08 September 2019

prosperity gospel

I shall not want

How Kanye West is mixing rap, celebrity and money to create a lucrative new brand of worship

By Xavier Greenwood

“We will change the world. God is on my side. I am a Christian. I am a tax payer. I am myself. God is with us.”

On a green mound in California, Kanye West began to cry. It was Easter Sunday 2019 at Coachella, the annual music festival in the Colorado Desert. Near the end of his set, Kanye launched into a second performance of ‘Ultralight Beam’, the 2016 gospel-inspired song in which he talks about his faith in God. As the song drew to a close, the hip-hop legend DMX delivered a prayer, the camera moved towards Kanye, and the choir, robed in pastel pinks and purples, reached a crescendo.

The camera homed in on Kanye sobbing on his hilltop. We saw him hold his hand over his face as he was comforted. Elsewhere on the site stood his merchandise tent, labelled Church Clothes. “Holy Spirit” jumpers were being sold for $225 and “Jesus Walks” socks for $50.

Kanye West backstage at the 2004 World Music Awards in Las Vegas

Kanye was always religious, according to his late mother, Donda. “From the time Kanye was a small child, he believed in Jesus,” she wrote in her biography of her son. But the church they attended didn’t preach asceticism. “We’d go every Sunday to Christ Universal Temple in Chicago,” Donda wrote. “I liked the church because the minister preached prosperity.” In the video for Kanye’s 2004 breakout hit ‘Jesus Walks’ he pleads for guidance while wearing a $190,000 diamond cross.

When not a supplicant, he has presented himself as a religious figure, regularly making connections in his lyrics between himself and Jesus. In the 2013 song ‘I am a God’, Jesus is the “most high”, but Kanye is a“close high”. Reinforcing the impression of a saviour complex, he has appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in a crown of thorns with the caption: “The Passion of Kanye West”.

This year Kanye has a new project. It is called Sunday Service and here is what it does: every week, celebrities, pop stars and choir members are invited to various locations across the USA for a gospel-themed, music-led, and prayer-infused gathering. Snippets of the services are beamed worldwide by Kanye’s wife, Kim Kardashian West.

Kanye West performs Sunday Service at Coachella 2019

In July, Kanye filed to trademark the term “Sunday Service” to use on a range of merchandise: bottoms, dresses, footwear, headwear, jackets, loungewear, scarves, shirts, socks, and tops. The next milestone seems to be a new Kanye album which we should have by the end of this month, titled Jesus is King, including titles such as ‘Baptised’, ‘Sunday’, ‘Garden’ and ‘Water’.

If the lyrics of Kanye’s songs are oblique, Sunday Service is less so. It is the latest incarnation of the prosperity gospel, the notion that God blesses those he favours with material wealth, and that donations to the church will increase it. For just the price of a Coachella ticket, you can be part of the ‘church of Kanye ’. For the cost of a jumper or a pair of socks, you can display your membership to the world.

For a long time, the image of the celebrity evangelist was that of your average televangelist. But we’re in a new age and the new disciples are some of the world’s biggest music stars and influencers. The gospel they endorse provides a radical challenge to the asceticism of traditional churches, and their reach is formidable.

Parishioners at Lakewood Church pray together during a service shortly after Hurricane Harvey

Sunday Service began on 6 January when Kardashian West posted a series of videos to her 147 million Instagram followers, a count that dwarfs the Anglican Communion’s 85 million members. In these videos, a blue-lit choir against a white backdrop sings gospel renditions of Kanye songs. The rapper is at the front in a white T-shirt, sometimes joining in, sometimes just bobbing along. These first videos came after a year in which Kanye crossed new lines. He told entertainment site TMZ that slavery “sounds like a choice”. And he went to the White House, where he effusively praised US President Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again hat.

The services have taken place weekly since early January at the Adidas North American Headquarters in Portland, or in Calabasas and Hidden Hills, celebrity havens near Los Angeles, among other places. Sunday Service is inching closer to an actual church. In mid-August Kanye took it to a Hollywood middle school where the Californian Worship Center meets (while visiting, Kanye signed a pair of his Yeezy trainers with “Jesus is Lord”). A couple of weeks later the venue was a church car park.

The congregation is typically invite-only. Katy Perry, ASAP Rocky, Justin Bieber, Courtney Love and Orlando Bloom are among those who have borne witness to, and sometimes collaborated on, a mixture of Kanye songs and Christianised covers, among them ‘Don’t Speak’ by No Doubt (“Lord speak, you know your words bring healing / the pain was real with feeling / please help us cause it hurts”); ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana (“Let your light shine, it’s contagious / here we are now, inspiration”); and an extraordinarily beautiful take on ‘Elastic Heart’ by Sia, which she leads (“Lift up your voices now, sing praises to our God / for all the things that he has done”).

Kim Kardashian, Kim and Kanye's daughter North West, Kendall Jenner, Kylie Jenner, Corey Gamble and Khloe Kardashian outside church at Easter in Los Angeles, 2015

Kardashian West claimed in a recent Jimmy Kimmel interview that “there’s no praying, there’s no sermon, no word” in Sunday Service, but her own videos show this not to be the case. In March, she posted a clip of DMX delivering a morning prayer, which culminates in the sentence: “I have honour in the midst of my adversaries and increase of access – especially in real estate.”

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”, the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:24, is the Biblical scripture which the prosperity gospel seems to undermine. With its roots in the New Thought movement of the nineteenth century, the prosperity gospel took hold in America in the 1940s and 1950s when Pentecostal pastors crossed the country performing healing revivals and preaching that wealth was God-ordained. The theology’s reach expanded rapidly in the 1980s with the rise of American televangelists, who, the late sociologist Jeffrey Hadden claimed, “provided critical electoral support” for Ronald Reagan, whose own economic policies encouraged intense consumption.

Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom in LA

The prosperity gospel has now been adopted by leaders across Pentecostalism, now the single largest group within Protestant Christianity. Todd Johnson, from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, estimated in 2010 that a quarter of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians were Pentecostal worshippers. He predicts that by 2025 their numbers will grow to 800 million.

Prosperity theology enjoys wide currency in America. Last year, a study from Nashville-based LifeWay Research claimed that 38 per cent of Protestant congregants say their church says they will be blessed if they donate money. According to a recent Financial Times piece on the prosperity preacher Joel Osteen’s Lakewood megachurch in Texas, three out of the four largest American megachurches follow the prosperity gospel. Such churches thrive by mimicking consumer culture, says Alan Noble, an English professor at Oklahoma Baptist University and editor of a news site called Christ and Pop Culture. “The prosperity gospel in many ways is intertwined with the American Dream,” he suggests, and with “this idolatrous idea that to have the good life means you’re successful financially and materially.”

Justin Bieber and pastor Carl Lentz at Madison Square Garden, 2017

In prosperity theology, money-making isn’t just excused – it is a demonstration and vindication of faith, Noble adds. It justifies a preacher buying a private jet or “someone like Kanye saying, ‘look if I can sell clothes that say one word for $200 and people will buy them, then by definition that is good, because I am being successful’.”

Kanye is an appropriate leader for the next wave of prosperity theology. Not only was he brought up in a prosperity-preaching church, but in 2009 his mother-in-law, Kris Jenner, set up the California Community Church, to which members pledge $1,000 a month or 10 per cent of their income. And Kanye’s controversial words on slavery and Trump last year, though they don’t make reference to his faith, make sense when seen through the lens of the prosperity gospel.

Kanye West and Donald Trump in the White House's Oval Office, 2018

To his declaration that slavery “sounds like a choice,” Kanye added: “It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.” Positive thinking and the idea that ‘attitude determines altitude’ flows through prosperity theology. In 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which left 107 people dead, Osteen took to his pulpit in Houston, where the storm hit worst, to say: “We’re not going to understand everything that happens, by having a ‘poor old me’ mentality or ‘look what I lost’ or ‘why did this happen,’ you know that’s just going to pull you down.”

Kanye’s praise of President Trump has centred on agency, success and materialism, key characteristics of the prosperity gospel, rather than on comments that many Americans think are racist. He has said that Trump’s MAGA hat “makes me feel like a Superman” and declared that “if [Trump] don’t look good, we don’t look good. This is our president. He has to be the freshest, the flyest, [and have] the flyest planes.” Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White, is a prosperity pastor. More than 80 per cent of white evangelicals in America voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Paula White: a Florida televangelist who has been serving as Donald Trump's personal pastor and faith advisor

Material aspiration has long been a cornerstone of hip-hop, represented in the display of bling – or conspicuous consumption – which the ethnomusicologist Christina Zanfagna, author of Holy Hip Hop in the City of Angels, calls “a symbol of financial success, wrapped up with certain ideas of freedom”. It is captured in triumphant narratives like that told by The Notorious B.I.G in his 1994 song ‘Juicy’: “We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us/ No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us/ Birthdays was the worst days/ Now we sip Champagne when we thirsty.”

A second cornerstone of the genre has been spirituality, whether in the Five Percenters, who dominated hip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s, or in the deistic themes of rappers like Tupac, who, in his 1996 song ‘I Ain’t Mad at Cha’, begs “God to make a way for our ghetto kids to breathe/ Show a sign, make us all believe”. The prosperity gospel may be a way of reconciling these two cornerstones. Josef Sorett, Associate Professor of Religion and African-American Studies at Columbia University, calls its growing presence in hip-hop the “gospel of bling”.

Tupac Shakur performing in 1994 in Chicago

Spiritual and material aspirations are reconciled in figures like the black prosperity preacher, Creflo Dollar, who has appeared in several hip-hop videos and been mentioned in songs by rappers including 50 Cent, Outkast, and Lupe Fiasco. He leads the celebrity-filled World Changers megachurch in Atlanta, with offices worldwide, and in 2015 he asked his followers for $65 million for a new private jet, “in order to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ”.

These aspirations are reconciled, too, in the megachurch pastors who appear on the Instagram account PreachersNSneakers, which documents the expensive tastes of preachers at work. In one post, Manny Arango, a youth pastor at World Overcomers Christian Church, wears a pair of $1,500 running shoes produced by Versace and the rapper 2 Chainz. John Gray, pastor of the Relentless Church, who last year asked his congregants for $250,000 to fix his church roof months after buying his wife a $200,000 Lamborghini, wears a pair of Kanye’s Air Yeezy 2 trainers worth more than $5,000.

Donald Trump shakes hands with Relentless Church Senior Pastor John Gray during a meeting with inner city pastors at the White House

Finally, they are reconciled in Kanye, whose God in his 2011 song ‘New God Flow’ also drives a Lamborghini, like Gray’s wife. In this case it bolsters a rags-to-riches narrative: “Like there the god go in his Murcielago/ From working McDonalds, barely paying the car note.”

In fact, Kanye’s whole career has “waffled back and forth between expressions of superficial greedy capitalistic aspirations and some pretty genuine spiritual practices,” Zanfagna argues. Sunday Service is just the latest example of religious aspiration and wealth fulfilment rubbing against each other. “It maybe started with a genuine impulse outside of capitalism. But from the kind of people who are attending, I can’t say it’s doing the kind of work that true spiritual services try to do, bringing in those who are unsaved, or reaching out to marginalised populations.”

Lakewood Church, Houston, where Pastor Joel Osteen, seen on the screen, preaches to around 25,000 people each week

It’s a sign of the times, says Sorett. “There’s much to say about a worship service where you need to be on a VIP list to get in, but in many ways it reflects a moment where celebrity culture is not just central to how celebrities understand themselves but also to how everyday Americans do so… In some ways it makes perfect sense.”

Even the phrase “Sunday Service” gives a nod and a wink to a lyric from ‘New God Flow’ in which Kanye leads the church of moneymaking and tossing cash at strippers draws a biblical comparison.

Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin arriving at the Hillsong Church in New York City

Nowhere is the symbiotic play between religion and stardom more apparent than in Hillsong, a global megachurch founded in Australia in 1982, which counts among its attendees Justin Bieber, Chris Pratt, Selena Gomez and Kanye’s sister-in-laws, Kourtney, Kylie and Kendall. Hillsong calls itself “youthful in spirit” in its mission statement, and attracts millennials. It plays host to 130,000 weekly attendees in 23 countries and last year made around $70 million in revenue. Its records dominate the Christian album charts (the biggest hit of the most successful of its four bands, Hillsong UNITED, has been streamed more than 150 million times on Spotify). Its main Instagram account has more than two million followers. Like Kanye’s Sunday Service, it has a clothing range. The church’s theology emphasises personal success and asks for ten per cent of a congregant’s income as a tithe. Its founder Brian Houston denies that it is a prosperity gospel church, despite having written a book entitled You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan for Your Life. 

“Hillsong is a perfect example of what makes Sunday Service possible,” Sorett says. “They are very clear that they see celebrity culture as a strategic point of engagement for spreading the gospel.” The church has thrived on its endorsements by celebrities, notably the pop star Justin Bieber, whose conversion story has become legendary. After hitting rock-bottom in 2014 following a series of public controversies, among them trying to illegally import a monkey, he was baptised in an NBA player’s bathtub by Pastor Carl Lentz, the head of Hillsong New York City. Bieber was born again. He has since transformed into an outspoken Christian and Hillsong devotee. Last year, he married the model and fellow Hillsong member, Hailey Baldwin. In August, Bieber posted two videos to his 117 million Instagram followers. They showed megachurch leader Rich Wilkerson Jr., who presided over Kim and Kanye’s wedding, delivering prayers at Sunday Service. Antonio, a junior pastor at Hillsong Bermondsey in London, describes Wilkerson Jr. as a “great friend of our church”.

DawnChere Wilkerson and pastor Rich Wilkerson Jr.

Kanye leads the prosperity push despite knowing wealth’s limitations. “Having money’s not everything, not having it is,” he raps on his 2007 track ‘Good Life’. Racism doesn’t end when you become rich, he points out on the 2013 song ‘New Slaves’.

Four years after criticising stereotypes about black men wanting diamond chains, Kanye released a jewellery collection with Jacob Arabo, who is famous for the bling he has designed for hip-hop stars including Jay-Z and 50 Cent. The collection maxed out at a $13,000 chain necklace.

Perhaps, Noble suggests, Kanye sees the act of making money as radical in itself. “It’s very difficult as a historical fact for African-Americans to be socially mobile… There’s a feeling that when you get wealth you bask in that.” Kanye’s 2005 song ‘Hey Mama’ is dedicated to his mother for raising him despite the pressure of personal hardships – in return for which he promises to pay her back in material possessions.

Kanye West in New York City, 2003

If Kanye leads the onward march of prosperity theology, it is another rapper who provides push back. The Pulitzer-Prize winning hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar, comparable in terms of critical success and engagement with matters of faith, is Kanye’s God-fearing counterpoint. By his own admission, according to a 2015 New York Times interview, Lamar “rarely drinks and smokes [and eschews] fancy clothes and jewellery”, and he is full of religious dread, converting after the death of a friend.

“I love when artists sing about what makes Him happy,” Lamar wrote on the hip-hop website DJBooth in 2017. “My balance is to tell you what will make Him extinguish you.” He sees fragility not just in his success but in the world he looks out on. In a 2015 Billboard cover story he talks about the apocalypse. “We’re in the last days, man,” he says. “I truly in my heart believe that. It’s written.”

Jacob Arabo and 50 Cent at Jacob & Co. in New York City

In ‘Country Building Blues’, from his 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City – a lyrical conversion narrative told from Kendrick’s Compton neighbourhood – Lamar sings about idolising money as a kid: “When we grow up we gon’ go and get us a million / Spend it all in front of the county building / Blow it like Coltrane, blow it like Coltrane.” But as a newly-minted star, in ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’, from his follow-up To Pimp A Butterfly, he sees its failure to satisfy.

Here, wealth pales in the face of God, disguised as a homeless man asking for a dollar from Kendrick. “I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost,/ the price of having a spot in heaven, embrace your loss.” Kendrick sees wealth as a privilege and a source of guilt. “I had three or four years of success and celebrity,” he said in a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair. “But I can’t get rid of the 20 years of being with my homies, and knowing what they go through. I can’t throw that away. I know a lot of people who could – I’ve seen it – [be] like ‘Fuck you, I’ve got money now, I’m outta here, I don’t give a fuck about none of y’all.’ But that was something I couldn’t deal with.”

Kendrick Lamar performs at the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards

On 29 August, Kardashian West posted a picture of a yellow notepad captioned with a prayer emoji. At the top was what seemed to be an album name, Jesus is King, and below it a tracklist: ‘Glade’, ‘Garden’, ‘Selah’, ‘God Is’, ‘Baptised’, ‘Sierra Canyon’, ‘Hands On’, ‘Wake the Dead’, ‘Water’, ‘Through the Valley’, ‘Sunday’, ‘Sweet Jesus’. What appeared to be a teaser for Kanye’s new album was given the date “September 27th”.

In the left-hand corner of the picture was a Bible opened to Psalms 57:6, ascribed to David, a shepherd, musician and the killer of the giant Goliath. The choice of verse seemed no accident: “They spread a net for my feet – I was bowed down in distress. They dug a pit in my path – but they have fallen into it themselves! Selah.”

Kanye has for a long time seen himself as a victim. Tweeting on the night that his 2016 album The Life of Pablo was released, he explained its titular reference to Paul the Apostle: “He was saved from persecution due to his Roman citizenship… I have a right to speak my voice.”

Kanye West performs the 2010 BET Awards in LA in 2010, wearing the Horus chain designed by Jacob the Jeweler

And, of course, he has faced distress. A near-fatal car crash in 2002. The unexpected and devastating death of his 58-year-old mother from heart failure in 2007. At the end of 2016, a few months after the release of The Life of Pablo, hospitalisation for a “psychiatric emergency,” from which he recovered, he later claimed, by “being in service to Christ, the radical obedience”.

It is possible that Kanye is seeking solace in his Sunday Service and his movement towards Jesus. But he knows from his wealth and platform that the power of his faith is much further-reaching. Celebrities are already our influencers and idols. Should we also let Kanye be our preacher?

Photography by Getty Images

Further reading

‘Jesus Walks’ (2004) 

West’s Grammy-award winning breakout hit, notorious for his challenge to the record labels who had passed on signing him: “They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, video tape/ But if I talk about God my record won’t get played/ Huh?” The song has been streamed nearly 80 million times.

 

‘All Falls Down’ (2004), feat. Syleena Johnson

A prescient song given the global recession that would follow just a few years later. Kanye focuses on the fragility of the economic materialism sought and gained by African Americans, including himself.

 

‘Good Life’ (2007), feat. T-Pain

This song contains one of the sharpest and most economical lines on wealth you’ll hear anywhere: “Having money’s not everything, not having it is.”

 

‘Hey Mama’ (2008), live at the Grammy Awards

Kanye changed the lyrics in this 2008 Grammy performance to express his pain at the unexpected death of his mother: “Last night I saw you in my dreams, now I can’t wait to go to sleep. And this life, this Grammys, is all a dream… and my real life starts when I go to sleep.” He explains that his aspirations haven’t been just for himself: “And when I’m older, you ain’t got to work no more/ And I’m a get you that mansion that we couldn’t afford.”

 

‘New God Flow’ (2012), feat. Pusha T

Kanye outdoes himself here, rapping to a military drum beat: “Did Moses not part the water with the cane?/ Did strippers not make an arc when I made it rain?”

 

‘I Am A God’ (2013)

This song raised quite a few eyebrows on release, although Kanye has defended it as a song for those lacking self-belief. It credits God as a featured performer.

 

‘New Slaves’ (2013), live at SNL

A brutal and biting attack on the racism that black people face, no matter what status or wealth they achieve.

 

‘Ultralight Beam’ (2016), feat. Chance the Rapper

The first track on what Kanye called his gospel album, The Life of Pablo. The song is a masterpiece – an exploration of hurt, rejection, faith, and deliverance. Chance the Rapper’s verse steals the limelight.

 

‘Ultralight Beam’ (2019), live at Coachella

The second Coachella Sunday Service performance of ‘Ultralight Beam’. It ends with Kanye in tears.