I was there, but I still can’t tell you much about Nebuchadnezzar, Kanye West’s latest Jesus product, mostly because, as my dad put it in a text, the rapper “thinks so much of himself that he gets lost in translation.”
At this point, I’m confused as to why anyone not directly on his payroll continues to show up for his deep forays into the celebrity ego, but fans will be fans, and if there’s an exclusive event to cash in on, Tidal will stream it.
Here’s my best shot at what happened: I drove to a parking lot at the federal building in Westwood, Los Angeles, where an Iranian expat anti-government solidarity protest was taking place. I got on a white school bus that drove me and other concert goers to the Hollywood Bowl. I looked around at these other people on the bus, probably best described as hetero Euphoria lite: a vaguely diverse group of young people in haphazardly ambitious outfits of the moment.
We were a shuttle of fools, though less foolish than those who parked directly at the venue, where their cars would be packed in like sardines, held hostage until the very end of the night. We arrived at the amphitheater from the shuttle right at 4 and climbed to our nosebleeds. A young white woman with a septum piercing walked by; she was wearing a fake tie-dye shirt that said in a blocky white serif “Be kind.” I did my best. I looked at everyone with open eyes. Women brought their children; young men brought their girlfriends; girlfriends brought their snacks. Three tall blondes in expensive-looking black leather jackets walked up the steps to seats even further up than mine. Would this be their new Hillsong? A woman sitting in front of me won her ticket on the radio and came out of curiosity—she spent the next two hours desperately offering other attendees her kettle corn; it was just too much.
My girlfriend had been kind enough to accompany me to the opera and sneak in hard kombucha, which we knew was a ridiculous drink but didn’t care. She wondered if all the excited young groups of women in trendy sportswear we saw were just there looking for “Pete Davidson boyfriends.” Behind us I glimpsed darkest-timeline clones of me and my girlfriend, except it appeared to be a straight couple. Were these snarky thoughts running through our heads and passing not infrequently out of our lips rude and unwelcome in this amphitheater of trendy worship? Was our embarrassment to be caught at the event, amongst hordes of people seemingly lacking even a shred of self-awareness, just representative of our own insecurities?
Before we drove down to LA, I fretted over where, on a Sunday, I could print our tickets for the shuttle, which could not simply be flashed on a mobile screen. This was a major dilemma for me as I couldn’t imagine missing the shuttle that I had pre-paid for in a flurry the night before in order to save six dollars. “Try the library,” a kind cashier at the organic grocery store in the small hippy town I live in told me. Oh, duh! I had been meaning to join. I marched down the street to one of the last vestiges of public space in American society, where an older white man in a floppy hat was locking up a gorgeous set of wheels on a forest green frame. “Lovely bike!” I said. “A little tall for you,” he replied, jokingly. We walked in together and hesitated before the smiling librarian. I let the whiff of dusty old books wash over me. I was home.
The juxtaposition between the under-resourced library where I paid 40 cents to print out my Ticketmaster purchases and the spectacularly clean Hollywood Bowl where cute coeds were lining up to buy reusable plastic carafes of red wine for 40 dollars in anticipation of Kanye West’s latest Christian stylings stuck with me for the two hours we waited for anyone, just anyone to appear on stage. The show was supposed to start right at 4—I’m sure most of us expected it would be more like 4:30. In fact, the opera began after 6.
Naturally, during this premature intermission, I checked Twitter. Kanye had tweeted the set list, with changes, just after 5. Around 5:30, he tweeted a photo of Chance the Rapper in his dressing room. There had been a time when this kind of behind-the-scenes info would’ve lit up my sense of excitement, even amidst my deep annoyance at shivering in the cold darkness with a bunch of very vocal strangers. This time, all I could feel was the chaotic energy of the only mildly interested people around me. Many of them had come for a fun time of spiritual adjacency; instead, they were getting a lesson on patience that would probably not have a point.
I went to the bathroom. While I was washing my hands, my girlfriend pssted me and gestured over, “Is she in the choir?” I looked over and saw a middle-aged black woman in a flowy linen off white (not the brand, the color) potato-sack-like ensemble. On our way out of the bathroom, the woman dropped her wallet, and as my girlfriend handed it back to her, the woman confirmed with a sigh that yes, she was in the choir. She walked off, back to the outdoor wings of the stage, which we had been able to see from our seats before. It was nearly 6.
Everyone was tired. Some were sleeping. Then the show started. A man across the aisle from us whooped with a startling enthusiasm. People joked that they were so cold, this better be worth it. No one seemed that invested in the event otherwise. The off-white choir began singing atop what resembled a large sand-colored design-y headband and a person in a glimmering purple robe began writhing and screaming on stage. At one-point, huge wooden tables were rolled out with provisions, à la the last supper. Randomly, other choir members processed through the aisles silently, with smoke puffing up around them. Kanye read, positioned from somewhere I couldn’t see, passages directly from the Bible explaining the plot. It was less of an opera than a gospel performance with guided reading and elaborate stage fighting.
I was tired. I wondered when Kanye would stop scamming us, Jesus edition. I came to the opera with no expectations, but still, there I was, writing notes, sipping lukewarm alcohol, and trying to make sense of a performance that seemed barely pulled together as that same man across the aisle from me stood up at unpredictable moments to clap and adore. After the boredom and resentment, you see, people just really wanted to love it.
Before the opera’s conclusion, two older women stood at the rideshare line, ready to make a break for it as the choir boomed in the background. One lamented that there was so much Old Testament in the opera—she had come thinking she’d get a good Bible story, but there were few revelations. The other woman decried Kanye’s Trumpism, but her interlocutor wasn’t fazed. “Oh, I don’t care about that. It’s just the disrespect.” She seemed to be referring to her time. I looked on with a numbing fascination.