On Friday 25th October, hip hop superstar Kanye West released his 9th solo album. It debuted at number 2 in the UK album charts and topped the US Billboard Hot 200 in the US. It is Kanye’s 9th consecutive album to debut at number 1 in America, which is a joint record (shared with Eminem). It is a full throttle, unapologetic gospel album, focused entirely on Kanye West’s newfound Christian faith. Its title sets the tone: Jesus is King.
Albums made by Christians about Christian stuff do often sell a lot of units in the US. However, in most cases, the huge majority of the people buying them are themselves Christians (for example, Chris Tomlin’s Burning Lights topped the Billboard 200 chart in 2013). Other Christian artists have topped the American charts and become very popular outside of the Christian sub culture (for example, Amy Grant or POD), but usually, these artists’ crossover albums have been somewhat restrained in their Christian content. Jesus is King is an anomaly in this regard. It is an album of relentless praise and petition directly offered to Jesus and it is pretty fair to assume, given Kanye’s reputation and fanbase, that a fair whack of the 250,000 sales (or 196.9 million streams) in the first week since its release have been to people who do not themselves follow Jesus.
This is all quite a turnaround for Kanye West. Christianity has often been in the background of his music (most notably in the 2004 single Jesus Walks), but he’d be the first to admit that now things are very different. Kanye has recently compared himself to King Nebuchadnezzar. In the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar sets himself up proudly as the King of Babylon, but then is dramatically humbled by God and finally comes to recognise God as the King of Kings. It seems like a good reference point. Since releasing his debut album in 2004, his music has been willfully transgressive and probably open to the charge of being downright blasphemous. As a case in point, in 2013 he released a song entitled I Am a God on his album Yeezus (a combination of Kanye’s nickname ‘Ye’ and, well, I think you get it!) But, according to Kanye, he has been well and truly humbled, particularly referencing a psychotic episode and hospitalization in 2016 as a key turning point. Now, he is singing a very different tune. The only topic he is interested in talking (or making music) about at the moment is the gospel.
In a recent interview with TV presenter Zane Lowe, Kanye summed up his present mindset:
‘Now that I’m in service to Christ, my job is to spread the gospel, to let people know what Jesus has done for me. I’ve spread a lot of things… but now I’m letting you know what Jesus has done for me and in that I’m no longer a slave, I’m a son of God now.’
As you might imagine, this has not gone unnoticed. In the week following the album release, the internet has been ablaze with Christians sharing their opinions on this change of direction. Opinions seem to range from ‘it’s a publicity stunt’ to ‘let’s wait and see’ to heralding Kanye as the new CS Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and William Wilberforce rolled into one.
It’s natural that questions would be asked, especially in light of Kanye’s pretty erratic behaviour over the last decade. However, even if you’re sceptical about his conversion, surely Philippians 1:15-18 would still mean that a modicum of rejoicing is appropriate. In those verses, Paul writes:
It’s true that some are preaching out of jealousy and rivalry. But others preach about Christ with pure motives… But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice.
Within the rejoicing, all of this should require some broader reflection as well. While I think that we should pray for Kanye, and that the album itself is bound to have a positive impact for the church (with some kickback too), it also throws up some questions that would be worth pondering. I’m particularly interested in two: how does this fit into the bigger picture in popular culture at the moment? And what does this teach us about how we as Christians should engage with the arts? Let’s deal with the first today, and there’ll be another post soon about the second.
Jesus is King is an example of a growing trend in hip hop music
Hip hop has always had a religious backbone. Like most musical genres to emerge in the mid to late 20th century, it is not difficult to trace the roots of hip hop back to black majority church culture. However, quite quickly, hip hop reacted against this heritage and leant more towards Islam. Martin Luther King was universally respected, but Malcolm X was the role model. Pop rappers would include a token gospel track to diversify their appeal, but the serious hip hop artists were often either embracing mainstream Islam (like Q-Tip or Mos Def) or, more likely, namechecking fringe Muslim sects like the Nation of Islam (Public Enemy, Ice Cube).
There were many rappers who would claim a nominal Christianity when it suited them, and some who were more sincere, but the picture remained pretty consistent in the 90s and early 2000s. In a musical culture that was built around the urban black experience, Christianity was generally presented as either a religion that was too weak willed and soft to deal with the persisting problems of institutional racism or as an actual facilitator of the oppression of black people in the western world.
And that’s how it seems to have continued until very recently, when a shift seems to have taken place. Two of the key characters who’ve been at the heart of this shift have been Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper.
While Kendrick’s music would be, let’s say, somewhat challenging to many Christians, Christianity underpins everything he does, from the sinner’s prayer that opens his 2012 album ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D city’ to his 2017 album ‘Damn’ which is a sort of concept album based around Deuteronomy 28! Many hip hop fans would regard Kendrick as the greatest rapper alive, if not the G.O.A.T (greatest of all time).
A year before Kendrick released ‘Damn’, Chance the Rapper had released ‘Coloring Book’. Chance was already very well regarded as a rising star, but his subject matter had been largely standard rap fare. His previous mix tape had been mainly about taking hallucinogenic drugs. ‘Coloring Book’ though was a gospel album, and he stunned the audience at the 2017 Grammys, with one of the songs, a cover of Chris Tomlin’s ‘How Great is Our God’.
I’ve posted about Kendrick and Chance on this blog before but the story has moved on since then, especially for Chance.
In late 2018, Chance announced that he was taking a sabbatical, on which he wanted to achieve two things: giving up smoking and reading the Bible.
I’m going away to learn the Word of God which I am admittedly very unfamiliar with. I’ve been brought up by my family to know Christ but I haven’t taken it upon myself to really just take a couple days and read my Bible…
On 12th December, he posted Galatians 1:6-7 to his 9.2 million instagram followers, and asked: “Anybody wanna read thru Galatians with me? It’s really short.”
That evening, this is exactly what he did, reading the whole book of Galatians live on Instagram!
His followers responded en masse. Featured amongst the thousands of comments on the post were The NLT Bible app thanking him for the support, famous rappers Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifah encouraging him to smoke weed instead of cigarettes, quite a few Christians who took an aversion to him reading from the NLT, and some fans who vowed to stop listening to his music from now on (@Kralcrolyat ‘Damn, for someone who did a whole album on acid you think you’d be a little more open minded’). On the other hand, there were a whole load of very heartfelt and encouraging responses. @Mylawnuhh’s is my favourite:
I need to start reading the Bible. I really need to be connected with the Lord before I go any further in my life; I just turned 15 and I want God to be an important part of my future. Especially if I ever have kids.
Earlier this year, Chance released The Big Day on which he opens up a bit more about his decision to become a Christian. Yes, there is quite a lot of swearing. And yes, some of his friends who guest on the album over share about their sexual exploits, but on the whole it’s an album about being happily married, by a reasonably new convert, who continues to publicly thank Jesus for turning his life around and seems to be showing considerable fruit of repentance.
But of course, this would only happen in America, wouldn’t it? For us poor Brits, in our cynical secular country, our rappers are cut from a different cloth? Hmm… Stormzy at Glastonbury, anyone?
What does it all mean?
It’s important to underline here that these are not some fringe happenings within a niche cultural fad. I know that the evangelical church in the UK still seems to think that anthemic soft rock ballads are the height of relevance and cultural engagement, but musical analysts would now rate hip hop as the most listened to musical genre in the world (and apparently it has been for the last 5 years).
Now, I know that all the examples I’ve used in this post raise further questions. These artists are complex and at times quite conflicted in their expressions of faith. Kanye West is perhaps the best example of this, and I know many friends, Christian and non-Christian, who had switched off to Kanye well before his confession of faith in Jesus.
However, I’d want to urge generosity of spirit to those involved in this Christian resurgence in rap music and at the very least that we’d pray for them heartily. Living in a world that seems to be doing its utmost to stamp out Christianity, or at least silence Christians, this rebellion from within the very heart of the culture itself fuels my hope that God is not quite done with the Western world just yet.
This article was first published in a slightly edited form on the Thinktheology blog