Tokenism & Temperature Checks: Thoughts on Kanye West

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(Writer’s note: I wanted to leave this alone but it crossed off all of my boxes as a Black-Christian-hip hop listening-and-saved-after-25 individual plus I do essayist work for a living. Some of what I was seeing in response to Kanye West and the release of Jesus Is King struck such a chord that I wanted to compile all of my thoughts into one space. This seems common sense to say but I am only one voice within this conversation about Kanye. I don’t represent all Christians or all Black people or all Black people who follow Jesus or all hip-hop heads who happen to be Black and love Jesus. I implore you to listen to all sides of this debate before you come up with an opinion worth posting for the rest of the universe to read. I’m also not mad if you do decide to keep your opinion about Kanye to yourself. You, my friend, are the true MVP.)

Let’s get the sexy stuff out of the way first: I listened to Jesus Is King. Outside of “Every Hour”, which spoke to my love for mass choir cuts, I didn’t feel the album. When Kanye gets into his singing bag, I wince every time. It fails as a cohesive project. Kanye’s been falling off an artist and producer for years. I was also let down by the appearance of The Clipse on this album. Pusha and No Malice didn’t give me enough — and that breaks my heart.

Also, none of us should be in the business of questioning whether or not Kanye is being sincere or if his conversion is true. Truth is that if we compare ourselves to the litmus test that is Jesus, every last one of us would fail. Questioning Kanye’s Christian authenticity is low hanging fruit for us as believers. It’s too easy. All we can hope is that Kanye’s work toward knowing the Creator is sincere not because of how good it looks for us but how bad it would be for him if this is all a front. That’s a smoke that none of us want.

However I do believe the conversations about Kanye’s music plus persona and its impact on our culture as a whole are valid talks to have with each other. Truth be told, in the aftermath of Jesus Is King, social media was overrun by a smorgasbord of church hurt. Jesus Is King set off a purge of the-same-people-praising-Kanye-shamed-me-out-of-the-only-church-I-knew confessionals that it felt like all of us were waiting for this moment to get this hurt off of our chest. We clearly weren’t having these conversations in the thick of it all. Kanye became the symbol of our faith and what it means to be a token.

I witnessed much church hurt surrounding the concept of becoming a token within the church, folks lifted up for appearing to do everything the right way and used as examples of what God can do. But, like all of us, we fail because striving for perfection always leads to failure. As soon as a mistake is made or a choice deviate from someone else’s path for your life, you get left. You’re not perfect anymore so you can’t represent us.

Not Jesus but us.

Truth be told it was never about the One who saves: it’s always about the ones with the savior complexes who put on their capes.

Watching the tokenism of Kanye pains me not because I don’t think we should lift up the stories of those who find Christ but rather because when he fails (it’s a when, not an if), the same people who are lifting this man up as an example will act like he doesn’t exist.

So can our sincerity be measured by how much we read the bible, use the word “Jesus” in every other sentence or if we make a complete shift in our creativity to exalt Christ over commercialism? Absolutely not. But does it look that way? Absolutely.

This Jesus Is King rollout also reminds me how much we hurt ourselves to prove that we are worthy of love from God’s people.

Kanye West met Pastor Adam Tyson at his church, Placerita Bible Church, in the earlier parts of this year. After striking up a relationship, Pastor Tyson would travel to Wyoming to lead bible studies at Kanye’s recording compound. Tyson, who teaches biblical counseling at The Master’s Seminary, would later join Kanye at his Sunday Service performances across the country. Previous to Tyson’s addition to the concert, Sunday Service was strictly a worship service set separately from the church.

(Note: I must mention more about The Master’s Seminary. Master’s claims to be a school that advances “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping Godly men to be pastors.” It’s founder, John F. MacArthur, recently told a crowd that Beth Moore should essentially know her place and “sit down”. MacArthur has been very outspoken about women’s role in church leadership and the relationship between social justice and the church. Master’s is currently on probation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges for “[concerns about the] lack qualifications for staff members in university leadership positions, questionable independence of the TMUS board of trustees, operational integrity and a “climate of fear, intimidation, bullying” among faculty and staff.)

Pastor Tyson has long standing relationships — so does Kanye, to be fair — with some of the more well-known pastors of this contemporary Christian church era.

There’s a parallel between Kanye and the current era of the contemporary Christian church — inspirational influencers, Instagram pastors and Youtubevangelists who lead churches without a hint of a denominational clue within their name but, if you Google enough, range from Southern Baptist Convention (Elevation Church) or Assemblies of God (VOUS and Bethel, the latter now claiming be non-denominational Pentecostal) to having roots in the charismatic/pentecostal church (Transformation Church).

They pack out arenas for conferences and, like Kanye, sell merch. In the case of Bethel and Elevation, their worship teams are their own separate mega-entity and their pastors’ Instagram follower counts could rival the crowd that followed Jesus after he fed the 5,000.

So learning that Kanye is being taught under this umbrella doesn’t surprise me. It also doesn’t surprise me that Kanye has a close relationship with Rich Wilkerson Jr. — the leading pastor at the aforementioned VOUS Church and who married the Wests back in 2014. Pastor Wilkerson has 665,000-plus followers on Instagram.

It is not lost on me that Kanye sent Pastor Tyson out to every conservative — and White-helmed — Christian outlet to talk about Kanye’s work toward becoming a believer. You don’t send your pastor out into the world to convince Christians — via every Christian media outlet possible — that you’re really about that life. For what? Why would Kanye feel like he’d need to send out a message that he’s being honest? Because he knew that people wouldn’t believe the veracity of this current musical direction? But this is a specific set of people he set out to convince that his love for Jesus is true. The music was enough to convince Black folks, I guess. It doesn’t need to get any deeper than that.

Because Kanye’s relationship with Black people is strained. He knows it. And singing about Jesus ain’t enough to fix it. He knows it. So he’s not out here to convince us of anything. But his White believer friends? Absolutely.

I’m getting one-black-person-leading-worship-in-order-to-appear-like-a-true-reflection-of-the-body-of-Christ-yet-everyone-else-in-leadership-is-white vibes from this.

I’m also having a very easy time reconciling a grown Black man like Kanye who said that “slavery was a choice” for Black people with a religion that — in its Americanized form — was used to justify enslaving the very same people that look like him. We’ve been in this extended period of racial reconciliation trying to clean up from the racial stratification that it created. Kanye may not feel that way anymore and that’s fine — shout out to growth — but I watched him in his interview with Big Boy talk about how his relationship with Trump got him love in “middle America”. Acceptance at its finest.

Kanye claims that he’s been cancelled before “cancel culture” was even a thing. Truth be told, Kanye has never been cancelled. You don’t have the highest selling sneaker and sell 300,000 copies of an album as a self-proclaimed “cancelled” individual. Instead, Kanye’s been challenged. Every time Kanye’s been challenged, it’s been taken as a personal attack, an example of him being vilified because he’s “different” or trying to “elevate” his people. Kanye has a savior’s complex. Kanye has been a raging narcissist for his entire career.

But all of that doesn’t matter anymore because Jesus.

And that’s true.

But it’s one of the reasons why I hate the concept of being “made new”. It sounds good to anyone who has lived a life full of mistakes, hurt, bad decision, pain, anger and anguish. It’s beautiful to believe that what is in the past is indeed that — everything you do from this point on matters the most. The reality isn’t that. All of what your past has taught you will influence this journey going forward. It doesn’t leave you. It’s those little voices that pronounce your failures to the world. You’re going to have to deal with all of that, it doesn’t disappear. No matter how many times someone who hasn’t lived your life or seen what you’ve seen tells you otherwise.

Jesus forgives but the world doesn’t. Once you get that and no longer care, it’s a beautiful place to be. However you don’t send your pastor out on media-coordinated attack if you’re that secure in that fact. I do pray that Kanye gets to a point where he doesn’t feel like he needs to prove anything to anyone. Like the Kanye of old.

There comes a point in every new believer’s journey where everyone around you wants to test how serious you are about this walk, whether or not you are “for real”, if this is “a phase” or whether or not you are truly about this “God thing.” They want to check your temperature. It happens to all of us and it’s happening to Kanye in real time. The sad thing is that everyone is trying to adjust their Jesus thermostats at the same time and the furnace that is Kanye West isn’t really built to handle all of that because none of us are equipped to be questioned like Jesus. Or die on our crosses because those in power don’t believe us.

Whether Kanye is willing to die on his is what’s been up for debate.

Memoirist in spirit and in truth. Christian essayist when both the spirit and truth move me. email: crjtwrites[at]gmail.com

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