Kanye West can’t singlehandedly resurrect Coachella, but he can make it less of a desolate, Instagram influencer-tailored wasteland. In an effort to praise Jesus, annoy people, unleash creative energy, hype his forthcoming album, or some combination of all four, Kanye West held his regular Sunday service at Coachella this year, transforming the mostly weekly gig (formerly invite-only and kept fairly quiet) into a full-blown Easter event.
Coachella is a sort of rich-kid, Instagram influencer-type desert playground full of sought-after headlining acts. It’s come under fire for arguably culturally appropriative fashion in the past, with white girls prancing around in Native American headdresses like their lives and Insta followings depend on it. Because of course it has.
As with most music festivals, it’s not a gospel music-heavy scene, or a particularly religious one unless you count having visions of God while tripping on shrooms or a sense of community while rolling on ecstasy. Still, it draws more than 250,000 people per year (both weekends combined), and is a massive cultural force.
In other words, West’s Sunday Service was anything but typical Coachella fare. Watch the Easter prayers and footage of past services for yourself.
Rapper DMX led the group in prayer: “Father please walk with us through the bad times as well as the good, may we be heard and understood from the suburbs to the hood, may you judge us by our hearts and not by our mistakes … may you fill that void in our souls and lay our fears to rest, there’s no way we can live for Jesus when we’re living in the flesh.”
He continued, “So I pray that you allow our spirits to be born, grow strong, move on, know right from wrong, praise God.” DMX then began to quote 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.” There’s a bit of irony—or hypocrisy—embedded here, given that Yeezy merchandise was being sold mere footsteps away for typical concert markup prices multiplied, made even more obscene by the Coachella premium.
Then again, what else is a sincere capitalist to do when the market has created such demand? The Kardashians, Jenners, and Wests are nothing if not sly marketers, ready to monetize whatever they can. I mean that as a compliment, I think, but that’s a weighty question in Christian theology: how much can one hoard wealth? Is tithing necessary? Does money preclude one’s ability to worship God? Is there some amount of wealth that’s permissible for Christians to amass? It’s perhaps an amount the Kardashian-West family surpassed several private planes and Benzes ago.
— Def Jam Recordings (@defjam) April 21, 2019
DMX continued, getting more explicitly religious: “Lately, so many of us have gone astray, doing wrong for so long that we’ve forgot the way. Please bring us back home, instill in us the word, which is our backbone, we’re just children and not grown.” At one point, Kanye got emotional, and was comforted by his friends and fellow performers DMX, Chance the Rapper, and Kid Cudi.
“In this time of spiritual warfare, we’re comfortable in the middle. So I pray that you open our eyes, give us the anointing to recognize the devil and his lies,” DMX continued. Pretty damning words to dish out at a bougie music festival.
The rest of the performance was livestreamed via a peephole camera feed fixed on the individual performers. They were surrounded by a massive gospel choir draped in mauve, performing relatively few Kanye songs, all things considered. They added Kirk Franklin, Otis Redding, the Clark Sisters, Stevie Wonder, Aly-Us, and Teyana Taylor covers to the mix (full list here).
Most of Twitter seemed oddly amenable to the unique format, with a few haters milling about. Maybe Ye can convince even the most reticent Coachella-goer that gospel music isn’t so bad after all:
Brooooooooo. Do you know how many survivors just got on the mic? From Kanye to Chance to DMX? Mental health, drugs, family issues, prison and they’re all still standing like proud men in front of the world. #SundayService #Coachella
— Phella (@PhellaDaFam) April 21, 2019
— Frederick Joseph (@FredTJoseph) April 21, 2019
— HAM (@SirrHamilton) April 21, 2019
This isn’t the first time West has wrestled with faith in the public eye. In 2013, West spoke about faith on a talk show hosted by Kris Jenner. Jenner asked West about a W.W.J.D. (“What Would Jesus Do?”) bracelet he was wearing, and West responded “Actually Rob [Kim’s brother] gave me this … I’m a Christian, and I wanted to always let people know that that’s what’s on my mind.”
“It’s important to me that I grow and walk and raise my family with Christian values … I don’t know if that’s right to say on TV,” he finished, with a shy glance at the camera, looking uncomfortable, as he often does in interviews.
“Of course it is!” interjected Jenner. “I think that it’s important to let people know what’s in your heart because I do think that you’re misunderstood.”
Clearly, there are some charges of sacrilege that could be levied at West and kin: the Kardashians are famous in part for a leaked sex tape (courtesy of his beloved now-wife, back when she had a dalliance with Ray J), in part for modeling careers where they’re regularly posing nude, near-nude, or with a coupe glass balanced on their enormous butts. I have no issue with any of these things—I think they’re sexy and beautiful and so what if they break the internet?—but any theologian worth his salt would have a few questions.
Yet other parts of the Kardashian brand don’t fit so cleanly into stereotypes; Kim and Kanye have three kids, with a fourth on the way (Kanye allegedly wants seven). Each of the six Kardashian-Jenner kids have at least one child, with the exception of Kendall. The entire family lives within a 20-minute drive of each other’s houses (again, except for Kendall).
Their grandma, MJ, plays an active role in their lives, even appearing regularly on their reality show. The family has a group chat where they share a Bible verse with one another each morning. Of course, these wholesome nuggets should be balanced with the fact that they have a fondness for plastic surgery, petty drama, and getting married for very short amounts of time, but there’s more to unpack than people realize.
Still, people assume the absolute worst about West. As he said a decade and a half ago, in his 2004 song “Jesus Walks” (which he performed at Coachella): “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?” His 2016 album “The Life of Pablo” included tracks like “Saint Pablo” and “Ultralight Beam,” with religious undertones that can’t be ignored.
Kanye is quiet about his faith, and vocal about his distrust of the media, so don’t expect any clarity coming directly from the source. As Jia Tolentino at The New Yorker commented “At his most courageous, West has seemed hallowed because of how purely he expressed a real hunger.”
West isn’t a perfect Christian, or even necessarily a good one. I’m not sure many of us are. But he expresses a hunger, and talks about how belief in God is somehow off-limits in our culture, placed secondary, made taboo. As he raps in “Ye vs. The People,” countering the criticism he’s encountered since donning a MAGA hat and meeting with President Trump, “Is it better if I rap about crack because it’s cultural?” Should West avoid touching faith, politics, free thought, liberation, and family because it won’t sell?