanye because we believed he can still be saved; there’s still good in him.”

Now, we’ve had to start accepting maybe that this is just Ye. In late 2018, Michael Eric Dyson, who has authored books about Tupac, Jay-Z, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Barack Obama, echoed the sentiments of many: Kanye had become indefensible. “This is time for us to say Kanye, we as African-American people cannot stand idly by while you give cover to a man who is proved to be a white supremacist.” Black media outlets published eulogies and obituaries to the Kanye we embraced -- and who embraced us back. Or at least to the person we thought that Kanye was; as writer and Morehouse professor David Dennis, Jr. pointed out, “A lot of the sadness isn't about who Kanye has become but for the realization that he's been this person all along.” 

The level of public criticism and condemnation of West from Black people is breaking long-standing rules of engagement in our community. The collective “we” have historically been hesitant to abandon support of prominent Black figures, because the odds are already heavily stacked against them, and we expect mainstream media to jump at a chance to paint them in a negative light. That’s a large part of the reason why R. Kelly and Bill Cosby went so long without real public outcry, and why there are still some who staunchly defend them. 

“(Kanye) was harmful five years ago. He was a serious problem three years ago,” Adams insists. “I’m beyond belief that people are still supporting this guy… and showing up on HBCU campuses… They should have been like, ‘You can’t say all of this s--t, and do all of these things, and we still support you.’

However, the ideology that “tearing a Black man down” is a bigger problem than anything said Black man did is crumbling in the era of public accountability, or as its critics call it, “cancel culture.” Kanye’s latest transgressions; treading on our history by minimizing slavery, and co-opting spaces Black poeople carved out to be able to express our Blackness freely and safely -- the Black church and the Historically Black College/University -- with messaging about getting rid of the 13th amendment and not making choices based on skin color, are too alarming to not call out. 

Although his mother was raised Baptist and his father was referred to as a “pastoral counselor,” West didn’t grow up in the Black church, so as Sunday Service has grown from an invite-only Holy Ghost jam session in Calabasas for Ye and Kim’s fellow VIPs, to an actual church experience, scrutiny has increased. 

An appeal to the Black church is part of the redemption playbook for disgraced Black celebrities. Michael Jackson, who had his own complicated relationship with Black folks at the height of his pop stardom, sought the refuge of the First AME Church of Los Angeles a day before appearing in court to fight child molestation charges. O.J. Simpson, who famously separated himself from his Blackness after he became one of the first true celebrity athletes, was met with a warm welcome in D.C.’s Scripture Cathedral after his acquittal, with the church’s senior pastor exclaiming, “If he wants to return home, the Black nation is here to receive our brother.” Even R. Kelly would churn out inspirational fare like “You Saved Me,” and appeal to the Black community and church base at his moments of highest scrutiny. At a glance, it’s easy to assume West is doing the same, but the difference is, Kanye is offering no apologies nor asking for forgiveness. 

Black folks are wary of whether there’s any “oil,” as we say (anointing, spirit, biblical grounding) on Sunday Service. Even though Black millennials have left the church in larger numbers than previous generations, some traditions of the Black church are embedded in their spirits, including the power of worship through song, evolved from slave spirituals and messages of freedom. Worship is sacred. But, maybe proving the point of those who say the Black church is too quick to forgive, some argue that we can’t condemn a man’s spiritual journey out of hand. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham, a national voice for Black activism and change and the daughter of two ministers, was invited to a Sunday Service months ago in Calabasas. She believes Kanye’s intentions, at least, are genuine. “From what I saw, I feel like Kanye is genuinely trying to come into relationship with God,” she tells Billboard. “In as much as someone can judge another’s walk with God -- which is to say, not at all -- I don’t take for granted that talking about your spirituality is not always welcome in pop culture.” 

However, she adds: “That said, I am deeply worried about how the platform is being used. I had some hope -- until I researched the church Kanye has been attending and the pastor he’s been learning from. That church seems to follow a clear philosophy of white evangelicalism, which has been repeatedly harmful to Black people, people of color, LGBTQ people, and women.” 

She’s referring to Adam Tyson: the young, evangelical minister West has credited as his spiritual leader in his “radical” rebirth as a Christian. Simply having Tyson take a place of honor with him in the pulpit of Black churches is making some uneasy. And perhaps because West doesn’t have roots in the church, his take on the worship experience feels performative to many. His intentions may be genuine, but the execution is lacking.

West’s take on a full gospel project, Jesus Is Kingfinally dropped this morning after almost a month’s delay. A companion IMAX film of the same title is in theaters today, as well. Many have heard the music already, as Kanye has incorporated it into his services and hosted listening sessions over the last several weeks. Critics of Kanye’s last effort, 2018’s Ye, noted that he didn’t appear to have much to say that hadn’t already been examined in 2016’s The Life of Pablo. Now, fans and critics alike are eager to learn how he’s translated his spiritual journey into his art. 

On the question of West remaining “canceled” by Black people, Kanye himself refuted critics while at Howard University's homecoming -- one of the most popular HBCU homecoming weekends in the country, on a campus commonly referred to as “the Mecca” --  asking the crowd “Do I look canceled to you?” (Attendance was estimated at being "in the hundreds," but aerial shots inspired public comments about a small turnout.)

Smith believes the responsibility of making amends with West and who he is, is on us as consumers and fans. “I pray that the public can look at how they may love or hate an artist and then apply that -- working out that confusion -- to how we deal with our aunties, and our brothers and our mamas,” he offers. “And use that to heal ourselves, and our own guilt about how we treat ourselves sometimes. Our own hypocrisies. This is what art is; it’s a reflection of the society that we live in. Perhaps what upsets people about Kanye so much, is what we see of him in ourselves.”

When Smith is asked if he thought West owed any explanations or apologies to the Black community, he responds, laughingly, “No one owes anybody anything.” However, he amends his statement: “But we need each other and we gotta stop throwing each other away so easily.” 

Time will tell if Black fans and former fans will adopt the same spirit. Or maybe Smith, who takes issue with the public elevating artists to leaders, is right that some responsibility lay with our penchant towards celebrity pedestaling, and the pressure that puts on artists. As Coates notes, “(For) Black artists who rise to the heights of Jackson and West, the weight is more, because they come from communities in desperate need of champions… When brilliant Black artists fall down on the stage, they don’t fall down alone.”

Packnett Cunningham respects West, and is among those hopeful that he’ll grow into the potential of his work. “I hope Kanye listens to his people, his elders, historians and the fans who’ve been with him since Day 1,” she emphasizes. (It’s worth noting that he did rejoin his original manager, John Monopoly, for a period last year, but it didn’t last.) 

“All of us are open to his spiritual journey -- we want Kanye to be his best self," Packnett Cunningham continues. "We just want to make sure it’s not used to demean our enslaved ancestors and promote an administration that continues to do us harm. That’s antithetical to a Biblical understanding of who Jesus Christ is.” 

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