Kanye West, Donda and the Question of Christian Art

 
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Image Credit - Photo by NRK P3

“Truth is my goal. Controversy is my gym. I’ll do a hundred reps of controversy for a 6 pack of truth.”Kanye West

There once was a nerdy kid. In a society that rewards natural talent, passion and hard work, with the help of a supportive mother, it soon saw this boy rise to top of his field. What was the reward? With access to the entertainment industry came excess fame, money, critical successes and awards. But losing the cornerstone of his life (his mother) left him unmoored with his success, bringing idolatry, severe addiction, exacerbation of mental instability (his ‘superpower’), narcissism, guilt, pain, and a troubled marriage. Yet, these were the sacrifices he was willing to make to take the number one spot and define the era of a modern artist. He had found the balance between mainstream and contemplative art.

It’s not just the music though. He may be the greatest simply by knowing how to use his platform. I’m talking about Kanye West. Suffice to say, Kanye West created albums with distinct personality and influence. Reaching dizzying heights, he would have felt like the loneliest person on earth. Runaway, the title of one of the more poignant and vulnerable songs in his discography, is his acknowledgment that he doesn’t know what it is to love, his relationships with everyone are flawed, but he could not follow up the confession with anything substantial.

Can Kanye truly understand humility? Will he ever finally overcome his demons? These are questions many have been asking in the past few years, since Kanye’s acknowledgment of his Christian faith which can be seen everywhere in his two most recent albums—Jesus is King and Donda—as well as his Sunday Service concert series which branched out to incorporate gospel influences. Kanye’s public faith journey has its roots in some of his earliest music such as the album College Dropout or the single Jesus Walksbut it’s the shift into creating explicitly Christian music that has attracted a wide range of responses and highlights the interesting relationship between art and religion that often lies unexplored in modern society.

Art and Religion

Good art is often thought of as eliciting an emotional response or prompting a degree of thought or introspection. Music often provides fleeting emotions, and pleasure is derived in repeated listens—with the songs that make it onto our most played list often doing so because of the feelings they trigger within us.

The affective response we have to art provide a much needed counterpart to the more rational aspects of everyday life. In contrast to the scientific understanding of the world, artistic works help provide an alternative way to engage with matters of philosophy or spiritual issues. Music, for example, can provide a limited connection to something larger than self, an enlightenment, that can fuel us on repeated listens. Artists are inspired by the truth, beauty and goodness—or lack thereof—that they see in the world. At least, this is the case for some pieces of art. Other times, art can be seen to simply be an avenue for ego boosting. Explaining his distaste for modern art, Sir Roger Scruton decried what he perceived to be its blasphemous nature: “Why should people want to desecrate the human form and the ordinary ideals of human life? And I say, you only desecrate what is sacred. . .. It’s showing the yearning for God and the sense that these things make no sense without him.” An alternate point of view on modern art is that artists also have a role of innovating, challenging the truth, and the certainty that a framework such as religion can provide. This is what makes art cutting edge and exciting and provides meaning in a culture without religion.

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Photo by Vittorio Cioffi on Unsplash

But while modern art may be considered to be disconnected from religion, I have more recently felt there has been reattachment of art and spirituality more broadly. And perhaps this is seen best in the journey of Kanye West.

Donda

Billboard, the music industry standard record chart said this a week after the Donda (named after his late mother Donda West) release date: ‘No singles? No obvious pop songs? No Friday or Saturday numbers. No matter: Kanye West’s Donda debuts at no 1. on the #Billboard200 albums chart this week’. Now, the artistic quality or transcendence in music is not proportionate to its popularity, as shown by Drake’s latest album surpassing Kanye West’s new album sales the following week. What it does highlight however, are two things.

The first is the disconnect between the commercial structures of art, and the widespread appeal of it. Singles, pop songs, weekend numbers—all these are things which the music industry expects are necessary to make a hit, and yet Kanye topped the charts without any of them. Of course, part of this is due to the brand he has cultivated, but it also highlights the ways in which the artistic process is often divergent from what the media machine wants from artists. For better or worse, Kanye’s Donda was an album with an extremely rocky production process which was publicly documented. Yet, in spite of this, it managed to be a chart topper. It seems that, in this case at least, popularity need not be limited by the processes of those in power.

Perhaps more importantly, the success of Donda highlights the enthusiasm that exists for art which authentically engages with matters of religion and spirituality. What this project boils down to is a man simply proclaiming “God is Alive, He’s done miracles on me”. I can see why engagement with these Christian themes in an album which blends hip hop and gospel music that would not be considered art, and yet, here it is topping the charts in its week of release.

“But Mike,” you may be asking. “Is it good music? What does Kanye have to say with this art?”.

The best way I can explain the Donda experience is eating your favourite homecooked meal from childhood. It has heart, a mothers’ love, which makes it greater than the sum of its ingredients.While it may not reach the heights of what I would consider a “3 Course Meal, 10/10” album—one which gives you a new perspective on life and is endlessly consumable—it certainly provides more than the fast food music of the Top 40 charts. More importantly though, this is a meal with substance. Other albums may leave you hungry again, but Donda hopes to provide a meal which will never run out—a meal of spiritual sustenance.

Donda is a temporary church for its features, guests, friends and fans (of which there are many including Kid Cudi, Jay Z, Travis Scott, Baby Keem, Playboi Carti, Pop Smoke and controversial appearances Marilyn Manson and DaBaby). Kanye had a vision to bring ‘lost’ artists to work for the Lord. He sets a space for his fellow artists to be open and feel the presence of a higher power. Kanye is returning to a childlike mentality, rediscovering his ultimate purpose, to know, serve and worship his creator. To witness a 44-year-old man be restored into a love filled being is real beauty. It is this beauty that inspired me to move through the album experience itself, past the life and antics of one of ‘pop culture’s most enigmatic figures’ and ask important questions and search for a higher truth in my own life. Donda is not just about hits, musical breakthroughs or thought-provoking performance art. Donda is not about appeasing groups of people—well, maybe he owed his fans a bit, along with the record company. Donda is, but not limited to, a genuine and life-affirming, truth-inspired self-portrait. Kanye West, soon to be officially known as Ye, once again challenges his listeners to look in the mirror, but this time we ask ourselves, do I see the truth of me?

Mike Flamenco lives in Tallangatta Valley and enjoys discovering how essential music is in his life