Trudging 15 minutes through the cragged terrain of Indio, California’s sun-cracked, rock-ribbed entry path to Coachella on Easter Sunday (April 21) could easily top anyone’s list of life’s worst ideas. Enduring such an onerous journey to reach the final destination of Kanye West’s Sunday Service wouldn’t be far behind on that list for a former fan of Chicago’s socially polarizing rapper and producer either—yet, there I was.
I whispered a small prayer to myself as I squeezed my eyes shut (partially to shelter them from the bombarding clouds of dust wafting from the dirt trail). “Father God, I ask that you protect my spirit this morning,” I declared, “from anything or anyone in this service that seeks to threaten, harm or confuse it. Keep my hedge of protective angels guarded around my spirit, Lord, and grant me the wisdom to absorb only the truth of your Word and presence. In your Holy name, I pray. Amen.”
Admittedly, I was fearful of what to expect. The only knowledge I had of the service came from social media where snippets showed a Black choir bolting gospel classics with a cheesing Mr. West sometimes slamming away at a piano, and his 5-year-old daughter, North West, occasionally stealing the show on the microphone. It seemed harmless enough, but as any millennial should know by now, only selective truths exist through the lens of the internet.
Besides, Easter Sundays were always sacred for me as a young girl growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and raised on family-orientation. Church, Easter egg hunts, candy-bursting Easter baskets, and the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection conditioned my convictions about what Easter Sundays should be. So to be sharing the holiday with Kanye, who controversially dubbed himself (and his sixth studio album) “Yeezus,” I was immediately on the defense. “What if he stands up and begins preaching? What merits his theology? He did compare himself to Jesus, after all—what if this is the initial phase of some weird cult?”
By the time regret even had a chance to fully make its way to the surface, I was already past the security checkpoint and lunging up steep, mountainous plains to witness one of Coachella’s most aggressively anticipated happenings, by one of its most aggressively controversial acts.
I figured to let my guard down (though, reluctantly) and fully commit to whatever it was God wanted me to by placing me in this moment with Kanye, I’d first need to set aside my distaste for the so-called new ‘Ye. But that task was just as mentally arduous as the rockbound journey that landed me face-to-face with someone I’d spent nearly two years spiritually and politically at odds with.
I’d need to overlook his deplorable Donald Trump bromance.
I’d have to respite his repulsive commentary on my African ancestors’ “choice” of slavery.
I’d be forced to absolve him of his creative and social transgressions laced in misogynoir.
But all of these were only temporary pardons. I was content in knowing that after the last piano key to close out service, I could go back to justifiably deriding Kanye. However, if only for that moment, divine intervention called on a virtue within me that I’ve struggled to extend not only as a person, but consciously as a Black woman journalist in hip-hop for a while now: forgiveness.
I knew it as soon as the opening harmonies of a beautiful, Black choir enveloped Indio’s clear, blue skies from atop a single mountain and permeated the wall I built up against Kanye and the service just as strongly as I mustered the enterprise to attend in the first place. To my surprise, the service embodied a few qualities that helped make the layered burden of forgiveness somewhat lighter.
Despite the aura of divisiveness in the brand of “new Kanye,” particularly under Trump’s America, it had been a while since I’ve seen the unison of all cultures and creeds standing in awe and appreciation of the Black gospel. From punk-rock fans and EDM enthusiasts to country music heads, diversity was abound, praising and partying along to the classic soul sounds of Sunday Service.
The amalgamation of Soul II Soul’s timeless “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)” to Kanye’s lewdly lyricized, Future-stamped “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” to Shirley Caesar’s “Satan We’re Going to Tear Your Kingdom Down” probably wouldn’t be the ideal gospel/hip-hop hybrid of any given church service. Yet, with Kanye’s ingenious interpolation savvy, only the most fitting (and sacred) parts of each record made it to our ears.
Kanye’s faculty for the gospel came to a head in "The Life of Pablo," where he sonically pulled and handpicked sounds from all over to piece together for the project. To the delight of Kanye fans who exalt the project in their top Yeezy album picks, Sunday Service picked up the gospel where Life of Pablo left off.
Narcissism is not an attribute that Kanye has shied away from throughout his career, and I didn’t expect Sunday Service to be any different. But even I’ll confess that he’ll do away with it for the greater of his GOOD Music record label imprint and its top-tier talents.
Passing his mic to some of the best names gracing his roster, R&B empress Teyana Taylor and Cleveland golden child Kid Cudi took center stage. The KTSE songstress gloriously delivered the gospel implant of her own project, “Never Would Have Made It” (a sample of Marvin Sapp’s 2007 hit), while California’s R&B and songwriting maestro Ty Dolla $ign along with ‘Ye’s fellow Chicagoan and hip-hop gospel devotee Chance the Rapper chimed in with vocals of their own.
Still, it’s no secret that Kanye treads on thin ice with some of hip-hop’s most respected. Now that Sunday Service proves he’s fully capable of fellowship and companionship among his counterparts, we can only hope that he’ll stretch those virtues beyond his GOOD Music family for 2019.
2 Corinthians 5:17
In my personal favorite highlight of the service, Yonkers-bred rap legend DMX shared a word of prayer over the sea of faces swaying across the Sunday Service congregation. I’ve always had a sentimental connection and affinity for X. As one of the conduits that introduced a 7-year-old me to the boundless world of hip-hop, I’ve grown attached to him over the years.
After recently completing a self-admitted substance abuse rehabilitation stint – one of many experiences that manifested X’s transformation in an internal and visibly physical sense – I became even deeper invested in the spiritual welfare of the Ruff Ryders OG. Upon the first echo of his signature callus-textured voice, my spirit became still as he stretched his Sunday Service devotion “from the suburbs to the ‘hood.”
“May you judge us by our hearts, and not by our mistakes,” he sermonized. “And see that we get our breakthrough, however long that it takes. May you fill that void in our souls, lay our fears to rest, because there’s no way we can live for Jesus when we’re living in the flesh. So I pray that you allow our spirits to be born, grow strong, move on, know right from wrong. First John 2:15: do not love the world or anything in the world, and we know that means…
"Lord you take care of fools and babies. You teach women to honor their men, and men respect their ladies…
"There is so much that we’re entitled to, yet we receive so little. Because 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.”
(Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella)