The lights begin to dim. Conversations quiet as the choir, dressed in white robes, files onto a circular stage immersed in an indoor replication of the Garden of Eden. A surprising yet refreshingly diverse crowd begins to cheer as Kanye West takes his place center stage. A man in the crowd yells, “Kanye 2020!” and fans explode into applause.
Choir director Jason White raises his hands, and the powerful, melodic voices of the predominantly Black gospel choir fills the auditorium. For the next two hours, the choir sings a mix of traditional gospel music, cleverly remixed R&B songs, and original music from Kanye’s new album Jesus is King. The crowd participates, dancing and singing along to the lyrics. It quickly becomes evident that this isn’t just another church service. This is a cultural revolution.
I didn’t know what to expect from Kanye’s Sunday Service. Like many of you, I’d seen the videos and read all the “cancel Kanye” articles circulating across the internet, but I wanted to experience it for myself. I’ve been to more church services than I can count, but I was unprepared for what I experienced that Sunday afternoon at the Forum in Los Angeles. Something special happened. People of all ages who looked, dressed and likely voted differently in the 2016 presidential election came together and lifted their hands in worship to God in a way that I’ve never witnessed before. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This must be what heaven feels like.”
“Jesus” has become a dirty divisive word for many, and understandably so. For hundreds of years, people have used Christianity as a vehicle to enslave, oppress and scare people. atrocious crimes have been committed in the name of religion. Politicians have used the Bible to support their personal agendas, making even the most devout Christians question their beliefs at times.
For Black communities, the issue becomes even more highly convoluted. Black church has always been at the center of civil rights and historic cultural movements. Like Kanye West, and many other African Americans, I grew up in the church. There was no such thing as sleeping in on a Sunday. I sang in the choir, attended weekly Bible studies, and participated in an annual “Hallelujah Harvest” every October in place of Halloween because there was no way my Momma was going to let me dress up to celebrate the “Devil’s” holiday.
As America began to change into a more inclusive and politically correct place, so did my habits. Quoting scripture stopped being cool, so I stopped memorizing my favorite verses. The idea of waiting for marriage to have sex became antiquated, so I stopped waiting. Church was placed at the center of polarizing debates on LGBTQ+ rights and abortion, so for a while, I stopped going. Lines were drawn in the sand, and people were asked to make incredibly impossible, unfair choices – support President Trump or you’re not really a Christian (who, by the way, has yet to display any modicum of true Christian values in my opinion, but I’ll save that for another day).
For years, I’ve lived in fear of being canceled for my beliefs by both the left and the right. If you say admit to being a Christian around many progressive liberal crowds, you’re written of as a hate-filled Jesus freak. If you admit that while you 100 percent support a woman’s right to make choices about her own body, but you can understand why the idea of aborting an innocent baby makes people uncomfortable, you’re labeled intolerant. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve sat in on countless business meetings where people who profess to be accepting and tolerant of all beliefs laugh at and mock Christians without noticing their own hypocrisy.
On the other side, if you express your concern about the way Christians have historically judged and mistreated people in LGBTQ+ communities to right-wingers, you’re a lukewarm faith traitor. If you pour out your concern for unjust immigration policies or police brutality, you’re labeled a brainwashed left-wing troublemaker. Many of them would rather us, as Black people, sit down, shut up and ignore issues that are literally killing our communities.
So where does that leave me? Where does that leave the millions of Americans who have trouble identifying with the far left and the far right? The Christians who don’t ascribe to judging others and stand for justice? Well for a long time, it left us nowhere. It left us suffering in silence. It’s no wonder so many of us, myself included, have struggled with our mental health. Enter Kanye West.
Kanye is undeniably talented, but I’ve never been the biggest Yeezy fan. He has admittedly said some problematic things in the past. From the death of his mother to his very public mental breakdowns, we have watched him evolve over the course of his career. His recent return to gospel music has polarized the Black community. While some are still crying for the return of the “Old Kanye”, others of us have rallied in support of his new music and lifestyle transformation.
Ironically, Kanye has become a voice for those of us who have been afraid for too long to stand up for what we believe – Jesus is King. That doesn’t make us weirdos. That doesn’t make us bigots. But it does make us counter-cultural.
Culture has taught us to “cancel” people for their beliefs, actions, and mistakes. As Dave Chappelle reminded us all in his latest stand up comedy segment, no one is safe from being canceled. Even Ellen dealt with her share of cyberbullying after sitting next to George Bush at a Cowboys game. I’ve been canceled by people before, and it sucks. It makes you feel unlovable. It makes you feel like you’re nothing. To cancel someone is to decide that they no longer hold any value or worth in society. The problem with cancel culture, however, is that it strips people of their humanity. It is the exact opposite of who Jesus is and what he stood for – compassion and undeserved forgiveness.
Cancel culture is inherently hypocritical. We often choose to judge ourselves by our intentions, while judging others strictly by the actions. None of us are perfect. We’re all in process, and at some point in ourselves, we’ll all say or do something that others would say justifies “canceling” us. People are complex, multifaceted, constantly evolving creatures. When we are not given the opportunity to grow and express ourselves in truth, it can feel like death. Suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals 10-34 years of age. With suicide rates on the rise, in large part due to cyberbullying, cancel culture can easily turn into a life or death situation.
I’m tired of having secret conversations with my friends in their living rooms about what we believe. I’m tired of worrying whether my friends or coworkers will block me on social media if I say something they disagree with. I’m tired of laughing at jokes I find offensive because I’m afraid to rock the boat, or staying quiet in situations when my soul wants to speak up. I’m tired of going out of my way to make everyone else feel comfortable at the expense of silencing myself.
Whether or not you like Kanye (and I’m sure many of you will cancel me for supporting him), we should all be thankful for the much-needed reminder not to hide or shrink ourselves to please the crowd. Like Kanye and others before him, I want to stand up for what I believe in unapologetically. I want to think for myself. I don’t want to be a slave to the media and the opinions of others. I want to be free.
So, what happens next? I don’t know. With 2020 around the corner, my prayer is that we find ways to love one another through our disagreements. In the words of Kanye, it’s a hard road to heaven, but we don’t have to wait until we die to get there. We can create heaven or hell for ourselves here on Earth. If we can collectively find a way to look past our differences and embrace grace, understanding, and forgiveness, we’ll understand what it means to truly defy the odds, rise above judgment and shame, and walk on water. We will be living proof that miracles still happen.