‘We Nobody’s Slave’
MAGA-era Kanye West Turns to God but Serves Himself in ‘Jesus Is King’
Kanye West compares the cultural condemnation he receives for his conservative views to being enslaved. That misguidedness determines the vision for his new film and album.
First I saw the film: a 38-minute series of performance clips shot in James Turrell’s Roden Crater installation in the Arizona desert as well as West’s ranch in Cody, Wyoming, directed by British fashion photographer Nick Knight. West’s Sunday Service choir performs in all brown Yeezy uniforms that match their skin tones, led by a choir conductor whose presence—with energetic full body movements stretching from structure to sky—is the most compelling of the film. Everyone in Jesus Is King: the Film is black, from West to the choir to his baby daughter, Chicago, whom West cradles while singing “Use this Gospel.” The film’s visual blackness felt intentional, and I wondered how genuine or cynical the choice was.
Black people are at the core of the gospel, our heritage and varied experiences, but also our colonization, the fact that many of us worship a Christian God in the first place. The black church birthed rock ’n’ roll with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, its godmother, stomping through the church doors and out into the secular streets with God’s message, guitar in hand. But West, in many ways, has abandoned a collective understanding of varied black experiences for a bootstrap-pulling individualist’s redemptive journey to the sun. The audience in the Camarillo, Calif. IMAX theater where I saw the film was mostly white and Asian. At the end of the screening, I looked around as everyone exited the theater, and as far as I could see, I was the only black person there. In L.A., the black population is much larger than in the suburbs; still, I wondered what those theaters would look like.
Then, as I turned what I saw over and over in my head, the album dropped. It was somehow shorter than the film, and easier to read.
When West released The Life of Pablo in 2016, he likened it to a gospel album, except “with a whole lot of cursing.” The album’s hit song, “Ultralight Beam,” became the soundtrack to the collage-style video “Love Is the Message… the Message Is Death” by the transformative filmmaker and artist Arthur Jafa. During a screening of the video I attended in 2017 in Harlem, Jafa explained the idea of “ushering” to a captive, mostly white audience. In black churches, there are ushers, who help people into their seats and up the aisles, but also assist churchgoers when the spirit moves them and they lose control of their bodies. Ushering, Jafa explained, can also be done artistically; you can make the space for experience, aid its conditions.
Unlike The Life of Pablo, the album Jesus Is King has no cursing and no explicit references to sex, though that’s not necessarily its trouble. The conflict between Godliness and hedonism, the Lord and money, church and popular culture, the Bible and Nike—these were the tensions of West’s work before he was saved. Of course, those tensions have apparently led him to celebrating the deeply corrupt and racist President Trump, citing his “dragon energy”; proclaiming in TMZ’s offices that “slavery was a choice”; and refusing to apologize for any of it even after retreating from his association with “Blexit” advocate Candace Owens. West attributes this turn of spirit—or energy—to his independence, and his right as a black person to believe and advocate for whatever he wants. Still, it has been supremely disappointing to many of his fans who felt affinity when his political activism was in the name of the marginalized, such as the predominantly black survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the gay people often lampooned in rap songs, and the young, black victims of gun violence in Chicago. Now West—following in the footsteps of his “Big Brother” Jay-Z—chiefly takes up the cause of himself.
To be fair, like his idol Lauryn Hill, West has a firsthand understanding of what it means for people who don’t know you to feel like you exist for them; West is protesting the court of public opinion. In “Closed on Sunday,” the fourth song on Jesus Is King, he proclaims, “No more living for the culture/ We nobody’s slave.” While he’s obviously referencing his turn away from secular music, there’s also a nod to his recent, controversial politics. West is not the first black person with conservative ideas to claim that their conservatism constitutes a freedom of thought and principled refusal to be blindly allegiant to the Democratic Party. Owens and her followers tout this thinking, as does Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, the film critic Armond White, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and perhaps—for the black folks reading this—one of your aunties, third cousins, or affluent West African uncles. Though in relatively tiny numbers, black conservatives exist, and many of them believe they are in chains. But no matter how much pain fame has brought him as a black artist, no matter how mad black people are at him for donning his MAGA hat, West’s comparison of his cultural condition to slavery is misguided. And more than his God himself, that misguidedness seems to have determined the vision for this album.
In an interview with Apple Music radio DJ Zane Lowe, West said he asked unmarried collaborators to stay celibate during the making of Jesus Is King. (The musical artist Ciara fulfilled a similar request from her husband, Russell Wilson, who wanted them to abstain from sex throughout their engagement. Black Twitter and gossip blogs like Bossip had many a take on this betrothal.) This would seem to be the closest West will get to collective refusal. In “Hands On,” West raps, “Told the Devil that I’m going on strike/ I’ve been working for him my whole life.” West’s new contract is with God, and anyone who has a contract with West reports to Him now, too.
I must confess: I am not a religious person, though from time to time I do send prayers—or desperate pleas—to a “secular god,” maybe a cosmic force or constellation. But I have known religious people well: family who go to church, pray at their bedsides every night, ask me to pray, stray, sin, are saved, have Yolanda Adams albums on repeat, Joel Osteen tapes in the car. These people have rarely requested my fervent participation; I have been allowed to remain aloof, yet they remain there to usher if needed. So, the culture of religiousness I know, and in some ways, understand: the high arc of emotion that descends upon believers, and the secondhand spirit that may touch us heathens. But what West does with Jesus Is King does not resemble the most compelling parts of what I see in the devout I know well and love. Instead, the album is West’s own, personal salvation, tensions be damned (West even raps, “closed on Sundays / you my Chick-fil-a”—economics and Jesus have found equilibrium). Though, hey, maybe if you refuse pre-marital sex whenever you listen to his album, you, too, can be saved.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Kanye West's son, rather than his daughter as Chicago.