By 8 a.m., music was streaming from the yard of one of the country’s most prominent historically black universities. Hundreds of mostly young people were there, tightly surrounding a security circle for West and other musicians.
The rest of the campus was getting ready for a parade, football game and other homecoming events, and many streets were blocked off with police cars and barriers.
“God, reveal the lies, let us stop feeling victimized, show my people the way, show my people how to love, forgive and pray,” West said following a few traditional African American hymns, such as “There is a Balm in Gilead,” and his 2004 hit “Jesus Walks.”
Later in the day, West performed at another surprise event -- a concert at George Washington University. The school told students via social media at midnight about the 2 p.m. show.
At Howard, West also focused on some core concerns of black Americans, lamenting the high number of African Americans in prison, something he framed as a deliberate plot. “Why lock people up? They need people to make more slaves. … I got family locked up!”
A voice in the crowd yelled, “We all got family locked up!”
A big focus of the service — like all the “Sunday services” he started in 2019 — was that Christianity needs to be defined less strictly, and Christians shouldn’t be divided.
“If you believe Jesus died for your sins — that’s the gospel!” he said, lamenting various denominational differences. “Christians, we’re making it too hard for people.”
The plea for diversity wound its way at the end of the service to West himself, who has angered many African Americans for his public praise of President Trump.
A poll released earlier this week by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 4 percent of African Americans say they think Trump’s actions have been good for African Americans in general, while 81 percent think he’s made things worse.
“You don’t always have to agree with me, but if they throw the slave nets again, how about we don’t all stand in the exact same place?” he said, triggering laughter in the crowd.
The crowd was a mix of Howard students and alumni and other West fans from around the region. To some, politics were irrelevant at an event they saw as a legitimate worship service for the modern, less judgmental set.
“He’s expanding people’s minds, that religion can come in all colors. You come as you are. You don’t have to be perfect,” said Amanda Brundidge, 29, who came in from Alexandria with a friend from out of town. “And it’s beautiful.”
Raymond Metzger, a 33-year-old physical therapist and alum, and his girlfriend, marketer Teaira Brewer, said the appearance of the megastar who has seemed in the last couple years to have strayed seriously far from the black American heart, meant a lot.
“People were cautious, but he’s just trying to redeem himself with the culture,” Metzger said.
Brewer said people haven’t forgotten “about MAGA,” using the Trump slogan that West has worn repeatedly on his hat, and praised. “But this is a healing. He’s trying to let people know he’s still here,” Brewer said. “He’s like: ‘Okay, I hear you.’ He’s going through something. But he’s trying to say: ‘I haven’t forsaken you.'”
Others on campus — and off — were less forgiving.
Briana Younger, a music editor at the New Yorker who graduated from Howard in 2012, said West’s appearance at the historically significant campus was “really gross.” She noted that his Sunday Service last week in Salt Lake City featured him crediting the Republican Party of Lincoln with freeing slaves and referring to “mental slavery.”
“Aligning with Trump in my view is anti-black, full stop. But to go further here at Howard where so much was done for the liberation of black people, it’s really gross,” she said.
Younger said she wasn’t questioning West’s faith but feels suspicious he is using religion — something deeply rooted in black life and culture and history — “to get back into our good graces. Or if he’s not worried about good graces, at least to put himself back into the mainstream of black consciousness.”
A profile earlier this year of West’s new spiritual services by the music site Okayplayer said the events were natural for the artist who, has frequently rapped about his faith. The site called the services “an aesthetic celebration of Black Christian music in its myriad forms.”
It also said the services were an attempt by West to “redeem” himself from the anger triggered by his praise of Trump, and a recent comment that slavery “sounded like a choice.”
“To return to religion is to imply a want for forgiveness, and the cultish air of the services promotes that without reproach,” the piece read. “If anything, the services are a case-study in damage control.”