The Theology of Kanye West: When “Yeezus” is Offensive

Disclaimer: the videos and song lyrics in this post contain profanity/adult language.

I am not the sort of person who should love rap music, but I always have. I credit this to my older brother, who as long as I can remember, would bump Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and The Notorious B.I.G whenever he drove his old Chevy Trailblazer. To this day, one of my most precious memories in life was listening to 2-Pac’s Ghetto Gospel while driving home after my grandfather’s funeral. I remember listening to Pac’s words, his tone and rhythm, and his message which was somehow communicating all of the emotions I had bottled-up in my barely-teenage heart. The problem however, was that I was a dorky homeschooled white boy who had to listen to this sort of music rather secretly—you know, because of the bad words.

What follows therefore might be an attempt to 1) out myself as a hip-hop fan and 2) look at rap music through a playful process of theological reflection. Who better to do that with than the ever offensive Kanye West, right? So, yeah, there are some problems with this idea. In the Christian community I was raised in, this sort of rap music is absolutely offensive. In fact, often times I still find it offensive. For example, it is pretty much impossible for me to appreciate any musical piece, including much of hip-hop music, when it is riddled with misogyny. When I Googled a few Christian blogs who have taken on the task of reflecting on Kanye however, I mostly found well-meaning folks who felt their most important need was to correct or condemn West’s audacity to make  claims of the theological nature (thankfully I didn’t find anyone who KJ-52’ed Kanye). These blogs would shout blasphemy at West for writing songs claiming that he is “a man of God” or that “Jesus walks with strippers.” I decided to take a different approach.

As many great artists have brilliantly shown time and again, being offensive is often the best way to communicate a deeper message. This blog post contains profane language that will probably offend some people and therefore should probably only be read by adults. Bur for those adults who are offended either by the language used by Kanye West or by my audacity to pull-out bits of theology from West’s songs, I ask only this: can God teach us things about himself through the profane, and if so, do we have the responsibility to listen for God’s voice in those places which we are not typically willing to say God lives and moves? If you are offended, ask yourself “why, what is this getting at inside me?” Maybe you could even ask, “What is God telling me?”

With that lengthy disclaimer, I give you some reflections on the theology of one Mr. Kanye West.

Jesus Walks: Liberation & the Disinherited

The first Kanye West song I ever heard was his classic, Jesus Walks all the way back in ‘04. The song was followed by three different music videos, each revealing another facet to the theology of West in general and Jesus Walks in particular. Kanye begins the song by framing his theological problem: “We at war with terrorism, racism, and most of all we at war with ourselves.”  It seems that for Kanye, the reason for humanity’s struggle with terrorism, racism, and the like, are not due only to “the Devil trying to break me down” but also to humanity’s capacity for sin:

You know what the Midwest is?
Young and restless
Where restless (N*****) might snatch your necklace
And next these (N*****) might jack your Lexus
Somebody tell these (N*****) who Kanye West is…

…We ain’t going nowhere but got suits and cases
A truck full of crap rental car from Avis
My momma used to say only Jesus can save us
Well momma I know I act a fool
But I’ll be gone ’til November I got packs to move

Yet, for Kanye, those who Jesus chooses walk with is precisely the “hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers even the strippers” and “the victims of Welfare” who are “living in hell here.” West’s repeated plea: “God show me the way” might therefore be a call for liberation from both the sins of society: “Getting choked by the detectives yeah yeah now check the method. They be asking us questions, harass and arrest us.” But it is also Kayne’s recognition of his own brokenness and his inability to bring healing on his own.

Dare I say that Kanye’s theology is Christocentric to the point that the basis of his song is to claim that liberation from sin is not anything he nor humanity can bring about; rather it is the task of God who is presently walking within a suffering community? If so, West would stand in good company of black theologians before him, such as the father of black liberationist theology James H. Cone who has famously said: “the community of the oppressed will recognize that its inner thrust for liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”[1] If, the basic task of liberation theology is as theologian Veli-Matti Karkkainen has suggested, “to identify with the humiliated and the abused” then West might be tapping into that tradition.[2] He does so by communicating a belief that Jesus walks with those who the rest of society is quick to shame and marginalize and who Christians in particular have a difficult time loving: “murderers, drug dealers…even the strippers.

There is another layer to this problem of sin and desire for liberation that West has so artistically articulated. It seems that in owning his own contribution to sinful state of humanity, West hopes that such an act of repentance might serve somehow as atonement:

They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes
But if I talk about God my record won’t get played Huh?
Well let this take away from my spins
Which will probably take away from my ends
Then I hope this take away from my sins

This message—the act of one giving their “ends” (i.e. wealth) for the sake of Christ or in petition that Jesus would walk within a community—is one worth considering. This is especially the case if one agrees with West that Jesus walks with disinherited.

Only One: Spirituality as a Resource for Grieving and a Source of Joy

Kanye’s latest single, Only One provides insight into the very spirituality of West. This lullaby, according to Kanye, is a tribute to West’s daughter, North, and is sung from the perspective of his late mother, Dr. Donda West. “Lullaby” really might be the genre of the song which begins, “As I lay me down to sleep, I hear her speak to me…” West continues, this time from the perspective of his mother, “I talked to God about you, he said he sent you an angel…you know I never left you…” In West’s spirituality, we humans, in life and after, have access to a God who is compassionate even in the midst of loss and suffering (i.e. the death of West’s mother). Even more, through the loss of his mother, West finds his grief companioned by great joy in his new daughter who was a Godsend of his mother’s request.

The chorus begins:

Hello my only one
Just like the morning sun
You keep on rising till the sky knows your name
Hello my only one
Remember who you are
No you’re not perfect but you’re not your mistakes

Wrestling through grief, making new meaning, believing the promises of his mother. That is the task of Kanye west in this song. How will his family know each other, be joined together? How can he hear and actually believe the words of his mother in heaven: “No you’re not perfect but you’re not your mistakes”? Kanye is wrestling with the mystery of loss/new life, a process which is opening himself up to the paradox of grace.

Remember who you are
No you’re not perfect but you’re not your mistakes

In grace God names our flaws, and accepts us anyway. In this way, all Christians are joined with West in his difficulty in accepting his true identity as chosen, loved, and forgiven. Maybe this is why, so often in “Only One,” West’s mother reminds him: “someday you’ll understand.”

But Only One is ultimately not about Kanye’s ability to accept grace. This song, as I understand it, is about Kanye’s struggle to make new meaning after the loss of his mother is juxtaposed with the birth of his daughter. Kanye even says in one interview that he couldn’t remember the lyrics to the song because it really was the words of his mother being passed down through him.

Grief theorist Melissa Kelley has said that one’s image of God will shape the meaning one makes out of life’s mysteries, especially as they relate to death and life.[3] Kanye’s struggle to make sense of how his deceased mother and his new daughter are connected are shown in the song’s conclusion where he repeats again and again: “Tell Nori about me” (Nori being his daughter, North). In his grief, Kanye may actually be modeling healthy meaning-making by using his spiritual resources. Again, Kelley would suggest that those who have lost need to “tell and perhaps retell” their stories in the midst of suffering in order to heal their life narrative which has been torn apart by loss.[4] As there is no confusion or desperation in Kanye’s voice as he sings “tell Nori, tell Nori,” could it be then that his mother simply wants her son to tell North about her over and over again? Could it be that Kanye is sharing with his audience, and likewise showing his daughter, that by using his faith in God and the after-life as a resource for healing, he is actually able to bend death and life in such a way that his daughter and her grandmother share one story of which only he is able to tell? If so, Kanye as given us a picture of what it looks like to embrace the mystery of life and death through telling stories of how those two opposites can paradoxically be brought together in faith.

I am a God: What offends us and why?

I saved this one for last because, out of all these songs, it by far best fits the category of “Songs to write about if you want to get taken off of your grandparents Christmas list.” Still, I am a god is maybe the most provocative songs Kanye has ever released therefore requiring the listener to place some interpretive lenses between their ears and headphones. The song opens abruptly with a blast of ironic tongue-in-cheek rhetoric:

I am a god

Hurry up with my d**n massage

Hurry up with my d**n ménage

Get the Porsche out the d**n garage.

Another variant of the hook follows:

I am a god
So hurry up with my d**n massage
In a French-a** restaurant
Hurry up with my d**n croissants
I am a god
I am a god
I am a god

In this video, Kanye explains the audacity of this song for himself.

I don’t think West is saying that he actually is a god, rather he is saying, “I am not, not a god.” Or perhaps in less confusing rhetoric, “it is more accurate to call me a god than to view me through the distorting and dehumanizing negativity of racism or classism.” The point for the shocked listener is this: “What offends you more, me viewing myself through the imagery of godness, or the negative connotations that have been and remain systemically attached to African-Americans (i.e. N****r, thug, gangsta, pimp, etc.)? The prophetic question asked by West is then: which is more offensive and why: self-glorification or self-hate?

Kanye’s move in I am a god is not unlike rap artist Lupe Fiasco who, in his song B***h Bad brilliantly uses purposefully harmful language “as a cleaver misdirection” in order to call out the deeper issue of the music industry’s poor example for children and the black community as a whole.

In my opinion, I am a god is a good reminder for me to get offended by the right things. That is, if I am too offended by the form of an art piece that I miss the true offense of its message, then I am missing out on my call to engage with the messiness of humanity.

So, it is clear that Kanye West possesses and peaches a theology through his music. Some of it might be offensive, some of it certainly should be taken seriously. My question is: if theology is not allowed to occasionally offend my sensibilities and question my assumptions, then what should?

-Michael Wiltshire

[1] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 2d ed. (Maryknool, N.Y.: Orbis, 1986), 1. Emphasis mine.

[2] Veli-Matti Karkkainen, Christology: A Global Introduction, (Grand Rapids, MI.:Baker, 2003), 205.http://restoringpangea.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=3164&action=edit

[3] Mellisa M. Kelley, Grief: Contemporary Theory and the Practice of Ministry, 88-89

[4] Ibid., 90.

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