Since January 2019, Kanye West, his family, friends and collaborators have been holding weekly pop-up jam sessions called Sunday Service. At these gatherings, West and a large choir perform gospel renditions of his tracks. Some have speculated that this is marketing for an upcoming album, others have joked that West has started his own church. The rapper’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, explained to late night host Jimmy Kimmel this month that despite the name, Sunday Service ‘had no prayer, no sermon, no word. It's just music,’ while her sister Kourtney Kardashian jumped in to emphasize that it in fact was Christian. Hip-hop has long been seen as religion’s antithesis, so it’s not surprising that there are theories circulating about why West’s Sunday Service isn’t a sincere expression or exploration of faith. Although hip-hop’s relationship with Christianity is complex, it’s not strange at all to hear rappers talk about God or make allusions in their work. In recent years, prominent rappers like West, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and in the UK, grime artist Stormzy, have all conspicuously explored faith in their discography.
How these works’ interaction with Christianity is interpreted can depend on the socio-political contexts of that time. Chicago artist Chance The Rapper told DJ Zane Lowe in an interview in 2016 that he didn't intend for his joyous and optimistic album Coloring Book of the same year to be seen as a blessing in itself, but when it was released, its gospel-infused sound and explicitly Christian lyrics were received by many as a welcome balm in a tense cultural and political climate. The previous year, Kendrick Lamar’s single ‘Alright’ with its bridge ‘but if God got us then we gon’ be alright’ felt like a response to the grief over the high-profile deaths of black people in recent years such as 17-year old Trayvon Martin who was shot dead in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a volunteer Neighbourhood watch person. The song became an unofficial protest anthem for Black Lives Matter, a movement campaigning against the systemic violence and racism towards black people.
Across the Atlantic, London ‘gospel drill’ collective Hope Dealers perform to large crowds on Sundays at SPAC Nation church in London, to ‘win souls’. The young men who first formed the group at The Potter’s House in 2013, have garnered praise but have also faced criticism, particularly for the lyrics and visuals of their most popular track ‘Trapmash’, which critics claim glorifies gang culture and has more to do with materialism than God. Their approach has left other Christian rappers like Guvna B questioning whether they should be appropriating the aesthetics of drill when trying to draw people away from the life it depicts. There is even greater contention with the reverse, the use of Christian aesthetics in rap. West caught flack for his 2013 album Yeezus, both for its name’s allusion to Jesus and for its track ‘I am a God’. The Roman Catholic Church reportedly complained to Interscope Records about The Game’s album artwork for 2012’s Jesus Piece, which depicted a black Jesus with a teardrop tattoo and a red bandana covering the lower half of his face.
It could also be argued that the artists are aware of this sense of conflict and work this narrative into their art. West’s ‘Jesus Walks’ does so by representing an illicit life alongside a plea for redemption. The title of Stormzy’s debut album Gang Signs and Prayer alone signposts this juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane rubbing up against each other. Religious language in rap lyrics is familiar because whether they went willingly or were dragged in their Sunday Best, many rappers had church-going childhoods and if they didn't, they were exposed to it in some shape or form. Church isn't just about religion, it’s a key construct of black culture and the black experience. However, its presence is not universally considered as a positive thing. Regarding the fight for equality and against white supremacy, Eric L. McDaniel and Maraam Dwidar argue that historically religious rhetoric was often used to emphasize obedience and ‘the need for chastity, thrift, and hard work over political action’. In addition, the genre’s persistent homophobia is also perhaps rooted in its ties to religious scriptures.
Rap is also, in many ways, confession and testimony. For example, storytelling structures like parables appear throughout songs. For the rapper anti-hero, the narrative of the sinner on the long and obstacle-strewn road to redemption is a recognizable and useful model for introspection. But it’s not just the theology that’s familiar; it’s the accompanying sound too. The sweet harmonies of choirs, and organs are all over the aforementioned albums not just because it's the sound of religion but because it sounds great. The last 20 seconds of West's ‘Ultralight Beam’ is the choir impressively harmonising at ear-splitting volume. It’s an artistic choice, recognition of the rousing effect of choral singing. The music video for Stormzy’s ‘Blinded by your Grace Pt. 2’ for which he invited fans to sing with him, and of which the closing shot is a small choir singing on a council block balcony, visually demonstrates the unity that synchrony suggests.
Perhaps hip-hop’s preoccupation with the metaphors and practices of Christianity stems from its desire to become as influential and omnipresent as the church, or perhaps it’s as natural and inevitable as the genre being concerned with fine art or popular culture; it’s all part of the fabric of society from which it draws inspiration. It’s only made all the more curious by this lingering idea of incongruity.
Main image: Kanye West performs during Kanye West Yeezy Season 3, 2016. Courtesy: Getty; photograph: Dimitrios Kambouris