Kanye West stands in the middle of his Sunday Service crowd in Chicago | Photo credit: Zoe Rain [Instagram @zoerainphoto]

It’s not easy being a Kanye West fan in this day and age. Cancel culture is alive and well on social media. At a moments notice, hundreds — if not thousands — of people will hit the mute button on our once-glorified favs in the aftermath of a public statement gone bad. In West’s case, the gesture wasn’t unwarranted. When the 42-year-old rap veteran started admiring President Donald Trump and his right-wing friends on Twitter, I had to mute his ass myself. It hurt, honestly. How did we get from the “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” Kanye in 2005 to this? How could the same West who spit, “How we stop the Black Panthers? Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer,” on 2005’s Late Registration also believe that our ancestors had a choice in their enslavement (a comment he later said was taken out of context)? We joked about him being in the sunken place after watching the striking similarities between the 2017 blockbuster film Get Out and West’s relationship to his in-laws, the Kardashians. Deep down, though, I secretly rooted for West to dig his way out of his skewed reality.

It brings us back to the age-old question, can we separate the man from the music? West is making it hard to do so. His 2016 record, The Life of Pablo, is the last one most everybody Black listened to with ease. He lifted hometown protégé Chance the Rapper to international acclaim with what’s arguably the best verse on “Ultralight Beam,” taking us back to the genre-blending hip-hop prophet we celebrated on 2004’s “Jesus Walks.” He also reminded the world of the impact of Chicago house music with “Faded.” But his unexpected alliance with Trump’s Republican Party throughout 2018 turned listening to and aligning with West into a political statement. Cancel culture could question your morals. Cancel culture could question your Blackness. And, ultimately, cancel culture could cancel you, too. Consequently, 2018’s ye and Kids See Ghosts albums fell to the wayside. 

Now West is experimenting with something new. For most of 2019, he’s been remixing the traditions of the Black church into a modern-day ministry; one that isn’t afraid to praise the Lord over secular beats or replace catching the Holy Ghost with fits of the percolator. And he’s calling this particular gospel-infused experiment, “Sunday Service.”

Though the outdoor church started in Calabasas earlier this year, with visits from celebs such as super producer Rick Rubin and rapper Tyler, the Creator adding to the service’s allure, West now is taking the church on tour for what appears to be promotion for his Sept. 24 gospel release, Jesus Is King. On Sunday, Yeezy brought his service home to Chicago for the first time. With only a 24-hour notice of the surprise service, folks flooded the Live Nation app on Saturday for free tickets, which were gone in a matter of minutes. 

“I ain’t here to argue about his facial features. We here to turn atheists into believers,” West rapped about 40 minutes into the 9 AM service. These lyrics, though, are a slight — yet important — change to the original “Jesus Walks” track, on which he raps, “I ain’t here to argue about his facial features, or here to convert atheists into believers.”

It’s the only time through the hour-long service that West made his intentions clear for Sunday Service. Surprisingly, West didn’t do much talking during his Chicago service. In fact, for most of the time, I wondered if West was even there. When I got there, the stage was bare and people had their phones in the air, pointing toward something in the center of the venue. I heard Chance the Rapper beautifully execute his passionate verse on “Ultralight Beam,” which let me know that he was somewhere in the middle of that crowd. My friends, who got there before me, said West was in the middle of the large circle of people, but my 5 feet 4 inches self couldn’t see them from the outer ring. Others around me weren’t sure if West was there either since he didn’t speak until he jumped on the mic for “Jesus Walks,” the only of his songs that he performed. Unfortunately, West didn’t utilize the jumbo screens next to the stage to broadcast the service for those of us without a good view. 

Instead, his cousin — and Sunday Service music director — Tony Williams, who’s done background vocals on tracks such as 2005’s “We Major,” leads us through the entire service. He conducts the powerful choir through modern twists of old-school gospel staples such as Lamar Campbell’s “More Than Anything,” Walt Whitman and the Soul Children’s “Perfect Praise (How Excellent)” and Hezekiah Walker’s “Power Belongs to God,” while also leaving room for the soprano, alto and tenor sections to flex on their respective parts. The choir truly stood out, serving as the highlight of the service.

Though Williams never got too preachy or deep into the scripture, he’d say inspirational words every now and then while trying to lead the crowd in call-and-response, a tradition of the Black church. However, most times his requests went unanswered. Call-and-response seemed a foreign concept to this particular crowd, especially since many of us couldn’t see the directions of Williams and the choir. Once I got home, I went back to replay the live stream on YouTube and the in-person experience is different than the inner circle view captured on camera. The lively energy radiating from the choir throughout the service didn’t ripple through the crowd in the same way that you see on the live stream. 

The most noticeable call-and-response fail was during The Clark Sister’s 1981 gospel hit, “You Brought The Sunshine.” After Williams had the sopranos sing, “I’m a witness, that Jesus, will make a difference in your life,” Williams encouraged the audience to sing it back.

“Let me hear the audience,” Williams said. “Let me hear you sing it. Sing it.”

Isolating choir sections, and having the audience repeat the lyrics back to them, is normal practice at gospel concerts. Usually the audience is plugged in, awaiting their chance to participate. Once West’s Sunday Service audience didn’t respond back loudly enough, the choir stepped in and Williams nixed the rest of the call and response, which traditionally would have continued with the alto and tenor sections. 

West’s Sunday Service seems to be rooted in the reasons behind the decline in U.S. church membership. For starters, the Bible says that God doesn’t live in houses made by human hands. And it’s these houses, often run by pastors who appear to be more greedy than holy, that some people have grown skeptical of. West’s Sunday Service is free, just like church. But West’s Sunday Service doesn’t ask for tithes and offerings, which is another growing concern for those who wonder how much of their money ends up paying for the pastor’s new whip or house. West’s Sunday Service banks on the idea that church can take place anywhere worshippers gather; whether that’s watching a live stream of the service from home or having a private gospel music session in the car on the way to work. 

Another noteworthy takeaway is Sunday Service’s take on “come as you are” culture. While the church promotes this, that doesn’t mean that the Mothers’s Board won’t flag you down when your dress hits above the knee. Sunday Service attendees wore whatever they felt comfortable in. I even saw a few folks rolling and passing blunts, which begs the question: is there any wrong way to worship God?

With that said, it’s easy to see why Sunday Service appeals to so many people. It’s liberating to worship in a judgement-free space where the sole focus is the music and God. It seems like an honest attempt by West to rethink church and its antiquated, often exclusionist, practices.

But then again, given the past couple of years, it’s hard to trust West’s motives with this whole thing. We’ve seen artists like R.Kelly use the church and Black folk’s affinity for soulful gospel music to garner forgiveness in the middle of self-inflicted chaos. The Black church, after all, is quick to preach faith and forgiveness, and West definitely is showing us a humble, more introspective version of himself at Sunday Service — quite a contrast from the The Life of Pablo era when he created a floating stage with low lighting so he could exist, barely visible, on a higher plane than the rest of us. For one whole summer, anytime “Father Stretch My Hands” came on in the club, or in the car, everyone instantly turned up. At Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring Day in 2016, the track’s intro inspired dozens upon dozens of people to rush the stage, jumping over railings and port-a-potties, to see West up close. 

At the Chicago stop for Sunday Service, West prides himself on being able to part the crowd, as Moses parted the Red Sea, to walk through the crowd without incident. But, was that evidence of the power of his celebrity, or the downfall of it?

As the Crystal Lake Strikers drumline (yes, from the Northwest suburb of Crystal Lake) played the beat to The Clipse’s “Grindin,” with the choir switching out the word “grindin” for “shining,” it was unclear whether people needed to stay for this portion of the service or head out. Most people decided to head out, with one person nearby saying, “I guess it was worth it. It was free!”

This peaceful West is able to attract a diverse crowd to Sunday Service while churches still remain one of the most segregated spaces in America. That accomplishment shouldn’t be overlooked, but staging logistics kept many Sunday Service goers in the dark. Quite a few people left before the end of the service. And West, himself, didn’t even say goodbye before making his exit.