Kanye West is an internationally known Grammy award winning artist. His politics, public life, and his self-promotion have stirred up controversy and interest in many circles.
His recent return to Christian themes in his music and beyond leaves his audience inside and outside of the church consistently confused and curious. Kanye West’s tenth album “Donda” honors his late mother Donda West, who was chair of the English Department at Chicago State University. It debuted in late August to mixed reviews, some celebrating the album as a show of Kanye’s continued musical genius and others hearing the 27-track album as an incoherent and exhausting tribute that actually focuses on Kanye himself.
“Donda” is now one of the highest-grossing albums of all time in the gospel/Christian category, and the most-streamed album ever in both categories, according to Billboard. In response to its success, some Christian public figures gave kudos acknowledging their work with or appreciation for West. Others expressed disdain at his dominance in Christian art spaces when his music is still deeply secular. The album features some very popular secular artists, accused criminals, gang members, and even a known atheist alongside choirs and Christian artist writers. But many believers are still asking: is Kanye West’s “Donda” album a gospel album? To answer, we have to consider several other factors.
Is it a commercial genre question?
If what makes music “gospel” is what the most established and profitable record labels, music hosting sites, and awards say, then “Donda” is gospel music and Kanye West is now a gospel artist. In one sense, this would be brilliant and expected on Kanye’s part. He has claimed that he is the greatest artist of all time, period, and he has been breaking and bending genres throughout his musical career. He has sampled, collaborated, and made music that fits comfortably in multiple genres, gaining fans from pop, electronic, dance, hip hop, R&B, rock, and now gospel circles. Kanye West now has won Grammys in the rap, contemporary Christian, R&B, and “Song of the Year” categories, which means he is recognized as one of the best artists and producers in several genres. But many Christians don’t take the music industry’s word as gospel on the subject.
Is it a format question?
Kanye West did not use curse words or explicit content in “Donda.” He even censored his guest artists. The album is “clean” for that reason–it doesn’t have any content that has solicited a parental advisory warning as his past albums have. But is the lack of explicit content what makes an album “gospel?” Most people would answer this question with a resounding no.
Is it a thematic content question?
This is where the rubber meets the road. What makes an album “gospel” should have something to do with its content. And Kanye surely titles tracks with references to God, the Lord, and Jesus on the album. He uses Christian language of forgiveness, mercy, grace, Holy Spirit, miracle, Lord, pray, sin, angels, demons, heaven, and hell. He talks about Christian themes such as redemption, grace, love, and judgment. But he also talks a lot about himself: his struggles, his success, his opponents, his view of the world, and his life in general. These themes could be labeled “inspirational” and not Christian if it weren’t for the mentions of Jesus. It could be said that not much has changed in that regard. He always talked about those same themes, but his previous albums were labeled rap or hip-hop. Music fans remember “Jesus Walks” from his first album “The College Dropout,” which won him a Grammy and stirred the secular/gospel conversation then. Was Kanye always a gospel artist? Was he a gospel artist when he did wrote “Jesus Walks” but not when he did wrote “Yeezus” or “Father I Stretch My Hands?” Is he on a long faith journey, or did he just have a recent conversion experience? If theology matters, a gospel album should share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
A Gospel album should lead people to Jesus. “Donda” is not focused on that. Jesus is clearly present, but as a savior from Kanye’s problems, not necessarily as the Lord trying to reach all people.
So why is Donda not categorized with Hip-Hop or Rap albums as all his previous albums were? The question is hard to answer. Christian Hip-Hop artists from Lecrae to Andy Mineo, Verbal Kwest to Cross Movement, KB to Da’Truth, Canton Jones to others have also found themselves categorized with Gospel and Contemporary Christian instead of Hip Hop. But their music is usually Biblically grounded or an effort to talk about Christian life. Is Kanye West in the same category? If we compare what Kanye has done on Donda with late 1990s or early 2000s Christian Rap we could easily say no. Many Christian Rap albums during that period were explicitly quoting scripture, referencing theology, and focused on sharing faith in Christ through Hip-Hop. But in recent years, Christian rappers have had more songs about life that pivot back to faith than songs about their faith, and Kanye is doing something closer to that with Donda.
Is it a theological question?
“Donda” has no clear biblical narratives shared, even though the Bible is referenced multiple times and tracks are named after biblical figures. In almost every instance where God is mentioned on the album, it is a prayer for saving Kanye, or an affirmation that God helps Kanye beat sin and the devil. But Kanye also spends much of the time talking about his own greatness. It is hard to tell what is irony, what is genuine, and what is an artistic tool. That is what gives me pause on whether this is a gospel album. But as a modern complex personal narrative of redemption by God, I think Kanye’s album works.
It is as hard to tell if Kanye West’s “Donda ” is gospel album as it is to determine if Kanye West’s desire to share his Christian faith is genuine. But he has been authentic although conflicted while sharing his thoughts throughout his career. When he spoke at Lakewood Church in Houston in 2019 alongside the pastor Joel Osteen, he said “I know that God’s been calling me for a long time and the devil has been distracting me for a long time. When I was at my lowest points, God was there with me. Inspiring me and sending me visions.” He followed that with, “Following the Bible can free us all. Jesus can set you free.” This seems to be a fair encapsulation of his theology at this point in his Christian walk. Kanye knows Jesus as a Savior but seems to be unsure or unaware of what it means to follow Him, even though he knows it’s in the Bible.
What makes sharing the Gospel authentic?
So what makes sharing the Gospel authentic? Those questions have plagued Christians for centuries. We read the leaders of the early Church warning against false preachers, prophets, and teachers in the scriptures. We hear them clarifying doctrine that defines authentic Christianity. Were the false teachers in the early church Christians or just self-promoters? We get clear answers in scripture for that.
But after biblical times, things get fuzzier. What about Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor? Were the people who were subjected to Christianity by their rulers really Christians? What about the slave owners? Traders who colonized Africa and Asia? What about people who are racist or bigoted? People who have theologies built on fear? People who commit crimes? Are people who say they are Christian but don’t engage in Christian behavior actually Christians? Does anyone get to decide the truth of someone else’s faith? Is sharing a personal testimony of redemption by Jesus the same as sharing the Gospel?
Kanye West offers a message of redemption from sin answer in the song “Jail,” one of the most compelling on the album. He says:
In conclusion, is “Donda” a true “gospel” album? Although the commercial genre labels say yes, from a theological standpoint, I have to say no. It is not an album about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, nor His ministry.
But that doesn’t keep it from being a “Christian” album. Kanye West certainly presents himself as a Christian struggling with life and faith throughout the album. He tells the story of his redemption and even His ongoing dependence on God’s help. Can we call Kanye West a Christian artist? We may have to answer for ourselves individually, but in reality, only the Lord may know.
IN RADICAL COMPANY: Tonéx with gospel artist Fred Hammond at the 2008 BET Celebration of Gospel in L.A.
If you’ve made it this far, you know what this series is about. In the first three parts, we took a look at Christian music as a whole, the cultural definition of gospel music, and the identity of the artist formerly known as Tonéx in light of all of this.
Next up, some conclusions. (But first, an illustration.)
In the critically acclaimed series Sports Night, sports anchor Casey McCall (Peter Krause) has the following exchange with his co-host and best friend Dan Rydell (Josh Charles):
“How can I be cool again? I’m a newly divorced man, I’m young, I used to be cool, I need to be cool again. Help me… be cool again.”
“Well, first I would need to disabuse you of the notion that you were ever cool before.”
Christian music: same as it never was
If we’re really going to understand the extent to which Christian music in general, and gospel music specifically, has ceased to be particularly “Christian” or full of the gospel message, we’ve got to come to grips with the fact that, on a large scale, much of it never was in the first place.
Not that there has never been any music written or created by Christians used by God to proclaim His glory and fulfill His purposes. On the contrary, God has been using people for that purpose since the days of Asaph and the sons of Korah.
The issue, rather, is that the arbitrary manner that evangelicals in the ’80s and ’90s were taught to discern which music is good, legitimate, and holy and which music is bad, wrong, and sinful was flawed at best and hypocritical at worst.
It’s time to stop the charade.
We must get away from using terms like secular and Christian to differentiate the music recorded by and/or marketed to Christian people.
Those terms didn’t work before, and they don’t work now.
Some songs by some artists do a great job at communicating truth, and others by others do a poor job. Some artists glorify God by creating great art that stimulates the senses and appeals to our sense of beauty and awe. Others glorify God more explicitly by calling our attention to His mighty acts and wondrous ways. And some just know how to set a great hook to a good beat so they can put food on the table.
In the grand scheme of things, there should be plenty of room in the marketplace for artists across the spectrum of aesthetic achievement and spiritual significance.
But if we can’t tell which is which, then the problem is not with the artist or the song; the problem is with us as listeners. And since listeners are the customers in this commercial model, then listeners must be the ones to start changing if we’re going to change the system.
We’ve got to be smarter. We must learn to understand the difference between the gift of music, the vessels who carry the gift, and the Giver who created them both.
And we must learn to appreciate, support, and promote music from musicians who do their best to honor God and make a difference with their music, regardless of whether they are being promoted by a “Christian” record label, a “secular” record label, or are completely independent, especially since some of the best musicians out there started with the former but are now doing the latter.
Don’t call it gospel, either
Language matters, y’all.
If we’re going to bring about change in the gospel music industry, we’ve got to find another word to describe the music. Dawkins and Dawkins called it “rhythm and praise,” awhile back. Maybe that will work, maybe not.
But we need something else.
It’s not that the word gospel is bad, just culturally loaded. The meaning has gotten so diluted that it’s no longer useful. The priorities of today’s contemporary gospel listener are so far out of whack that we tend to care more about whether the beats are hot than the message being transmitted.
That’s why pastors like my man Cole Brown of Emmaus Church (author of Lies My Pastor Told Me) tends to opt for phrases like “gospel-centered” to describe the kind of music that he wants his flock to listen to.
Gospel music might have started being only about the message of Christ, but after a while, we consumers have learned to blindly trust the reputations of the artists themselves and the industry machinery that marketed their wholesome imagery to our willing eyes and ears.
And it’s made us lazy.
Many of us have fallen prey to the prosperity gospel and other distortions of Christ’s message because we’ve learned to turn off our brains anytime the beat is bangin’ and the track has “Jesus” in the hook.
Bad for us, bad for them
And while more and more esteemed Christian recording artists have been scandalized by divorce, infidelity, or other forms of impropriety, most Christians shrugged and kept listening. Consumers of American church culture, we’ve learned to just move on to the next wave of talent instead of trying to bring substantial reform to an industry that leaves so many anointed musicians personally shipwrecked and morally adrift.
Because that’s what’s really insidious about this whole thing.
The arbitrary division between sacred and secular is not only bad for the listeners, but it’s bad for the artists, too. Too many people assume that just because a person is anointed by God to minister with music, it means that person has their life together.
We put our artists up on pedestals without giving them a way down.
And artists don’t live or work in a vacuum. But when these folks go through the trials of life, either we’re too busy to notice, or we find ourselves offering excuses without taking the time to look closely.
In many cases, the people who are close enough and involved enough to make a difference in the lives of our best artists are too scared to risk angering their friends and losing access to influence and revenue in the process. So they refuse to ask tough questions of our artists that can hold them accountable.
Though I don’t know him personally enough to know for sure, I’m fairly certain this is what happened to Tonéx, and it happened so consistently for so long that after a while he felt like he couldn’t reconcile who he felt he was to the person everyone expected him to be.
Though he is still ultimately responsible for his choices and will stand before God to account for them just like all of us, I understand a little more about how Anthony C. Williams went from singing as Tonéx to singing as Brian Slade. His was not only an individual failing, but a failing of the system as a whole.
And I’m saying … if we want the system to change, we have to change what we look for in our music, and what we use to describe it.
Lose the baggage, keep the flavor
This issue is the biggest reason why so many rappers like to refer to themselves as Christians-who-rap rather than Christian rappers. They’re trying to sidestep all of that baggage.
I used to think that was dishonest of them, especially compared to the bold stand displayed by members of The Cross Movement and the 116 Clique / Reach Records crew. Now, in retrospect, it seems pretty smart.
So that’s my advice to up-and-coming artists today.
Lose the baggage, and keep the flavor.
Stop selling your material in the Christian discount bin, and take the bold step of getting yourself out in the marketplace, where your music can be experienced, appreciated, and critiqued like everybody elses.
If you’re good, people will notice. If you’re a Christian and you want your music to bless other Christians, people will notice that, too. Christians use iTunes and eMusic just like everyone else.
And if you’re not as good as you thought you were, or if you don’t meet the expectations that others might have had of you … so what? Maybe you’re just supposed to be obedient. Or maybe your music will open a door and lead you into the next phase of ministry you’re supposed to be in.
And note, there’s nothing wrong with having a music ministry that is aimed primarily at Christians or churchgoing people. (That’s the sweet spot for my own hip-hop crew.) But if you’re going to do that, be honest about who you are, and resist the urge to live up to other people’s expectations if they’re not biblical.
More importantly, if you’re going to minister in that fashion, make sure you have people in your corner who knew you as a person before they knew you as an artist. As an artist, you need people in your ear who care more about pleasing God than making you feel good. You need folks who can challenge you to walk in a manner worthy of your gift and calling.
But what about Tonéx?
The good news is that, as I said before, if Tonéx is a believer in Christ (which it seems he is), then his name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and that is a very good thing. That is worth rejoicing over.
And the extent to which songs in his catalog reflect that reality, those songs should be listened to, celebrated and promoted. I’m thinking, for example, of a song like “To Know You, Lord” from Out The Box. It’s a very nice, relaxed, smooth, jazzy worship tune.
Yet, we cannot afford to lose our vigilance in engaging the lyrics. We need to be asking ourselves things like, “What does it really mean to know the Lord? How do we know if we do or not?” As we listen to our music, we must be like the Bereans, who checked the things they heard against the Scriptures.
This vigilance is especially important in light of the role that music plays in modern and postmodern culture. In American society, artists are the prophets. So we must use discernment in the way that we engage with art, whether “Christian” or not — otherwise, we could be led astray by another gospel.
On the flipside, we must not have a judgmental attitude as we do this. Not that we shouldn’t use our judgment, but we can’t act like just because an artist has struggles in an area, nothing they have to say is worth hearing. If God can use a donkey to speak, he can use an imperfect person, even if that person is a nonbeliever.
And if you want to buy any Tonéx recordings or attend any of his live shows — including the ones he’s been doing as “B. Slade,” just approach it like you would any other concert. If you enjoy the music and you think you’ll have a good time, and you can conduct yourself in a manner that represents the Lord while you’re out in public, then go. If not, or if you think it might be a stumbling block to the people around you, then don’t.
The end of Christian music
The truth is, the end is near. We are in the last days of Christian music. As the years continue to turn, we will see more and more signs of the end of Christian music as we know it.
And this, for the many reasons I’ve covered, is, generally speaking, a good thing.
But there’s another end we need to consider.
If we as Christian consumers are to be discerning about the media that we consume, then we need to consider this other end. And if we as Christian musicians are going to be successful in creating, marketing, and sustaining our musical vocation, then we definitely need to be aware of the other end.
We need to understand the end of Christian music … the goal. The Aristotelian virtue of it. What is the point of listening to, evaluating, and creating this music, or any music?
It’s the same as anything else.
Man’s chief end, according to catechism, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
If our music, despite the exterior labels, despite the cultural connotations, despite the raft of expectations riding on each release … if our music can do those two things — help us to glorify God and enjoy Him in some way — then we’re doing something right.
And regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel, this is, I believe, the direction that God is calling us toward.
When we are pleasing God, we don’t have to care what others think. We don’t have to care what our sales numbers look like. We don’t even have to care whether we live or die, because as Paul says, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
And in that state, we’re free to live out the ethos of the great theologian Michael Stipe — yes, that Michael Stipe, of R.E.M. — who once penned the following lyrics:
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
CHANGING PERSONAS: Tonéx in his earlier, more conservative look; Tonéx more recently as "B. Slade."
Part 1 of this series examined the coming out of Tonéx, viewed against a broad history of Christian music in general. Part 2 of the series examined the cultural definition of gospel music, and saw Tonéx as its first reality star.
Here in Part 3, we must dig deeper, ask harder questions, and more importantly, find solid answers. Extensive as it has been, this series was designed not as an exhaustive resource of definitive answers, but a series of solid ideas from which some of these questions can be answered.
If we’re honest and observant, we see the truth found in Scripture illuminated by what we see around us.
Not About Salvation, but Definition
Here is an important caveat.
Liberal theologians, gospel music fans, and critical readers might be tempted to attack this series as being overly judgmental. Some might feel that asking these kinds of questions is tantamount to questioning Tonéx‘s salvation. This accusation seems especially galling considering his church heritage.
But the issue is not eternal salvation. Hebrews 9:27 assures us that eternal judgment happens after a person dies, and it’s not our job to be the arbiter of such salvation. That is a matter between a person and the Almighty. And according to Romans 10:9, if a person confesses and believes, then they are saved. Based on that basic rubric, it seems Tonéx is a Christian.
But that doesn’t help us answer the question of whether his past, present or future musical offerings can or should be classified as Christian music.
See, in the most literal sense, there is no such thing as Christian music, and there never has been.
It impossible for an inanimate, intangible article of intellectual property to come to a saving relationship with Christ Jesus. A song can be no more Christian than a radio, a Frisbee, or a lawnmower.
So when we talk about Christian music, it’s important to have a clear definition of what we mean. Many of the common cultural clashes regarding music written and recorded by and for Christian people stem mostly from misunderstood terms and mismatched expectations.
In 1998, the Gospel Music Association issued a fourfold definition to address the issue of lyrics in songs to be nominated for their annual awards show. In order to be eligible, songs had to be:
• Substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible • An expression of worship of God or praise for His works; and /or • Testimony of relationship with God through Christ; and/or • Obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view
Based on this criteria, a lot of the music that has been marketed as Christian would be excluded, which is why the GMA eventually rescinded this definition in favor of something less restrictive.
Nevertheless, when most people refer to “Christian music,” they are talking about music with lyrics that, regardless of style, meet one or several of these benchmarks.
Yet, these criteria are still subject to interpretation. Denominations and faith movements have been established, split, and evolved across generations over the particulars of what orthodox Christian truth is, or which ideas can safely be said to be prompted and informed by a Christian worldview.
And even if we agreed on all the particulars, how can we verify all of this in the context of a four-minute song?
In order to satisfy the requirements of nervous parents, youth pastors, and other evangelical gatekeepers, record labels always included biographical information in the press packets and liner notes of the artists they promoted. The idea was, if the lyrics of the songs didn’t convince you that the music was truly Christian, than details of their story could help nudge you off the fence.
But the problem with that approach is found in Romans 11:29, often cited as part of the doctrine of immutability, that God doesn’t change. In particular, this verse asserts that when God gives a gift, he gives it without possibility of being revoked. If He says it, He gives it, then it will come to fruition. Like the popular Tonéx lyric, it means that when it comes to His promises, “God Has Not 4Got.”
So if God has given someone an anointing to play an instrument skillfully, that anointing doesn’t necessarily leave just because the person is being disobedient in the particulars of how and when that instrument should be played. The King James Version renders that verse as saying that the gifts and callings are given “without repentance.”
We see this clearly as we survey the life of Old Testament patriarch David. The Bible refers to him as a man after God’s own heart, despite many documented examples of David’s disobedience. And the fact that the lineage of Jesus runs through the house of David shows that God kept his promises to David, despite the fact that David wasn’t always faithful to Him.
As it was then, so it is today.
The implications of this idea help explain why some evangelical figures start off ministering in prominence, but end up veering off the path of theological credibility. You can be anointed or gifted in a particular area, say, singing or preaching, and people might continue to respond well to that singing or preaching, regardless of what your actual message is. Though there are always consequences for sin, it’s possible for anointing or gifting to stay in effect despite errant belief or habitual patterns of sin.
This is a sobering thought, and though it shouldn’t result in a witch hunt, so to speak, it should give us pause to examine the messages in the so-called Christian music that many of us ingest, day after day.
With that in mind, consider some of the lyrics to a popular Tonéx slow-jam called “That’s When” from his O2 album (also available in Auto-Tuned, remixed, R&B form here):
All alone, sittin’ thinkin’ here by myself / contemplatin’ bout my life, chewin’ on my nails / Can’t afford to break down, gotta be a man / ain’t the richest guy around, but I do what I can / how it’s gonna go down, homie don’t ask me / I just pray to the Lord up above, in search of reciprocity / that’s when, that’s when you bless me / that’s when, that’s when you rescue / me from, the pain and the heartache / that’s when, that’s when
For a long time, this was one of my favorite Tonéx songs. The words, and the manner in which they’re sung, indicate a mature believer struggling under the weight of financial responsibility, holding out hope that God will provide.
Yet, if you look closely, there are signs of faith that are sincere, yet not quite Biblical. Consider the last line of the verse, “I just pray to the Lord up above, in search of reciprocity.”
Reciprocity is a relationship of mutual dependence or action or influence, or a mutual exchange of commercial or other privileges. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The use of this word right before the chorus implies that Tonéx expects, or at least desires, a reciprocal relationship from God. When he prays, the song suggests, God will answer with a blessing.
Yet, that’s not the typical relationship with God that we see on display throughout the breadth of the Scriptures.
So compared to most of the music that you hear on urban radio stations today, “That’s When” is wonderful. There is no crass innuendo, and it even mentions prayer. Yet, examined against the light of the Scripture, the song still fails to communicate the truth as completely as possible.
Fact is, it’s hard to derive a full and comprehensive Christian worldview from just one song, and one song shouldn’t have to represent the entirety of what an artist stands for. But this one song has many of the same characteristics as a lot of contemporary gospel music – vapid, churchy, positive-thinking clichés, formatted with catchy hooks and solid production value.
Which leaves the song, and a lot of songs like it, in a place of doctrinal limbo. It’s still probably better than listening to most contemporary R&B, but it falls short of communicating the truth of the gospel in an accurate and meaningful way.
Still More Questions
Measured against the fourfold (temporary) GMA definition of gospel music, some Tonéx songs are unabashedly gospel. Others, not so much. Much of his catalog, dare I say, most… is somewhere in the middle. And how we respond to his music depends a lot on our expectations and what we’re looking for.
So the questions remain:
What should those expectations be? How can we tell which songs are worth listening to for the purpose of edification, and which ones aren’t?
More importantly, how should listeners evaluate which songs and artists are worth listening to or investing in?
Stay tuned for the final installment of the Gospel Identity Crisis series.
CHANGING PERSONAS: Tonéx in his earlier, more conservative look; Tonéx more recently as "B. Slade."
In Part 1, we examined the meteoric rise and fall of gospel-singer-turned-pop-diva Tonéx. But is the Tonéx saga an aberration, or a sign of the troubling contradictions inherent in the Christian music industry?
CHANGING PERSONAS: Tonéx in his earlier, more conservative look; Tonéx more recently as "B. Slade."
When the urban gospel artist formerly known as Tonéx came out as a homosexual, his saga erased the already blurry line between sacred and secular pop music. Here’s part one of a special series on the curious evolution of modern Christian music. (more…)