The latest creation from Kanye West doesn’t advocate for the liberation of oppressed people, if selections from the album, “Jesus is King,” and the pop artist’s promotion of it are used as evidence. Additionally, it is his backtracking on his 2005 criticism of George W. Bush following Hurricane Katrina as well as his recent alliance with millionaire televangelist Joel Osteen which highlight Kanye’s alienation from the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina killed 1800 people, the majority of whom were Black, in New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf areas of Louisiana. The tragedy of this catastrophic event resulted in Kanye’s statement on live tv that then President George W. Bush “didn’t care about Black people.” But by 2013 Kanye was backtracking his political statement by editing his outburst and then claiming that he had been affected by a “victimized, welfare mentality” and he had got “caught up in the idea of racism.” If in eight years Kanye was able to free himself from the shackles of American racism, that has not been the case for Blacks and people of color living within U.S. racialized capitalism, nor has it been the circumstances for the exploited non-whites in the Southern hemisphere whose labor and resources are appropriated by U.S. corporations operating overseas.
On his recent album, “Jesus is King,” Kanye’s lyrics become the great equalizer when, on the track “God Is,” he sings, “From the rich to the poor, all are welcome through the door.” This portrayal is not that of Jesus as champion of the poor as described by Black theologian of liberation, James Cone, who emphasizes that “God’s identity is defined by God’s solidarity with the poor…(and) with the oppressed.” In typical liberal fashion, Kanye attempts to have it both ways, to create a semblance of equilibrium in a world that is hugely out of balance economically and ecologically and that in reality favors the rich elites. On the same track, Kanye sings, “This ain’t about dead religion, Jesus brought a revolution,” but the revolution will not only fail to be working class, it will also not be Afrocentric because Kanye subtracted Black oppression and race from the question in 2013. Why Afrocentricity? Because as theologian Adam Clark states, “Afrocentricity is one of the ‘forces of liberation’ in the Black community. Liberation for Afrocentrists means revolutionizing Black consciousness and reconstructing Black culture.” Ignoring Black Theology of Liberation, Kanye offers his listeners and fans an alliance with tv evangelicalism and Joel Osteen. If as Adam Clark states, the “Christian faith has been a double-edged sword within the Black experience, (both) a weapon against Black people and a resource for resistance,” Kanye offers no resistance and instead presents us with Christianity as earthly subservience to the powers that be and a hope for salvation in the afterlife.
Kanye West’s recognition of the shallowness and commercialization of pop music, specifically his genre of rap, is made clear by his statement in the LA Times that “the devil stole all the good artists.” Commercial rap artists, who currently have a larger following amongst non-Blacks than Blacks, routinely present an image of Blacks as street thugs and perennial hustlers. The male-dominated genre continues to portray women as hypersexualized “hoes” with one of the differences being that now, in late capitalism, they are much more disposable. The lyrics encourage us to buy foreign, especially if the purchase involves European high fashion and expensive cars. In its shop-till-you-drop overtures, contemporary rap music situates itself in the center of corporate capitalism.
Yet Kanye’s rebirth in Christianity does not free him from the economic and political values of capitalism. Black theologian of liberation James Cone, in his reflections on Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire, defines three types of church – the conservative, the liberal and the prophetic. The prophetic church arose from Liberation Theology in Latin America and here in the States, from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. Cone argues that the U.S. would not have had the Civil Rights Movement without the prophetic Black Church. Regardless, “Jesus Is King,” lyrically and in concert performances, delivers to the listener the liberalism of individual salvation and a conservative alliance with televangelist Joel Osteen who, with an estimated worth of $40-60 million, believes that God rewards with material gain.
No surprise then that the track “Closed on Sunday” has the eerie and empty feel of New York’s Wall Street on the day marked by Christians for rest. In late capitalism, especially in the U.S., if an individual wants to escape the isolation and alienation inherent in American society, a popular option is to purchase a sense of momentary community at an eatery or at least roam around in a shopping mall. If the desire is to be amongst people, one can go to a place of commerce any day of the week; yet, the conservative Christian company Kanye sings about, Chick-Fil-A, is an exception with its Sunday closure. On this track, Kanye upholds family values and prayer while condemning Instagram, selfies, and Jezebels, with the latter being, in the Old Testament, a deceitful whore who disregarded Jewish custom. In the New Testament Jezebel symbolizes a departure from religion, and in the secular U.S., the term was often used in the past to denigrate what was perceived as sexually promiscuous Black women.
The revolutionary aspects of Paulo Freire’s conscientization, Liberation Theology, and Black Theology of Liberation involve interacting and becoming allies with the poor and oppressed to learn from the poor and come into a new consciousness not only about who we are but about society and how the world operates. We acquire the authentic class consciousness of Karl Marx that allows us to not only analyze society but to change it to allow all people to express their humanity instead of a select few. “Jesus is King” offers us the false consciousness of material wealth and individual salvation in its acceptance of the political and economic status quo and the pop artist’s overt alliance with wealthy elites.
Boboltz, Sarah. “Kanye West Talks Back ‘Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People’ 13 Years Later,” Huffington Post, Nov. 11, 2018.
Carras, Christi. “Kanye West Praises the Lord – and Himself – at Joel Osteen’s Megachurch,” LA Times, Nov. 18, 2019.
Clark, Adam. “Honoring the Ancestors: Toward an Afrocentric Theology of Liberation,” Journal of Black Studies 44 (2013): 376-394
Kirylo, James and James H. Cone, “Chapter Eight: Paulo Freire, Black Theology of Liberation, and Liberation Theology: A Conversation with James Cone,” Counterpoints (2011): 195-212