There has been a sizable amount of questioning throughout pop culture and ecumenical circles about the veracity of Kanye West’s newfound walk with His Lord.
Many believe that he is either experiencing a mental break– pointing to his struggles with being bipolar. (After all… people who have everything that want and dedicate their lives to Christ… have to just be crazy, right?)
Some believe that he is pimping the game, turning religion into a way to get back into the good graces of Black Americans (who according to Pew Research are far more religious than their white counterparts regardless of gender and age) after aligning himself politically with President Donald Trump. (Cause you know… Black folk weren’t messing with ‘Ye after he started rocking that M.A.G.A. hat… and agreeing with the guy that many consider representing almost everything counter-cultural to the Jesus movement.)
Still, others chalk it up to him being a lover of music, and this version of “The Gospel” that he is producing is another exploration into one of his mediums of artistic expression… and not truly an authentic conversion. (Yeezy knows how to make good music and loves himself some good music… and gospel music is really good.)
Set aside the clear emotionally-invoking musicality of his Sunday Sermons (and the social media team that helps propel it into our consciousness), is he faking jacks and playing games with the faith?
Or is this real deal liturgical ministry?
Let’s face it… West is a musical genius, and his cult of personality is greater in some spaces than the religion he professes– lending to a chart-topping gospel album, “Jesus is King.” But that is not what this is… this is a by-product of the anointing over this man’s life.
After experiencing A Kanye West Opera: Mary at Lincoln Center during this advent season, it is safe to say that what he is doing is biblically based and theologically sound ministry. This is REAL DEAL teaching and preaching of scripture in a way that should make your momma and them church should take notes.
Mary, the opera, tells the traditional story of The Nativity by merging both the Luke and Matthew Gospel accounts.
There is no eisegesis or creative license taken place in this production. West and his production team (lead by Derek “Fonzworth Bentley” Watkins and his wife Faun) purposefully approached this uniquely Hip-Hop presentation without the fanfare of the gluttonous ills of rap music. Leaning on talents of its stage design and breathtaking, choreography, the production is a minimalist masterpiece allowing only the scripture to tell the story, only dressing it with the robust orchestration of the Sunday Sermon choir and the illustrated sermon that this staged performance afforded the team.
The audience was electric. The night was sold out. You could spot your aged grandparents there expecting a night of high culture (they were not disappointed for this was delivered to the standard that any Lincoln Center patron might be accustomed).
At the same time, there were some hoodrats… popping gum… baby hair slicked down with some thick pomade edge control… itching to get a glimpse of Kim K and the rest of her crew. At some point someone yelled out, “We love you Kim!” and she responded, “We love you too.” More calls persisted once the fans realized that one of Hip-Hop’s royal families was in the building and eventually someone recognized North West in her chair and called out to her. North, being fully aware of how special this moment was and how much love and energy was in the room, yelled out ” I love you too” and “Kanye is my dad.” While some audience members were annoyed at this break in stiff-necked theater tradition, it set the tone for the night.
This was not just theater.
This was fellowship- rooted in God’s uninhibited love. North was caught up in the comfort of being in a “love space.”
It was this “love space” that was stitched in every detail of the opera.
Kanye opens himself as the narrator starting with the prologue of the opera. He is set on the side of the stage… in fact, you actually miss him.
He starts the opera by saying, “Over 300 prophecies in scripture describe a coming savior. Jesus Christ fulfilled them all. One prophecy, in particular, declared that the sign of his coming is marked by a voice, a voice that would prepare the hearts of the People of Israel for the messiah.”
The choir comes in with a beautiful rendition of “Mary Mary” and then “Gloria.” The choir is adorned with halos behind her heads. The ensemble/ dancers trickle into the scene. Imagine Ethiopian Coptic iconography and this with the signature Yeezy look is the overall vibe of the ensemble and the singers.
The first scene opens up to Zacharias being spoken to by the angel, Gabriel. Gabriel in angelology is the messenger of God. He tells him that because of his faithfulness, that he and his elderly wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son. Kanye narrates the exchange, reciting Luke 1:5-8, 11-24. The angel is Black. Not neutranoid Black, but distinctly Black. His wings extended like a puppet from the actor’s body with wooden patagium that reached out majestically. YES. Majestically is the word. Very early on the audience was drawn in the perfectly executed theater that they were witnessing, but moreover, they were being churched (even as many had no clue that evangelism had started).
The choreography was used as a tool to communicate shifts and changes in the moods, and scenes. In this expression, the ensembled dancers suddenly lifted their hands in total submission to the will of Gabriel and released it – suggesting that Zacharias while in the Temple yielded to what the Lord was communicated. This was portrayed by the choir singing “Gloria” and Jacob Jonas’ fingerprints all over the dancing.
By scene 2, Mary is introduced and she is a dark-skinned Black girl dressed in white, likened to the daughters in the Nation of Islam. What is typically called a hijab, her hair covering again communicated her age and her humility without anyone saying anything. The way that this production chose to introduce characters was to have them step up and stand, while the ensemble dancers, the music and the narrator tell the story.
Eventually, the angel tells Mary what is to come of her. As she walks into the role of the Theotokos, the young woman cast in the role presents her Mary as incredibly dignified and statuesque, making you forget how small the person actually is in comparison to the other castmates. Gabriel makes another appearance and his strong voice rings like you would imagine, thunderously powerful.
No this is not a typical opera.
But also… why would a ministry like this from Kanye be typical? And would the typical opera speak to the masses, the generation falling away from the church, like this re-imaging of the cantata?
There are times that Kanye’s voice breaks. He stumbles over the words occasionally, making this more like church than “high theater.” Still this offering is welcomed and forgiven by this New York audience.
The production puts the vulnerability of a new believer who is sharing his faith to those who value his opinion on front street, even as he has not perfectly grasped the rhythm of the bible. Even if those scriptures do not fall effortlessly off his tongue, they still have a musical element on their own that punctuates their intended declamation. It is what preachers homiletically rest on. It is how the congregation is able to hear God’s voice breathing when they listen to their preachers.
Kanye is almost there.
This vulnerable side of Kanye is more lovable than the rap persona that we have been baptized into accepting over the last two decades.
Back to the story… by the time we see Mary again she is with her cousin Elizabeth, the soon to be mother of John the Baptist. The two have a duet and for the first time, you can hear how beautiful Mary’s voice is. You may miss it though… because your eyes are fixated on how the cousins gingerly embrace each other. Elizabeth’s hands-on the belly of her younger cousin.
It is a rare moment that the actors become focal points, shifting from the narration. In the opera, the main characters barely move but are preset with the ensemble dancers briskly creating the scene like they are a part of the stage design. Even when Joseph re-enters the stage, you can clearly feel his angst (whether it is the spirit or the energy of the piece, the powerful orchestration of the music, the Kanye’s passionate delivery of the narration).
This is yet another scene that evokes emotionality from the audience.
Joseph is stately. His decision to protect Mary and not embarrass her resonates with the audience, who undoubtedly can relate in modern-day life what it is like to step in and father a child that is not yours- and in which the paternity of the child is questionable. The director’s decision to have him stand stately with the ensemble kneeling around him pushed the narrative that Joseph as Jesus’ earthly father is honorable. The ensemble leans on each other further symbolizing to the audience Joseph and Mary and the cast of the holy hosts empowering them through this arduous process are community. Imagine God being in community with humanity to make sure God’s will is done… that is exactly what the “EMMANUEL” is all about.
In fact, the use of Kanye’s hit song, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” as a tool connecting culture to emphasis emotional toil is executed superbly by the music direction. The choir’s “aahs” are moving as it falls within the full arrangement of the song. It almost makes you believe that the song was created for this scene… especially as Jonas’ choreography that accompanies this scene reminds you of the spiritual angst that Alvin Ailey offers in his epic “Revelations” suite.
By scene 7, the audience is resolved to these very true facts:
- Hip-Hop can communicate the coming of The Messiah musically in a breathtakingly beautiful way.
- Kanye’s minimalism is a treasure and appreciated.
- The team has collectively developed a liturgical device to communicate the nativity to a new generation that is modern and still reverent.
- The music composition collective ought to win some sort of award for their extraordinary and thought provocative arrangements.
There is one other resolve: Kanye and company understands theatre perfectly.
They have combined the drama of his Hip-Hop stage show, one that has drawn crowds from the secular world, with the intentional sermonizing of the consecrated gospel of his Lord, Jesus. They have used very few words (outside of the Latin in the solos) to tell the story that simply can’t be better communicated than through the original scripture.
And Kanye is authentically open and well is… Kanye… Never losing his Chicago drawl, never sacrificing the notorious work ethic that he has been known for (in the middle of the show, while narrating, he shouted to the orchestration “No Trumpets”), he has communicated his clearly how he sees the miraculous circumstances of Jesus birth.
He also seems to be leaning and learning on other believers to have a more firm Christian foundation than even on his last album. If we could claim to know what God thinks about his servants’ work and the evangelic opportunity of this project, we believe Matthew 25:21 might communicate it. “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
And let’s sit back and watch God open the door for the next project.