Kanye West’s road to religion— and how conversion shaped his career

Kanye West’s road to religion— and how conversion shaped his career

March 13, 2021

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Kanye West’s lone 2021 Grammy nomination is in a surprising category: Best Contemporary Christian Music Album for “Jesus Is King.”

The divisive album — which scored 53/100 at review aggregator Metacritic — will likely be overshadowed in the musician’s legacy by his bizarre 2020 presidential run and the dissolution of his marriage to Kim Kardashian, but it’s representative of a crucial turning point in West’s personal life: His conversion to born-again Christianity.

West’s Christianity was never hidden, obviously: We’re talking about an artist who said on one of his most-loved songs (“Jesus Walks”): “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, videotape / But if I talk about God my record won’t get played.”

In 2004, “Jesus Walks” became West’s third Top 20 single in a row, nabbed the Grammy for Best Rap Song and eventually became certified double-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Another line in the song — “My mama used to say only Jesus can save us” — shed light on the star’s religious upbringing while offering a preview of his fixation on sin and salvation. He would eventually rap in “Otis,” from his Jay-Z collaboration “Watch the Throne,” “I made ‘Jesus Walks,’ I’m never going to hell.”

Warning: Explicit language

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But West would take a detour before coming back to Jesus. While his 2005 album “Late Registration” featured tracks like “Heard ‘Em Say” and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” that addressed broader social issues, as his career went on, one would be hard-pressed, given the titles of the songs — “Champion,” “Stronger,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Amazing,” “Power” — to think West was focused on anything other than Being Kanye West. (He did claim “no more drugs for me / p—y and religion is all I need” in “Hell of A Life,” though.)

By 2013’s “Yeezus,” he was declaring, “I Am a God,” in which he rapped, “I just talked to Jesus, He said, “What up, Yeezus?” / I said, “S–t, I’m chillin’ tryna stack these millions” / I know he the most high, but I am a close high,” which prefigures West’s later association with megachurch pastor Joel Osteen.

But as his career was ascendent, West spoke with slightly more nuance about his evolving relationship with God in interviews.

“I’m like a vessel, and God has chosen me to be the voice and the connector,” he told The Fader in 2008. “I can’t be responsible. I’m good, but I’m not that good. So my job is just to be in the studio and do videos, and I just stand here and let God do the rest.”

A year later, he was telling Vibe, “I don’t believe in religion and giving it all up to Jesus and stuff like that. I don’t believe in that. I just believe in God. I would never say that it’s in Jesus’ hands.”

He expanded on that in a since-deleted interview with Bossip, also from 2009, saying that while he was “taught to believe everyone is going to hell” and that he “[believed] in Jesus as an icon,” he “[didn’t] feel the responsibility to put my life on Jesus.”

“I feel I need to take responsibility for my own successes and failures,” he continued. “Why I say, ‘I don’t give it all up to Jesus’ is because there are a lot of people who don’t take responsibility for their lives, and always think Jesus is gonna handle it. And that’s what I refuse to do.”

The follow-up to “Yeezus,” 2016’s “The Life of Pablo,” pushed West’s recorded output further in explicitly religious directions. Gospel and gospel-adjacent samples had always been a part of his production arsenal but “Pablo” single “Ultralight Beam” made it explicit with the presence of contemporary gospel superstar Kirk Franklin and Chance the Rapper, who also strayed from Christianity before making it a central part of his artistic identity.

Warning: Explicit language

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The album’s title, West claimed, was nebulously a reference to the Apostle Paul (“Pablo” being a Spanish form of “Paul”). And while Kanye continued to exalt Kanye with “Famous” and “I Love Kanye” — even if the latter was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek jab at himself — “Father Stretch My Hands” was centered around a sample from gospel musician and preacher T. L. Barrett, juxtaposed as it was against characteristically West-ian raunch.

The non-religious aspects of West’s life came to the forefront following “Pablo.” He postponed dates on the album’s supporting tour after Kardashian was robbed in Paris in October 2016, canning the whole thing in November after a week of missing dates, cut-short shows and ever-lengthening onstage rants. West was hospitalized shortly thereafter after reporting suffering a nervous breakdown and proceeded to take a protracted break from the public.

By 2018, his support of President Donald Trump, controversial comments about slavery to TMZ and a raft of promises about never-to-materialize albums were monopolizing the conversations about his career.

In 2019, the first hint at West’s new direction emerged. His invite-only Sunday Service series, during which he reworked his old hits in a more gospel-ish style, became a hit, and he eventually brought the extravagant show to Coachella in April 2019. The series was not without its own bad press, though, with many deriding, for example, West’s Service merch, which included a $225 hoodie that read “trust God.”

And while West could go to claim in September 2020 that he spent $50 million on the series in 2019, the rapper got hit with two class-action lawsuits alleging mistreatment of performers and staff, including lack of payment.

By summer 2019, word of West’s apparent conversion was beginning to trickle out. In July, during an interview with Chance the Rapper on her Queen Radio show, Nicki Minaj revealed West had personally described himself as a born-again Christian to her. The following week, during an interview with Zane Lowe, Chance said he may have influenced West’s religious views, saying, “I can’t pinpoint a moment when it was like, Ye, has his — I don’t even know what to call it — his revelation, but he does often like, reference me when he talks about it.”

Late in August, Kardashian announced West’s new record would be released in September and be titled “Jesus Is King.” As that release date came and went, some Christians went online to express their displeasure with West’s newfound religious zeal, but more news trickled out to reassure them.

In October, Kardashian revealed that both she and the kids had been baptized during a trip to Armenia, where her father’s ancestors are from, shortly after Adam Tyson, a pastor from Southern California, told Fox News he’d been leading West in a Bible study for months. Tyson also revealed that West told him he wanted to quit rapping, referring to it as “the devil’s music.”

Also in October, West went on Lowe’s Beats 1 show, giving his most in-depth interview about his rediscovered faith. He said that he began reading the Bible during his 2016 hospitalization for mental health issues, and started “writing and copying out Bible verses,” adding, “Now that I’m in service to Christ, my job is to spread the Gospel, to let people know what Jesus has done for me.”

“I just had to give it up to God,” he said of personal lows, adding, “The more I am in service to God I just clear my head and just wake up more empty every day and let God do the driving and just use me as he may.”

“I know that God has been calling me for a long time and the devil has been distracting me for a long time,” West went on to say in November during an interview with megachurch pastor Osteen in Houston. He again traced his awakening to his hospitalization, saying that God “was there with me, sending me visions, inspiring me.”

Not everyone was convinced by “Jesus Is King.” Some refused to give West a pass, such as minister, educator and activist Alicia Crosby, who told Time in November 2019 that “You can have ‘Hallelujahs’ on a track, but it doesn’t make it gospel. It’s weak theology, it’s not substantive, it’s not glorifying,” and called the album “vapid.”

University of Virginia professor Ashon Crawley couldn’t reconcile West’s past comments with his present, writing in an NPR op-ed that “Kanye West has used the concept of salvation … to disallow thoughtful engagement with his politics.”

As 2019 rolled into a new decade, West’s insistence on running for president in the 2020 election began to overshadow his religion. He did tell GQ in May that he was “definitely born-again,” adding, “Now all of that energy and that creativity that I have channeled and put on track comes from me surrendering to God and saying that everything is in God’s will.” But as his “campaign” wore on, his faith took a backseat to the damage he seemed to be doing to his personal life.

In July, at a rally in North Charleston, South Carolina, West broke down in tears as he claimed he and Kardashian had discussed aborting their first child, daughter North, a moment that left Kardashian “mortified” — and “desperately worried” over his mental state. West would continue to focus on abortion as he continued to “campaign,” telling Nick Cannon in September that God had revealed to him “the black genocide that is abortion.”

West “conceded” the election in November in a tweet that seemingly also announced his intention to run again in 2024, but the damage was done. Sources told Page Six his erratic campaign made Kardashian realize that she “needed to end the marriage for the sake of her kids and her own sanity.” She eventually filed for divorce in February 2021, a month after Page Six exclusively revealed a split was imminent.

West reportedly has an album, named after his mother Donda, in the works. While he’s been seen in Los Angeles since the split and visits his children in Calabasas, Calif., he’s been silent on social media and has given no new interviews.

Given the odd, post-COVID shape of the Grammys in 2021, West’s presence is a question mark. None of the nominees in his category have won before, so the field is wide open. Whether West’s rebirth into Christianity will mark a lasting shift in his life or just one more left-turn in a career full of them remains to be seen, but for a time, it was its own ultralight beam, flashing brightly through a long, dark night.

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