Desperately Seeking Kanye in Cody, Wyoming

Kanye West
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, Calif.

What are the hip-hop star's plans for three properties he has purchased in the Equality State, and what do locals make of his arrival? Billboard sent a reporter to investigate.

Kanye West beams as, bodyguard in tow, he hustles through the very white crowd that has gathered at the Robbie Powwow Garden in Cody, Wyoming.

Necks craning, the de facto congregation, there to witness West’s much-hyped Sunday Service, watches as the rapper, his palms pressed together as if already in prayer, swiftly traverses the crowd of 3,800 and slips into a large circle formed by the members of his gospel choir. Dressed in white sweatshirts emblazoned with “Sunday Service” on the back and the state seal of Wyoming on the front, the singers enclose a simple stage that holds an array of musical instruments, a sound system and the choir’s director, Jason White. 

West, who’s wearing a fully deployed yellow hoodie beneath the same white sweatshirt is sans family. His wife Kim Kardashian, who usually attends and videotapes the service, is presenting at the Emmy Awards that night, and his four children are nowhere to be seen. He looks up at White and the service, which was well-advertised locally, begins. As the September sun shines magnificently and a stiff wind blows cottony clouds across the mountainous horizon, the choir director declares, “This is the day the Lord has made. We shall be glad and rejoice in it.” 

“I just saw Kanye West!” shouts a porcelain-skinned young teen. Her Rocky Mountain dialect and the cowboy hat she holds suggest that she’s a local. Modestly dressed in church garb, a silver cross dangling from her thin neck, she takes off her sunglasses for an unadulterated view of the hip-hop star, then says to a friend beside her: “I have no idea who he is!”

The choir, which had been flown in from California earlier that morning, opens with “Ultralight Beam,” from 2016’s The Life of Pablo album. West raps briefly, then dissolves into nervous laughter and smiles. It is his only participation in the service besides banging on the drums and keyboard during the choir’s performance. Although the set is laced with traditional gospel numbers, rock and pop reign, including reworked covers of No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” Tears for Fears’ “Shout,” Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” 

An hour later, while the choir continues singing, West unceremoniously heads toward a black 2019 Ford F-150. The dense crowd parts like the Red Sea as he as he walks to the vehicle. Once behind the steering wheel, he drives slowly as he exits the grounds (where a museum dedicated to another showman, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody is located) so as not to run over the worshippers who have followed him. A boy in his mid-teens approaches the truck offering a handwritten note. West rolls down his window to accept it. “Thank you,” he says, before stowing it in the truck’s center console and quickly rolling up the window. 

Another boy watching West’s pick-up recede looks up at his mother. “Where did Kanye go?” he asks. “Heaven,” she replies. “Or that really expensive ranch he bought.”

The question of where Kanye West is going -- as an artist, a public figure and a bankable performer -- is one that his fans, followers and many in the music industry would like answered as well. On Oct. 25, a little more than a month after his Sept. 22 appearance in Cody, West released his ninth album, Jesus Is King, a gospel and hip-hop concoction that, save for a Kenny G cameo, sounds like an outgrowth of the Sunday Services he has been conducting in various locations around the country this year. (An eponymous making-of documentary opened in IMAX theaters that same day.)

Previewed in different iterations since late September, the digital-only album has been greeted with more than the usual media fanfare because, in addition to his embrace of Christianity, the record comes in the wake of West’s admitted struggles with bipolar disorder, his controversial statement that 400 years of slavery was “a choice,” his vocal support of President Donald Trump, and his purchase of a $14-million 4,500-acre property just outside of Cody, that he has christened West Lake, just 13 miles from the Robbie Powwow Garden.

West’s seemingly wholehearted embrace of religion is nothing new in the world of music. Bob Dylan briefly became born-again in the late 1970s and released three albums that reflected his conversion. Last year, the rapper Snoop Dogg put out a gospel album (and in 2013, a reggae album as Snoop Lion after becoming a Rastafarian). But West’s heightened religious fervor combined with news of his acquisition of a large property near Cody, a town with less than 10,000 inhabitants, has resulted in a lot of rich speculation. Is West starting a cult? Is the move to the Equality State, a well-known tax haven, a financial consideration? Or is West merely seeking refuge from the media and the haters who love to scrutinize his every move?

I came to Cody -- where over the course of nine days, I talk to more than 100 people and interview 35 -- looking for answers.

After leaving Sunday Service, West drives a few miles down the road to Cody Steakhouse that he has rented out for his entourage. He orders broiled fillet of salmon with a brown sugar glaze. In a corner of the restaurant, Rick Rubin is finishing up his meal, sipping on lemon water and peering at paperwork through crimson tinted glasses. Despite initial reports that Jesus Is King would be released on Sept. 27 it is not finished, and sources say that Rubin is in Cody, where West has been living and working for the last month, to offer feedback. 

Indeed, West’s writers are still sending him material. At one point during my stay, I encounter producer, rapper and Denzel Curry C9 member Ronny J at the Yellowstone Regional Airport. He begs to use my Hotspot connection so that he can send some tracks to West before his flight takes off. Ronny has been working on music with West for six days now, but so have other writers and producers. He describes the process as a “free for all,” explaining, “If you have an idea, you tap in and whoever comes up with the greatest idea gets it. Even when I talked to Rubin, he’s giving his two cents.”

Before flying to Cody, Ronny had a clear idea that Jesus Is King was going to be an amalgamation of gospel and hip-hop music. He says the album is all about believing in Jesus Christ and God. “Sometimes it takes time to figure out where you really want to be in life. Music is a roller coaster and it’s a journey for all of us,” adds Ronny as he anxiously attempts to get a Wifi signal. He relaxes visibly when the tracks are sent. “Kanye’s finally getting to that place in life where he’s always wanted to be. You can see it through his lifestyle,” he continues. “It’s all about a pure mind, energy and God.”

In October, West tweeted that he and his crew were “not going to sleep” until Jesus Is King was done, and Ronny says that work ethic pretty much prevailed in the studio. “When he’s tired, he’ll fall asleep no matter how many people are working, but then he’ll come right back from sleep and rap on a verse,” he says. “He works all night, until 7:00 a.m.,” and will sometimes interrupt the proceedings to break into prayer. “Everything is radical, and anything can happen in that studio,” he says. “You never know what Ye is going to say or do -- I love it.”

Ronny says West understands that people are confused about the purpose and meaning of Sunday Services, but he also believes God will help others understand.

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be something everyone understands,” says Yamileh Barnett, who sang in the choir at a Sunday Service West conducted in Atlanta in mid-September. She describes the experience as “a jam session toward Jesus. It was super powerful and authentic,” says Barnett, who has a master’s degree in Christian ministry. “It’s what I imagine heaven is going to be like with people joining voices and singing in worship.” 

At the entrance to West Lake, two signs read “Guests by Reservation Only.” I slowly drive the 200 yards to the log cabin-style house on the property. A cleaning lady retrieving supplies from her car sees me and hurries into the house. A different woman emerges, and I ask if I can speak to Kanye West. She directs me to follow a man in a pick-up truck who drives to the end of a long dirt road. Instead of West, we meet the previous owners, Kaley and Ryan Brandt of nearby Powell. They tell us they are staying on the ranch for two more weeks because they have a few events to run. (The property was previously available for such gatherings as weddings and hunting and fishing excursions.) Nothing new is being built right now. Workers are fixing some of the bungalows that needs doors and windows replaced. There is no church being built and there is no cult in session, the Brandts tell me.

West does have ambitious plans for the property and for Cody, according to a number of sources interviewed for this story. In addition to buying the ranch, he purchased the old headquarters of Mountain Equipment, an almost 3.8 acre parcel of land that he plans to use for his fashion design business. Insiders say that members of West's design team, some of whom work for Adidas, have moved full-time to Cody, and that the site, which once housed heavy construction vehicles, will serve as a storage facility to keep West's designs hidden from potential copycats. The artist also has acquired another ranch in the area that he plans to use to record and produce music. “Kanye said he’s going to build a city in Cody,” says Ronny J. “It’s like [the game] Monopoly, I guess. I’m pretty sure he’s going to buy everything. It’s so cheap.” It’s unclear, however, whether or when West plans to hold another Sunday Service there. (West's label Def Jam Recordings declined to comment for this story.) 

Matt Hall, the apple-cheeked mayor of Cody, tells me that he met with West before his Sunday Service in September and had a pleasant conversation. Hall learned that the rapper was moving to his town when he read about it in the local papers. “I think Kanye wanted to reach out and let us know it’s not gossip that he’s here.” During the half-hour meeting, the mayor says that West told him that he had talked to administrators at a number of schools in the area “to get a feel for the quality of the [education they offered] and whether [living in Cody] would work for his family.” Hall says that West also inquired about economic development and housing issues. A lot of people who work in the service industries there can’t afford housing, Hall explains, adding that West said he wants to help.

“I think the celebrity aspect of it is kind of overwhelming for some people,” Hall says of West’s arrival, along with his world-famous wife and children. “I think some people [here] support Kanye more because he’s a Trump supporter,” he says. “Obviously, we are a conservative state and that aspect gives him a few more connections with people in the area.”

Hall made these comments before an Oct. 24 interview that West gave to Beats 1’s Zane Lowe in which he muddied his stance on Trump, saying that he was now in “service to Christ” and “no longer a slave.” He also said that his wearing of a MAGA hat “was God’s practical joke on all liberals,” suggesting that it was the rebellious act of “unquestionably, undoubtedly the greatest human artist of all time” espousing views that “culturally they’re not supposed to say.” West also claimed in the interview that "there will be a time when I will be the president of the U.S."

How the citizens of Cody will process these remarks should be interesting. According to the New York Times, 73.6% of Park County, where Cody is located, voted for Trump, and 2018 U.S. Census Bureau statistics indicate that 95.9% of the county’s residents are white, while just 0.7% are black. Seventy-one percent of Wyoming residents practice some form of Christian religion, including Mormonism, according to the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life.

A number of Cody locals were willing to share their initial opinions. Thirty-year-old Wyoming native Kersten Michelson, who is black, says that after her 9-year-old son spotted West shopping at Walmart, he told her that the rapper’s bodyguard was holding his groceries. "Kanye needs to get rid of his damn security guards," she says. "He looks crazy! He needs to act normal and acclimate." 

West’s Sunday Services have attracted Brad Pitt, Katy Perry, Paris Jackson, Tyler, The Creator and Diplo among other celebrities, and a main concern among locals is that he and Kardashian's presence will spark an influx of entitled wealth. They don’t want Cody becoming another Jackson Hole, a resort town about a five-hour drive away where billionaires go to ski. “If you want to change everything, you won’t last long here. We are happy the way we are,” says Gail Nace, owner of the Silver Dollar Bar, a popular local watering hole.

Others see West and Kardashian as a welcome disruptive influence. “We can be open to new ideas, thoughts and processes and be better for it,” says Cherie Fisher, 50, owner of The Village Shoppe boutique in Cody. 

Michelson’s husband, Daniel Harley, 29, who is also black, and Xaivion Cozzens, 28, who identifies as gay, black and Jewish, say that they too hope the Wests will shake up Cody. “It’s weird for me being black,” Harley says. “Sometimes I wish I saw people more like me, but you get used to it. Hopefully he’ll bring more diversity here.” 

As night stretches into early morning at the Silver Dollar, a small group of construction workers that West has imported from Los Angeles shoot pool at the Silver Dollar, while his design team huddles at the bar. When I ask if I can interview them, they confer with each other then walk away. (Members of West’s entourage, his collaborators and even participants in his Sunday Services have been known to sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from talking about his affairs.) An hour later, one of the designers approaches my boyfriend Tim, who has accompanied me on this trip, to angrily tell him that I shouldn’t be writing a story without Kanye’s approval. He says that West has better things to do than grant an interview. 

The following evening, I talk to two men with a much less accepting view of West. Jake Weeks and Derek Usery are roommates who say they were kicked out of the Silver Dollar on Sept. 25 for getting into a fight with Kanye’s financial adviser and are banned from the bar for 90 days. Both agree that they don’t want West living in Cody. “I think it’s f--king weird Kanye is here,” says Usery. “I think he’s going through a midlife crisis. No one thinks about him anymore so he had to do something crazy and move to the Midwest.”

Usery and Weeks are drinking and smoking cigarettes on the back patio of the Juniper wine bar while watching a pornographic video on one of the men’s cellphones. They ask if I want to see them receiving blowjobs. I decline. They show me anyway. Weeks, who is heavily tattooed with a diamond teardrop stamped on his face, looks up. “I have never seen so many colored folk in my entire life,” he says with a laugh, adding, “There is another word for it where I’m from. He needs to f--k off somewhere else.”

Weeks has more to say. “The crime level is going to be through the goddamn roof with him here. It’s going to be some liberal f--ks, b---h-a-- Democrats. He doesn’t get our lifestyle.” He takes another drag on his cigarette and crosses his arms. “The Sunday Service is a f--king joke. You think he should be an ordained minister singing lyrics like, ‘I’m a sick f--k and I like a quick f--k?’ Get the f--k out of here.”

“He needs to go back,” says Usery. “It’s going to be like living in Detroit in about three months.”

“And he has a Tranpa -- you know, a transsexual grandpa,” says Weeks. He’s referring to Caitlyn Jenner, Kardashian’s former stepfather, who is now a trans woman. “The only thing I like is that he’s in with Trump and wears that MAGA shit,” Weeks concludes.

At the Millstone Pizza Company and Brewery, Kevin Rowe, 47, a photographer who has lived in Cody for two and a half years, says that, for the most part, locals like that West has established a base there because it is attracting tourists who are spending money in town. That doesn’t mean that he will be embraced fully, however. “I think people here see black people a certain way, and not in an accurate way,” he says. “They are excited because he’s a celebrity, but I think they see black people as lesser. I don’t think they see them as threatening, just not as evolved.” To drive his point home, Rowe says he recently overheard someone in town say, “Kanye is a Trump supporter, so I’ll forgive him for being black.” 

About 2 miles down the road at Brewgard’s Lounge, Logan Christie, who has tended bar for 10 years and works a day job as a probation officer, says that the racial insensitivity he hears is the product of a generational mindset. A native of Cody who lived in New York City from 2007 to 2009, he observes that his hometown is “an older community with an ingrained mentality that’s kind of like, ‘I’m not racist, I just don’t like them.’”

In the back of Brewgard’s, an employee of West who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that one of the reasons the rapper established a residence in Cody was for the state’s tax breaks. (To be fair, the federal tax laws that took effect in 2018 and limit deductions for state and local income taxes, have prompted musical artists' business managers to encourage their clients to establish residences in states with lower tax rates than, for instance, California, where West and his family live.) The employee also says that the Sunday Services are authentic -- that his boss wants to spread his faith to others who may need it. At the same time, he acknowledges that charging $18 for plant-based burritos at Coachella and $225 for mauve Sunday Services sweatshirts might not be the best way to achieve that goal.

It’s the closest I will get to West’s mindset. A week passes without another glimpse of him, and I learn that West left town two days after the Sunday Service. I depart Cody with more questions than answers. Will Kanye, his family and his following change the way people in this corner of the country think about prayer and music, race and politics? Will he influence the next elections? Will he actually run for president? 

Jesus is King offers few clues. Reviews are mixed and Chicago Tribune reviewer Greg Kot writes that the album “sounds like a walk-through to West’s next destination.” We may have to wait for his next album -- or next year’s election -- to be enlightened.