In “Jesus is King,” West attempts to combine a theology rooted in contemporary white evangelicalism with black gospel music, perhaps unaware that white evangelicalism has a tendency to celebrate black conversion while “editing out” black resistance. Despite his personal honesty and story of redemption, listening to the album will likely leave many black Christians wondering, “Does Kanye’s Jesus care about “the disinherited?”
Why ‘Jesus is King’ resonates with white evangelicals
Many evangelicals have expressed enthusiasm for West’s conversion, bordering on hyperbolic praise. In National Review, evangelical Andrew Walker writes that West has the anthropology of C.S. Lewis, the cultural mood of Wendell Berry, and the defiance of Francis Schaeffer, comparing his potential to spark a revolution to the 19th-century abolitionist William Wilberforce.
Walker echoes evangelical confidence that Kanye’s conversion could serve a larger role in the pursuit of reforming culture, a responsibility that the artist is happily embracing. In a recent interview with comedian James Corden, West proclaimed referring to his wealth and business success: “God is using me … to show off. Kanye West works for God, and he about to show out.”
In his ode to Chick-fil-A, West reflects the admiration white evangelicals have for a company that shuts down on Sunday due to their religious beliefs. And his emphasis on the importance of fatherhood and defying culture appeals to this subculture.
“Raise our sons, train them in the faith
Through temptations, make sure they're wide-awake
Follow Jesus, listen and obey
No more livin' for the culture, we nobody's slave”
The lyrical content intermingles personal anecdotes with simplistic expressions of superiority (“greatest artist resting or alive”), signifying the internal struggle he faces on his spiritual journey.
West takes aim at his newfound faith community, scolding them for prematurely judging him (“What have you been hearing from the Christians? They’ll be the first ones to judge me, make it feel like nobody love me”) while simultaneously soliciting their intercession (“Don’t throw me away, lay your hands on me. Please pray for me.”).
As much as the album title and marketing centers on Jesus, the content is largely about West. And much of the Christian reaction to the “New Kanye” has hinged on an evaluation of his authenticity. Is he a sincere searcher or a snake oil salesman? To properly understand West, we look at who he is being influenced by, including powerful pastors and politicians.
Kanye West’s ties to powerful leaders
With this album, he has clearly captured Christians’ attention. While he has in the past received spiritual guidance from famous young Pentecostal pastor Rich Wilkerson, he was viewed with suspicion. Previous albums with graphically explicit content distanced him from the Christian community and perhaps most jarringly, he portrayed himself as Jesus with a crown of thorns on a 2006 cover of Rolling Stone.
But even more recently, during his Sunday Service Church tour that began earlier this year, West attempted to change his image by enthralling large crowds and mesmerizing black megachurches to advance his message and market the music. His current mentor, Pastor Adam Tyson (considered to be a more theologically conservative evangelical than Wilkerson), exhorted attendees to repent from their sins.
Now, West has reportedly struck up a friendship with controversial Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and has fielded invitations from Houston-based televangelist Joel Osteen. Perhaps his alliance with a conservative political agenda and recent bold advocacy for chaste living make him a more likely recipient of white evangelical support.
President Trump and his family have been effusive in their praise for West, with Donald Trump Jr. proudly labeling the artist “a pioneer.” In various ways, Osteen, Fallwell and the Trumps represent an upper echelon of Christian cultural power. This album and movement seem especially designed for powerful people like them. Following Jesus is a different experience for those who have enough privilege to insulate themselves from inevitable persecution.
Since his explosive interview at TMZ Headquarters in 2018, West has skated on thin ice with the black community. The same rapper who famously defied the Washington establishment by saying “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” referenced 400 years of slavery as “a choice.” West has also called Trump’s MAGA hat “God’s practical joke on liberals” and brazenly criticized black community’s loyalty to the Democratic Party as “brainwashed.” West has continued to extol a president when many black Christians believe character still matters and his policies harm them and their neighbors.
Rooted in the sound of black gospel music but not the soul
Some of the soundscapes on “Jesus Is King” resemble gospel music, most notably when he is accompanied by the Sunday Service choir. The energetic introductory song, complete with a familiar black choir squall “We need you,” sets the tone for the sonic journey. Throughout the project, West makes similar attempts to walk in his professed gospel shoes with tracks “Selah,” “Water” and “God Is.”
But can Kanye claim the music of a community if he appears unwilling to learn from their whole experience? A group of people who have been oppressed by a gospel that was designed to liberate will inevitably have trust issues.
For example, West’s new “Jesus Is King” rarely resembles the searing reflections of Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” or the conflicted yet playful sounds of Chance the Rapper’s album “Coloring Book.”
In their albums, Lamar and Chance presented themselves as imperfect works in progress with developing theology. Lamar’s searing retelling of his childhood engagement with the violence and promiscuity of his neighborhood is jarringly interrupted by his path to salvation, while Chance positions Christ as the urgent answer to his destructively hedonistic habits. By contrast, West attempts to transcend these more complex conversations by sheer force of will or perhaps zealous naivete.
Despite building his album around the transformative sound of gospel music, the robust theology that makes the black church a beacon of hope for the marginalized has been glaringly absent from Kanye’s lyrics and life. A conversion story so closely aligned with powerful people feels discordant with gospel music, a genre designed to cope with the weight of life’s most difficult trials.
The theology that informs the black gospel music tradition
Prominent 20th century theologian and mystic Howard Thurman reframed Jesus’ message as something that has been “on the side of the strong and the powerful and against the weak and oppressed — this, despite the gospel.”
Thurman’s dichotomy echoes the piercing assessments of historic black leaders, including Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and Fannie Lou Hamer. God’s salvation can reach anyone regardless of their life status, and the message and music of the Black Church can move anyone, but these were designed for the disinherited.
By extension, black Christian faith traditions have always carried a tradition of distinguishing itself from the colonized version of Jesus’ gospel, a message that can condemn and convert, but is unable to liberate. A gospel that can “so love the world,” but falls short of extending that good news of justice to the poor and marginalized. The same savior who is powerful enough to redeem our eternal souls is also able to free our earthly bodies.
In the black church tradition, conversion stories are powerfully cathartic. These celebratory declarations, often shared in “testimony services,” reminds every believer to be thankful for the undeserved grace that Jesus extends to all people. Yet, black Christians provide space for rejoicing an individual’s pious decision while “keeping one eye open” for how they may unwittingly harm others. Our very lives have depended on this vigilance.
Black church choirs do not simply perform into empty vacuums just to uplift with beautiful harmony. Singing “God is the joy and the strength of my life” is not a rally cry for earthly success, it is a plea for sanity and survival. Ultimately, the sound of freedom rings hollow without the God of the oppressed.
While “Jesus Is King” feels like it should be a cultural moment of celebration for all Christians, it should come as no surprise that many black Christians question who this moment will ultimately empower.
Tyler Burns is the vice president of “The Witness: A Black Christian Collective” and Co-Host of the “Pass the Mic Podcast.”