LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Troyer Goldman has a “complicated” relationship with religion. While he recognizes that much of his moral framework is built on Christian principles, he identifies as neither Christian nor religious.
But on Easter Sunday (April 21), Goldman, 21, was singing along loudly and “feeling the rhythm of the music” of Kanye West’s Sunday Service, an unmistakably Christian performance that was broadcast online from Coachella, the music and art festival in Indio, Calif.
“I did not expect to personally feel moved or challenged, but I was,” said Goldman, who watched the performance on YouTube from his home in Anderson, Ind. “The gospel songs are rich with meaning, but I really heard them and sang along differently today.”
Since early this year, West has been hosting what he calls “Sunday Service,” backed up by a gospel choir and rapping numbers that are shot through with talk of God. Before Sunday's performace at Coachella, these performances have had a cloak of almost secrecy: Attendees have largely been celebrities, whom Kanye asks to sign nondisclosure agreements that prevent them from revealing the show's content.
At Coachella, pop music's premier annual event, where tickets go for $500, the rapper opened Sunday Service to a slightly wider, but still elite, in-person audience, while also allowing the masses to watch via livestream on YouTube.
Still playing hide-and-seek, West, dressed in choir robes, was barely discernible from the backup singers as they sang atop a low hill on the festival grounds.
The choir sang a previously unreleased song, "Everything We Need," before West emerged to perform two new songs, "All Falls Down" and "Water."
Rap music has taken a spiritual turn of late, with Chance the Rapper and Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar sermonizing in their recent albums about a higher power. But no performer plays with religious themes more than West, the husband of Kim Kardashian West who has aligned himself with President Trump. West's 2013 album, "Yeezus," which is a nickname West has adopted for himself, contains the song "I Am a God," and he has posed as Jesus for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Chris Morrill, 34, is Christian but didn’t go to church on Easter. Instead he hoped to get a spiritual lift from West’s performance. He took the day off of work to cook a lamb dinner at his Massachusetts home, spend time with family and tune in to the show on YouTube.
“I expected to feel something spiritual and I did,” Morrill said. “Seeing (West) cover his face as he cried was quite emotional. As was when he kneeled in silence after (the song) ‘Jesus Walks.’”
Beyond the emotional spiritual imagery, however, is a theological message that the average church isn’t offering, according to Jeffrey McCune, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis who teaches a course called “The Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics.”
“We have Kanye West having church on a hilltop and giving a message of love,” McCune said. West tells his listeners that “our flaws are as natural as our successes," McCune adds, "that our sins are as natural as our ability to have self-constraint.
“In the music, we get a sense of what it feels like to be in that really complicated space of being saint and sinner all at once,” McCune said.
The church typically doesn’t allow for this kind of duality, McCune said. “This is a space where people are allowed to be saint and sinner.”
West's wife, Kardashian West, told Elle magazine that all faiths are welcome to participate in Sunday Service. “Everyone that comes understands it’s just a really healing experience,” she told she said in an April 3 interview.
West grew up in Chicago and was heavily influenced by the city’s gospel music. But “I don’t see him as a religious person," said McCune. "I see him as understanding the energy of Chicago gospel as being one that transforms and wanting to take that energy and make it a global recognized energy that he calls love.”
Not everyone who listened appreciated "Sunday Service." While many on social media praised West for “bringing black church to Coachella” and “reviving the black church,” others said he was using gospel music to appeal to fans alienated by his identification with the current administration and his comments last year suggesting that “slavery was a choice” and that the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, should be repealed.
“lol at Kanye using the ‘black church’ for his redemption but never apologizing to the black community for his action/words," someone with the Twitter handle @tahairyy wrote.
But some Kanye-ologists say this is just West, and dealing with this kind of behavior is part of being a fan.
Gautam Chebrolu, a software entrepreneur who teaches an elective at Duke University called "Kanye 101: Our Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," said West and his songs challenge listeners to come to terms with the ideals of forgiveness, redemption and accepting someone for who they are.
“I think that’s a very Christian ideal,” Chebrolu said. “No one’s perfect and we know no one’s perfect but we’re going to do as much as possible to make sure we improve and get better and we forgive others.”
Some fans feel ambivalent at best about West’s evocation of religion. Malcolm White, 27, of Columbus, Ohio, avoided "Jesus Walks" and other West songs because he had always been told they were sacrilegious. But White said he’s come to believe that God “didn’t stop sending vessels 2,000 years ago when Jesus was resurrected.”
McCune said it’s important to note that West has never called himself God, but considers himself one of many gods, which he defines as someone who can “impart knowledge, wisdom, love in ways that others may not be able to.”
If you missed Sunday Service online, fear not: Chebrolu and McCune believe Coachella was not the last we’ll hear or see of the performance. Chebrolu said Kanye often debuts a new project to a closed, usually wealthy, segment of society, as he did with his signature Yeezy sneakers. But like his sneakers — or the branded $50 socks to $225 crew necks he sold at Coachella — West will likely start pushing Sunday Service out to the general public.