Kanye West recently released Jesus Is King, an expletive-free, gospel-inspired rap album exploring the artist’s spiritual transformation. Throughout the record, West lyrically expresses a renewed sense of identity. He addresses his past with remorse in “On God” and alludes to the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace” in “Selah,” a song originally written by John Newton, an eighteenth-century slave trader-turned-priest who inspired Britain’s abolition movement. These songs reveal West’s long, tumultuous journey from debauchery to repentance—a tribute to the power of religion. As Michael Knowles from the Daily Wire puts it, Kanye has a “good ear for the culture.” In saner times, West’s cathartic self-expression and renewal of faith—beginning earlier this year, with his “Sunday Service” performances—would improve his public image. Today, he faces “cancellation.”
Any praise from the wrong quarters emboldens critics’ denunciation of West. In The Root, for example, Jay Connor declared Kanye “canceled” because his album received positive reviews from the Washington Examiner and Donald Trump, Jr. Connor, like many critics, offers no substantive critique of the album beyond opposing West’s admirers. West hasn’t been spared criticism from religious figures, either. In an interview with Vice, Xavier Pickett, a visiting professor at New York University who holds a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary, suggests that West must be naïve to believe that African-Americans will automatically grant him absolution.
The most disingenuous attempt to cancel West appeared in the New York Times. In her op-ed, “Kanye West and the Cult of Personality,” culture writer Shamira Ibrahim declares that West’s weekly performance “reads like a blatantly self-serving appropriation of black faith traditions.” His services, Ibrahim concludes, are “in fact little more than concerts trading in aimless aphorisms and the cult of Mr. West’s personality.” She attacks West’s “freestyling,” overlooking the fact that he is a rapper. The Sunday services are a fusion of rap, poetry, gospel singing, sermons, and political discussion—not strictly religious observances.
For NPR, Ashon Crawley, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia, writes that West’s “gospel year” shouldn’t lead us to “misremember” his sinful past, including his characterization of the mental slavery of black America, in thrall, according to West, to its history of subjection. For Crawley, West’s “free thinking” masks his false consciousness and ignorance of intersectionality. At West’s services, “musicians play the drums and the Hammond. There are hand claps, foot stomps, swaying to music with arms raised. But also there, always there, are the histories of Indigenous genocide and colonization, of anti-black racism and queer antagonism, of sexism, misogyny, misogynoir and the like.”
Barack Obama recently warned that cancel culture’s approach of “casting stones” and criticizing others is “easy.” But identifying and rectifying our own flaws takes courage. West attempts to turn a new leaf with his devotional Sunday services and his new album, and yet he is lambasted for past sins—even by those who claim to preach the gospel. Whether he makes controversial statements, supports Trump, or embraces religion, he will always be cancelled. West knows it, too. As he told a recent interviewer, “I’ve been canceled before they had cancel culture.”
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