Over the past fifteen years, Kanye West’s influence in the popular culture has had no parallel.
He has led the reshaping of hip-hop. His shoe brands have been top sellers. He has been successful in dozens of business and philanthropic ventures. Critics love him. Fans love him. He has angered people and inspired them. Like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson and Prince, he has it—a mysterious something that has always transcended the words and music he records. When he married Kim Kardashian in 2014, his mystique took on a whole new energy. When his 2016 album Life of Pablo came out, much vulgarity remained, but it was clear he was headed in a religious direction. “This is a God dream,” he declared on the opening track, “Ultralight Beam.” By 2018 he admitted publicly that he had been diagnosed as bipolar. In 2019 he made his landmark Christian record Jesus Is King, formed his Sunday Service Choir, and renounced secular music forever.
On Christmas Day 2020, his Sunday Service Choir built on the foundation of their astonishing Gospel record, Jesus Is Born, released exactly one year earlier, and came out with a five-song EP of medieval-inspired chanting and harmonizing. It is called Emmanuel, which so baffled the secular music world detached from the basics of Christianity that the reviewer for Pitchfork.com wrote, “According to press materials, Emmanuel means ‘God is with us.’”
What should Christians make of the latest step in the journey of faith of one of the most famous people on earth? My colleague Matthew Becklo astutely argued last year that it was far from an absurd proposition to imagine Kanye coming into full communion with the Catholic Church. Almost on cue, the Sunday Service Choir released some very Catholic-sounding music, all of which is credited to Kanye as the composer. (For at least one track, “O Mira Nox,” a version of Adolphe Adam’s “Cantique de Noël,” Kanye is wrongly credited.)
Emmanuel is composed of five tracks amounting to a total time of just twelve minutes. It is a very good listen, with particular strengths at the beginning and end in the songs “Requiem Aeternum” and “Gloria.” And while the Latin titles of all five songs would suggest more Latin words within them, perhaps even a hinted intention that it be utilized in traditional liturgical use, most of the content is in fact harmonies of oohs, ahs, and repetition of the title words. I’m not complaining. It’s beautiful stuff. But it is a continuation of, rather than a departure from, the Sunday Service Choir’s much longer and more soul-stirring Gospel album of the previous year. When you combine Kanye’s Jesus Is King and the Sunday Service Choir’s Jesus Is Born and Emmanuel, you find one musical message. I hope and expect the message will continue to grow.
When I shared Becklo’s article on social media last year, I was surprised to find myself embroiled in a debate about Kanye’s sanity. At that time, having not followed Kanye’s personal life very closely, I did not know about his bipolar diagnosis. I knew, however, that he had burst into tears on stage during his brief run for president when talking about how his father had wanted his mother to abort him, and how Kanye later tried to coerce his wife to abort their unborn daughter. It was minimally interesting to me to find out that his breakdown over near collusion in a mortal sin may have had something to do with his mental health. After all, to a Catholic, the world that says it is OK to kill a child in the womb is what is, as Kanye himself might say, “crazy”—not the individual who skipped his Tegretol or Lithium, even on his worst day.
But then it hit me: how easy to dismiss not only Kanye’s ramblings but Kanye’s work as the manifestation of madness. The world respects private, quiet faith. It is frightened by a soul screaming to God to change the world. It is precisely this soul-screaming that we find on every track that Kanye has produced in the past two years.
Maybe he is in real danger with his mental health. It appears his marriage to Kim Kardashian may be ending.
And, at the same time, maybe his faith is real, and growing. Maybe it’s so real that every Christian should pray for his health and strength, since his mission has evolved into something so big and so important. Matthew Becklo wrote in 2019, “A man who has ten million more Twitter followers than the Pope (with the support of his wife, who has 150 million followers on Instagram) is telling the world that Christ is its King.”
And for Catholics, in particular, Kanye’s musical journey presents an opportunity for receptive ecumenism. As we appreciate the newer tracks that feel more “Catholic” and hope that they point to an accompanying migration of their composer’s theology toward the Church, we also give thanks for the great gifts of the earlier Gospel tracks that are more typical of black Protestant spirituality. Whether Kanye eventually becomes Catholic or not, there’s no reason why his music can’t help expand the conventional Catholic aesthetic and piety. The Latin-infused songs of the Emmanuel EP certainly stirred my soul. But “Every Hour” and “God is” on the Jesus Is King record and “That’s How the Lord Works” and “Satan We’re Going to Tear Your Kingdom Down” on Jesus Is Born brought me out of my seat in exuberant praise. And when I hear the harmonizing on “Paradise” and “Total Praise,” again from the Jesus Is Born record, I hear the musical connection to the more “medieval” Emmanuel. Black Gospel and Catholic polyphony together at last. As it should be.
Listening to Kanye West these days reminds me that our faith can be pretty crazy and, when lived in the right way, perhaps it must be. Our Lord is not a tame lion. His saints are often holy fools. And while Kanye may not be a saint, he is certainly no fool; he has made it his business these days to be a herald of the Good News that is the only hope for the world. It’s weird; and, therefore, it’s exactly the way Christian evangelism works. Ask St. Paul or St. Francis or St. Joan of Arc.
Kanye has proven that untold millions have ears to hear what he does. Let them hear.