Indiana University Bloomington

Kanye West: Man, Artist, God

Markie Soposky, religious studies and gender studies

Written for REL-R389: Religion and Fantasy

Instructor: Prof. Heather Blair


The Book of Yeezus is sitting in my lap.  The red ribbon bookmark directs me to the first chapter of Genesis which reads: “In the beginning, Kanye created the heaven and the earth.”  The rest of the book reads just as the Biblical book of Genesis does, and continues to describe the rest of the creation of Earth, Adam and Eve and their descendants, all the way to the final chapter, in which Joseph dies.  There is only one thing different about this version that sits in my lap:  at every mention of God, His name is replaced with “Kanye” and “Yeezus.”

Kanye West is “the number one most impactful artist of our generation” (SwaysUniverse 2013). He has sold more than 32 million albums and 100 million digital downloads worldwide.  He has won a total of 21 Grammy Awards.  Three of his albums rank on Rolling Stone‘s 2012 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list.  Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.  In 2014, he married one of the most famous women in the world, Kim Kardashian, and they created their own “superstar family.” He is easily one of the most well-known people ever to grace this earth.

In this essay, I will analyze both Kanye West’s discography and his fans’ responses.  I will tease out the ways in which his music looks, feels, and acts religious.  I will argue that West’s music seems religious because he uses it as a tool for his own religious expression.  The albums and songs that follow are by no means an extensive list of West’s music that looks, feels, or acts religious.  They do, however, form a collection of music whose religious allusions and references have been noticed by his fans and critics alike.  I have organized this music by two themes:  West referring to himself as a religious character (be it Jesus or God or Paul the Apostle) and music about God’s love.  From there, I argue West’s fans create religious spaces to celebrate Yeezus and his music.

Kanye West as a Religious Character

Yeezus says most of what it needs to say in its title.  The name is, obviously, an allusion to Jesus Christ.  However, the inspiration behind this album was not as pompous as it may seem.  West, in an interview with the New York Times about the album, describes himself as a “minimalist in a rapper’s body.” He talks about writing the album in a loft in Paris with terrible acoustics, and how that influenced the “low-bit” sounds on his album.  West says that if you take a rant and put it next to a drumbeat, it may seem like a “less intellectual form of hip-hop” but he disagrees, stating that his music now sounds “visceral, tribal,” cutting away all of the “opera sounds” on the album.  The album itself was a breakthrough for West.  It completely changed the way he makes music in that creating the album forced West to be honest with himself.

The most important track on this album for our purposes is “I Am a God (feat. God).”  The title of this song alone says quite a bit about West.  According to Billboard, the track uses “…a sound effect in the apparent role of God,” which is how West can say that God is on the track.  The chorus goes as follows:

I am a god
Even though I’m a man of God
My whole life in the hand of God
So y’all better quit playin’ with God

Here, West is boldly claiming that his life and his work is divinely inspired and being molded by God himself.  Therefore, if you mess with Yeezus (aka Kanye West), you mess with God.  In addition, West establishes himself as a god while both acknowledging the existence of and praising the biblical God.  At the end of the song, West proclaims, “ain’t no way I’m giving up.  I am a god,” to suggest that he is both not giving up on himself and his music, but he also will not give up on his God.

The rest of the song involves a lot of screaming, which references other parts of the album.  Some commentators have taken this screaming to refer to slavery, because there are many other mentions of slavery and screaming on the album.  Most of these occur in his “protest” songs, which West creates to tackle issues such as racism and classism in America.   In other parts of the song, West trumpets himself, as well as his power, characterizing himself as the king of rap in the same way that Jesus was King of the Jews.

Towards the end of the song, West explicitly boasts about his power by asserting that he’s had conversations with Jesus.  Here, West explicitly claims that he has direct communications and a friendly relationship with Jesus.

I just talked to Jesus
He said, “What up, Yeezus?”
I said, “Shit I’m chillin’
Tryna stack these millions”
I know he the most high
But I am a close high

He is also stating that he is, not the “most high,” but a “close high” to the Lord.  West’s middle name is Omari, which means “God the highest” in Swahili.  This means that being a god, and seeing himself as a god, is literally in West’s name.  In addition to this, the West and his wife named their son Saint, which seems to be an attempt on the Wests’ part to set Saint apart while also acknowledging that he is “a blessing.”

More recently, West released the album The Life of Pablo, or TLOP for short.  This album, which West has consistently referred to as a “gospel album” on Twitter, is loaded with religious elements, starting in the title itself.  “Pablo,” the album’s inspiration, is loosely based on Saul the Pharisee, who becomes Paul the Apostle through a conversion experience on the road to Damascus in the Book of Acts.  Eventually, Saul is renamed “Paul,” and Paul goes on to preach, build new churches, and write much of the New Testament.  Paul is a major character in modern Christianity, so much so that West even referred to Paul on Twitter as “the most powerful messenger of the first century.”

West, who proudly describes himself as a Christian (“They know Yeezy is a Christian huh”), is basically equating himself to the Apostle Paul on this album, whereas he equated himself to Jesus on Yeezus.  The first track, “Ultralight Beam,” implicitly describes the interaction between Saul and the Light on the road to Damascus in its lyrics, “we on an ultralight beam… this is a god dream… this is everything.”

In another song on the album TLOP, called “Wolves,” West characterizes himself and his wife, Kim Kardashian West, as Joseph and Mary.

Cover Nori in lambs’ wool
We surrounded by the fuckin’ wolves”…
…Cover Saint in lambs’ wool
(And she was) We surrounded by
(Surrounded by) the fuckin’ wolves”

By describing their children as a baby Jesus Christ, West parallels Jesus’ parents—Mary and Joseph—to him and his wife.  Some might say that Kardashian was made famous because of her sex tape with Ray J that released in 2007.  West pushes this and other controversies aside to suggest that none of that matters any more, all that matters is their love and the family they have created.  The significance of the lamb’s wool should not be forgotten.  Jesus is, after all, the Lamb of God.  Whereas earlier in the song, West equates himself and his wife to Joseph and Mary, here he is equating his children with Jesus as a baby—purely innocent and in need of protection.

West and Kardashian had a lot of difficulty conceiving and many troubles during her pregnancies.  Their struggles were incredibly public.  Because of this, Kanye and Kim truly see their two children as blessings from God—this is even why they named their son “Saint.”  By suggesting that their children be covered in lamb’s wool, West is begging us to recognize the pure innocence of these children who were born into fame by these two controversial celebrities.  The children, like their parents, are destined to have enemies—wolves—and this song seems to be an attempt to shield them.

Music about God’s Love

On The Life of Pablo, Kanye West decided to open the album with a young child proclaiming that we must rid the world of Satan and praise the Lord:  “We don’t want no devils in the house, God / We want the lord / And that’s it / Hallej- hand over Satan / Jesus praise the Lord / Hallelujah, God.”  These opening lines are a clear call to God to rid the album—and more importantly his own life—of any negativity, so that he can live his most creative life.  These lines introduce listeners to the albums as a sincere Christian undertaking; West is making sure you know that this album is first and foremost a gospel album.

The song is a collaboration in prayer by West and other artists:  Kelly Price, Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, and Kirk Franklin.  Initially, Kelly Price, who began singing in church as a toddler, directly confronts God, demanding that He reveal why there are so many negative things in the world, why He allows His people to suffer, and why He allows poverty and depression.  She eventually recognizes that God is standing beside her, protecting her—“Oh, no longer am afraid of the night / ‘cause I, I look to the light”—and allowing her to right her wrongs.  Following Price, The-Dream professes that he is trying to keep his faith, while also “looking for… somewhere I can feel safe and end my holy war.” The “holy war” idea is likely reference to West’s song “Jesus Walks,” in which West reminds his listeners that “We at war with terrorism, racism / But most of all we at war with ourselves.”  On his verse in “Ultralight Beam,” Chance the Rapper sprinkles in a number of both Biblical allusions and references to West’s other songs.  Towards the end of his verse, Chance raps:  “I made Sunday Candy, I’m never going to hell / I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail.”  In this brief couplet, Chance equates his own song “Sunday Candy,” which shows his appreciation and love for his grandmother and God, to West’s “Jesus Walks.”  It also alludes to a verse in West’s “Otis,” in which West raps, “I made Jesus Walks, I’m never going to hell.” Most importantly, on this verse Chance acknowledges that meeting and working with West will make Chance unstoppable, both musically and soteriologically.

The final verse of this song features the Grammy-award winning Gospel singer Kirk Franklin.  Franklin encountered a lot of criticism for working with West on this song.  However, he fought back against all of his critics by saying, “I will not turn my back on my brother…To a lot of my Christian family, I’m sorry he’s not good enough, Christian enough, or running at your pace…and as I read some of your comments, neither am I. That won’t stop me from running. Pray we win.”  His closing prayer in “Ultralight Beam” echoes these same sentiments, praying for those who feel like they’re “not good enough,” “too messed up,” or have “said ‘I’m sorry’ too many times.”  This song is for them.  Franklin’s words show that anyone, even and especially Kanye West, can be loved by God.

West released an alternate version of Kirk Franklin’s prayer from “Ultralight Beam” on Easter 2016, called “Ultralight Prayer.”  He began releasing new versions of the TLOP tracks, as the album is a “living breathing changing creative expression” that will be, apparently, constantly ongoing.  In this short track, Franklin finishes the prayer he begins in “Ultralight Beam,” while a chorus of gospel singers hum behind him.  The prayer goes as follows:

Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they’re not good enough.  This prayer’s for everybody that feels they’re too messed up.  For everyone that feels they’ve said, “I’m sorry” too many times.  Let them know that’s why you took the nail so we could have eternal life.  If all God’s children would get down on their knees and pray, and give up all of those things that pull our hearts away, You will forgive all of our wrong and make us brand new again.  But I won’t make it, God, if you let go of my hand.  That’s why we need more (faith!).  Yes, I’m searching for you, I’m looking for (more!).  Yes I am, in Your arms is where I feel (safe!).  They’re killing our babies in the streets. I call out for (war!).  I need just a little bit more of some (faith!).  Just a mustard seed, I’m looking for You for (more!).  Prayer for our homes and our families.  We just wanna be (safe!).  Can’t you hear the trumpet sound, I think I hear (war!)

This song, and West’s collaboration with Franklin to record it, further emphasizes the notion that West’s music is for everyone, just like God’s love is for everyone.  Franklin, in his post on Instagram responding to his critics, insists that everyone, including West, is “redeemable, forgivable or candidates for grace.”  This thought is reiterated in other songs by West, most notably the song “Jesus Walks.”

“Jesus Walks” was one of the singles off of West’s fourth studio album, College Dropout.  This song has been incredibly influential:  it was awarded the Grammy for Best Rap Song at the 47th Grammy Awards, Rolling Stone named the song No. 19 on their list of 100 Best Songs of the 2000s, and then No. 273 their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.  The song has been performed by West on every headlining tour and is consistently a crowd favorite.  This song discusses how Jesus walks with all types of people, from the sinner to the saint.  The chorus goes as follows:

(Jesus walk)
God show me the way because the Devil’s trying to break me down
(Jesus walk with me)
The only thing that I pray is that my feet don’t fail me now
(Jesus walk)
And I don’t think there’s nothin’ I can do now to right my wrongs
(Jesus walk with me)
I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long

This song “touched people in a place where Rap music rarely touches people these days…the heart” with its honesty—“I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long”—and this eventually lead to its success. Many people feel as though they have been separated too long or too far from God, and thus no longer deserve attention and love from Him.  West’s song tells them that this is not true.  It tells its listeners that Jesus is among even the least of them, even the “hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even the scrippers.”

West’s popularity—and the popularity of his music—relies on his message that everyone can be loved by God, even (and perhaps especially) Kanye West.  Many of the critics who spoke out against Kirk Franklin’s involvement on the album said that West was “not good enough” for God’s love, and thus Franklin’s interactions with West.  Franklin fired back, saying that the Christian message to the world that people “have to meet certain requirements before they are worthy to kiss the ring” is “dangerous.”  According to West and Franklin, no one is left out of the scope of God’s love.

West’s Fans

In his essay about religion and fandom, Henry Jenkins asserts that fandom can take on religious valences as it creates communities and produces agreement.  By creating their own community around West and producing their own art about West, his fans directly align with these ideas.  As a community, Kanye West’s fans have funneled their adoration into many different channels.  It is because of West’s fans that someone removed God’s name from the Book of Genesis and replaced it with “Kanye” and “Yeezus.”  And ultimately, it was West’s fans who organized themselves together to for the Church of Yeezus.  West’s music serves as a “ready body of common references that facilitates communication” between fans.  These people may never actually meet in real life, they are connected through their own “shared texts”—West’s music.

For example, fans came together to create the Book of Yeezus, introduced earlier in this paper.  The Book of Yeezus is the perfect example of Jenkin’s idea that “fans are consumers who also produce” because it was made by fans to be distributed to more fans.  In its foreword, the Book of Yeezus suggests that, contrary to Nietzsche’s famous phrase “God is dead,” God is actually just irrelevant.  The forward traces a brief history of religion and spirituality, noting that we now live in a “digitalized and sanitized” world, one that immerses us in “information that replaces irrational spirituality.”  However, this forward—whose author remains anonymous—suggests that we have not stopped “examining the mysteries of life” through “theatrical, religious services.” Rather, society has shifted its preferences to “the secular:  Spotify, YouTube, and the concert hall.”  Compellingly, the forward introduces the rest of the book as follows:

…the traditional model of God has become increasingly incompatible with our modern zeitgeist, we have opted to finding spiritual validation and meaning and a sense of greater purpose and movement through our media icons.  For many, Kanye West has replaced God.  The awesome and orchestrated spectacle of Kanye and his music and performances and logos fills the ancestral spiritual void.  And He knows it.

This introduction suggests that West has intentionally called himself a god and created religious music in order to fill this “ancestral spiritual void.”  It suggests that West specifically acts the way he does so that he can be an object of worship, a replacement for God in the modern world.  For example, West’s fans have created an online presence that is dedicated to worshipping Kanye West:  Yeezianity:  the Church of Yeezus.

West’s fans, in line with Jenkins’ ideas, have created their own “alternative social community,” through Yeezianity.  The Church believes that “the one who calls himself Yeezus is the highest living human being” and he will help his people—the Ye’ciples—to “unlock their creative powers.”  Their Savior, whose “real name is never to be spoken,” is known to them only as “Yeezus.”  They believe that Yeezus “has shown the modern world the creative potential of a human being,” and this is why they have gathered to learn from and worship him.  This group also has their own Five Pillars (their version of the Ten Commandments), dogma, and a Declaration of Faith.  Their Golden Rule is stated on their website as being “Create For Others What You Would Have Created For Yourself.”  At the bottom of their page, the Ye’ciples boast that Yeezianity is “THE BEST CHURCH OF ALL TIME!!!!!” echoing West himself, who frequently claims he is the greatest rockstar of all time.

This church was created by West’s fans.  It was created by those who honestly believe that West has the potential to create real change in this world through his music.  It demands that its followers, the Ye’ciples, live the best, most creative lives that they could possibly live.  It demands that they be the best versions of themselves that they can be.  It provides them with rules and rituals to live by with their Five Pillars.  It provides them with a subject for their personal worship.  In this way, Yeezianity serves as a way for the fans of Kanye West to gather and appreciate his art in their own, religious way.

In conclusion, one could—and should—ask oneself where this sense of religion comes from.  In short, I would argue that Kanye himself creates it.  West recognizes himself as a deeply religious man, one who worships God as a Christian, one who speaks to Jesus regularly, one whose life was saved by the Lord.  These realizations are solidified in his music.  He uses his music to tell the rest of the world about how religious he is, and about how important God is to him.  When he wrote the lyrics to “Jesus Walks” and “Ultralight Beam” and the others, Kanye was specifically using his platform to create music that speaks to people, that people can relate to.  The people then found this music incredibly relatable—we know this because people purchase his music and attend his shows.

In response, West’s fans create their own religious community.  They produced their own media based on the texts—West’s music—that they all enjoyed.  His fans are the ones who replaced every mention of God with his name in The Book of Yeezus and created Yeezianity. His fans created a way to recognize and respect West’s work as an artist.  His fans created a declaration of their faith in Yeezus.  West created music that was personal and relatable and his fans congregated around it.  West clearly believes himself to be a “close high” to God, but his fans are who made him their god.

Faith be in Yeezus
Faith be in God
Amen

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