Kanye West’s ‘Jesus is King’ draws thought, ire at Notre Dame
Matthew Kellenberg | Tuesday, December 3, 2019
Kanye West’s latest album, “Jesus Is King,” is a deeply spiritual, if equally controversial, project.
Religion is a common theme in West’s music, from his 2004 song “Jesus Walks,” to his controversial “I Am a God,” to his gospel-infused “Ultralight Beam.” But never has West’s focus been so defined as on his latest album, “Jesus Is King.”
Take “Selah,” one of the 11 songs on “Jesus Is King.” Like the others it centers around the theme of Christianity, and unlike West’s earlier work, none have any curse words. The album comes at a time when the church is struggling to connect with young people.
“One thing I’ve noticed recently, I’d say in the past few years — or even more than that — but the churches have declined in regards to membership especially like people of my age because they want something different, they want something fresh,” Emorja Roberson, a graduate student at Notre Dame, said.
Roberson directs Voices of Faith, a gospel choir on campus, and weighed in on the impact of Kanye’s album.
“What I think Kanye has done, which is awesome, is he’s reached out to those people who are not quite as ‘churched’ as the crowd who’s been going to church for some years, and he’s given them a different perspective of that, when it comes down to how you can use music to draw people,” Roberson said.
On campus, the album is starting a new sort of conversation about religion.
Sophomore Josh French, who is in a faith sharing group in O’Neill Family Hall, noted the narratives woven throughout the album.
“One of my friends mentioned that Kanye in this album, there’s a lot of parallels between him and a lot of the gospel parables as far as someone turning back to God after a sinful past,” he said.
After the album’s release, French came across a sign outside North Dining Hall reading “‘Jesus Is King’ is a stroke of artistic genius.” The sign invited students to respond on a sticky note, then stick it on either the right side, labeled “agree,” or the left side, labeled “disagree.” French read some of the notes.
“Some weren’t related to the album at all,” French said. “Some were just memes. But some said it was the worst album they’ve ever heard. I saw one that says ‘Kanye’s a hypocrite. This is just a publicity stunt,’ but I also saw one on the yes side that said, ‘This album changed my life, and it’s made my faith stronger.’”
Ryan Israel is a junior at Notre Dame. He also looked at the sign. (Editor’s Note: Israel is a Scene writer for The Observer.)
“The one post-it note I saw on the bulletin boards was on the disagree side,” Israel said. “And it said ‘I miss the old Kanye.’”
As for his own thoughts on the album, Israel does not have a simple answer.
“There’s so many different things you can bring into this discussion about Kanye West and ‘Jesus Is King,’ and I think that’s what makes it so fascinating, and it can’t all fit on a post-it note,” he said.
Though he’s a fan, Israel’s not so sure about the rapper’s faith.
“I’m skeptical of his Christianity and how genuine and sincere it is, and I find it hard to express why,” he said.
That’s a common concern among West’s listeners, and it’s called into question the positive impact his album can have on the Christian community. Some listeners have also expressed concern about West’s provocative, often problematic personality. In 2018, the rapper faced backlash for calling slavery a choice.
French, on the other hand, does not doubt the album’s convictions. And, he sees it as a departure from Kanye’s wrongdoings.
“I don’t think anyone at the University of Notre Dame knows Kanye on a personal basis, so I don’t think it’s fair to judge him as a person, but I do think it’s fair to judge what he’s done,” French said. “And I certainly think this album is a way to sort of reconcile that and should try to bring himself in the public eye in a more positive way.”
When students take the album as a story of redemption through faith, “Jesus Is King” has the potential to connect them with religion. As the director of Voices of Faith, Roberson does not take that for granted.
“If you want to draw people, you need to talk to them,” he said. “Don’t talk at them but talk with them. See what they like. See what’s on their playlist.”
So long as the songs on “Jesus Is King” remain on students’ playlists, West’s work will be one such draw.