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.
The 58th Grammy Awards were everything we expected filled with great music, interesting acceptance speeches (Taylor, we’re looking at you.), and phenomenal live performances. And in case you missed it, here’s a recap on which of your favorite gospel artists walked away with the highest honors during music’s biggest night of the year.
“Destined to Win [Live],” Karen Clark Sheard
“Living It,” Dorinda Clark-Cole
“One Place Live,” Tasha Cobbs
“Covered: Alive in Asia [Live] (Deluxe),” Israel & Newbreed- WINNER
“Life Music: Stage Two,” Jonathan McReynolds
“Worth [Live],” Anthony Brown and Group Therapy
“Wanna Be Happy?,” Kirk Franklin- WINNER
“Intentional,” Travis Greene
“How Awesome Is Our God [Live],” Israel and Newbreed featuring Yolanda Adams; Neville Diedericks, Israel Houghton and Meleasa Houghton, songwriters
“Worth Fighting For [Live],” Brian Courtney Wilson; Aaron Lindsey and Brian Courtney Wilson, songwriters
Contemporary Christian Music Album
“Whatever the Road,” Jason Crabb
“How Can It Be,” Lauren Daigle
“Saints and Sinners,” Matt Maher
“This Is Not a Test,” Tobymac- WINNER
“Love Ran Red,” Chris Tomlin
Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song
“Holy Spirit,” Francesca Battistelli- WINNER
“Lift Your Head Weary Sinner (Chains),” Crowder; Ed Cash, David Crowder and Seth Philpott, songwriters
“Because He Lives (Amen),” Matt Maher
“Soul on Fire,” Third Day featuring All Sons & Daughters; Tai Anderson, Brenton Brown, David Carr, Mark Lee, Matt Maher and Mac Powell, songwriters
“Feel It,” Tobymac featuring Mr. Talkbox; Cary Barlowe, David Arthur Garcia and Toby McKeehan, songwriters
Roots Gospel Album
“Still Rockin’ My Soul,” the Fairfield Four- WINNER
“Pray Now,” Karen Peck and New River
“Directions Home (Songs We Love, Songs You Know),” Point of Grace
Lecrae wins a 2013 Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” (Photo courtesy of Newscom).
Two men. Both Black. Both Grammy award-winning hip-hop artists. Two completely different messages. Within one week both Lil’ Wayne and Lecrae made headlines for their music, but for very different reasons.
Last week, Christian hip-hop artist, Lecrae, won a Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. The prestige of music’s highest honor is noteworthy enough, but Lecrae’s achievement as a vocally Christian rapper is rare.
The part of the line that has caused so much controversy is the reference to Emmett Till. In 1955, Till, just 14 years old, was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a White woman. The tragedy sent ripples across the nation as graphic images of the boy’s mutilated face (his mother had insisted on an open casket to display the brutality) were splashed across newspapers and magazines. The two White men charged in the crime were both acquitted by an all-White jury.
Wayne’s lyric serves as painful reminder of the importance of Black History month. Many will miss the offense of Wayne’s reference if they fail to understand the identity and significance of Emmet Till. The maiming of Till’s memory, however, is just the start.
Wayne’s words speak of doing violence to a woman’s reproductive organs and reveal the misogyny that has become commonplace and even celebrated in much of hip-hop. His line also reveals the distorted and grotesque picture of manhood – one that defines masculinity in terms of sexual exploits and violence – that he and other hip-hop artists often portray.
In contrast, Lecrae uses his lyrical talents to pen lines like, “Ain’t dope dealin’, ain’t Po pimpin’, talkin’ ‘bout my own folk killin’/ We on that Jesus soul healin” (from the song “Fakin‘”). Lecrae talks openly about being a Christian and makes it clear his faith drives his art. An urban evangelist, he hopes to use his talent to penetrate mainstream hip-hop with an alternative message for the listeners.
Lil’ Wayne is not the anti-Christ and Lecrae is not sinless. Each of these men, like all of us, are sinners. We all have wicked hearts and no one has lived in perfect obedience to God as we were designed to do. But there is a difference between these two artists. Redemption.
The Redemption of Culture and All Creation
I can’t make any judgments about Lil’ Wayne’s or Lecrae’s salvation. I simply see the fruits of each man’s life and art. Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics seem to be essentially human-centered. Instead of looking up, his lyrics encourage listeners to look within. By focusing only on the self, life becomes defined by personal pleasure and material prosperity. Lecrae’s music encourages people find their identity in God first, and then act in harmony with their status as God’s children.
As believers we must begin working out redemption here and now. Christ calls His followers the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and a city on a hill (Mt. 5:13-15). So, culture-shaping cannot be left to an elite few. Whether a hip-hop artist, a hair stylist, or a health inspector, all Christians must strive to be agents of redemptive change wherever God has placed us. If we live this way then, in many respects, the contrast between the redeemed and unredeemed life should look as stark as the contrast between Lil’ Wayne’s and Lecrae’s lyrics.
Janelle Monae, Grammy nominee and CoverGirl Model, poses on the red carpet for the 2013 Grammy Awards (Photo credit: Adriana M. Barazza/Newscom).
I just love awards season! Although I rarely watch the shows, I can hardly wait to get a peek at those red carpet photos. You see, I love everything about style and fashion—hair, shoes, clothes, makeup, and of course, accessorizing. Growing up, I thought for certain I was going to be a fashion designer. In high school, I spent several evenings walking the runway preparing for local fashion shows. Somewhere around eleventh grade, reality set in (I couldn’t even sew) and I set my sights upon more promising academic and professional endeavors. Although I have given up the dream of becoming a fashion designer, the interest in style has never really left me. I don’t have much time for fashion now, but it is certainly nice to watch art occasionally come together in that perfect shot on the red carpet.
We know when it happens. We all look for it. We know when they get it right and we know when something is just a little bit off…and we definitely know when Joan Rivers, the fashion police, and bloggers are going to rip them to shreds on the next day. “Oh no she didn’t!”
I actually get happy for the newcomers to the arena. When they step out of their limousines and onto the red carpet, I can almost imagine their excitement and the butterflies in their stomachs. I’m sure the red carpet makes several of those young girls, like our Olympic gold medalist, Gabby Douglas or the youngest Oscar nominated actress, Quvenzhane Wallis, feel like real princesses for the first time. They get an opportunity to celebrate their beauty and that is not a bad thing.
Although some of the women looked nice, thanks to LL Cool J, Justin Timberlake, John Legend, and Nas, the guys appeared to shine this year. In spite of the glitz and glam of the red carpet, we must go behind the smiles, diamonds, amazing dresses, tuxedos, fancy shoes, and high end make-up. Because of the rise in celebrity “news” and social media, we are constantly exposed to the hardships celebrities face throughout the year. Like the rest of us, they experience divorces, family strife, financial hardships (though on a much different scale or in the form of tax evasion), heartache, betrayal, ridicule, and medical problems.
Inside Truth Behind the Glitz and Glam
When we look beyond the physical beauty and realize there is a real person with real life problems, all of a sudden they don’t look so beautiful anymore. It’s kind of like when the comedian and actor, Owen Wilson, attempted suicide…I could no longer look at him and laugh. This year, I’m heartbroken over Chris Brown, who recklessly totaled his car the night before the Grammys. He appears to be a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, and all we do is watch for it to happen. It’s nearly impossible to watch the Grammys and not reflect on the lives and untimely deaths of gifted people like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson.
The problem with the red carpet is not really vanity. Let’s face it, we are all a little vain…well at least I am. The trouble with the red carpet is the illusion that we are better than we really are. The red carpet makes us believe that if we just dress ourselves up a little bit on the outside, we can convince ourselves we are good people and have a great day.
Let me tell you, “I have done that.” I can remember a few occasions when I awoke from sleep feeling quite sick, yet knowing that I still had to go to work. So what did I do? I put on make-up so I would look better than I felt. Once I applied make-up and looked at myself in the mirror, I did feel a little better. It doesn’t appear Jesus has much heartburn with this practice. Jesus’ point here is, “Just because you are downcast, you don’t have to draw extra attention to yourself. Present yourself in a becoming manner, and get real with your Father while you do it.” We all need to look beyond the illusions and get real with our Father, God.
Our outward appearance does matter to God, and therefore, we should take care when considering the way we present ourselves to others. Likewise, Jesus’ acknowledges that in this world we will have trouble. The religious folk and Jews of Jesus day often fasted at the sign of trouble; they went and humbled themselves before God. That’s appropriate because God is the one who sees our true faces. He is not impressed with our talents, he is not impressed with the red carpet, and he is not impressed with our show. We find out who we really are when we are in his presence, and only then can we present our true selves to the world whether or not there are lights, camera, or action. Let’s be true, shall we?