Hip-hop has always kept a controversial relationship with religion going back to Tupac Shakur’s 1996 album cover for The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory.
On that controversial album cover, Tupac is depicted on a cross which some say was meant to symbolize his crucifixion in the media. Nas’ 1999 “Hate Me Now” music video also led to a public outcry after the Queens rapper and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs were shown on crosses, while cursing all of their haters and naysayers.
In the modern era, hip-hop artists have continuously added religion imagery and content to their music, from The Game’s Jesus Piece to Kendrick Lamar’s “Kush and Corinthians” to Big K.R.I.T.’s 4Eva N A Day mixtape album cover to J Cole’s sophomore album title and closing track, Born Sinner.
Kanye courts religious controversy
This brings me to the one and only, Kanye West. The juxtaposition of hip-hop and religion has been a consistent theme throughout Kanye’s career, going back to his first album, The College Dropout.
On the Grammy-award winning track “Jesus Walks,” Kanye West in a profanity riddled soliloquy is calling on God to lead him from temptation and sin to salvation and righteousness. In 2006, Rolling Stone magazine did a cover story titled “The Passion of Kanye West” with the infamous photo of Kanye depicted as Jesus Christ with a crown of thorns, a bloodied face, and cast-off clothing. The latest controversy surrounding West is the title of his sixth solo album, Yeezus, and its content.
Critics have already started asking: Does Kanye West think he’s Jesus? Is this a case of blatant blasphemy and sacrilege?
This past weekend at the Governor’s Ball NYC Music Festival, Kanye debuted a new song off of his new album called “I Am a God.” The title of the track alone has already infuriated many in the Christian community and has once again ignited the blogosphere debate about whether he is or isn’t a member of the Illuminati.
But once you get past the title and the dark production sounds of Daft Punk and Kanye, the first hook is very insightful. West raps, “I am a god/Even though I’m a man of God/My whole life in the hands of God/So y’all quit playing with God.” If you then dig deeper and look at the two verses on the track, he puts himself in a god-like category when it comes to his music, his style, and his impact on culture which is his way of saying that he is the best and no one in the game can touch him.
Now, would I have used the word “God” to describe my dominance in my field of work? No. But that’s what makes Kanye, well, Kanye. Furthermore, rap has always been a genre of music that thrives off of boastful metaphors and comparisons, including religious ones.
We’ve seen this from Jay-Z’s reference to “walking on water” on the ”Diamonds Remix” to J. Cole’s “I’m the light skin Jesus” punch line on the “I Really Mean It” freestyle to Nicki Minaj’s Jesus comparison in the opening line of “Freedom.”
We are all made in God’s image
Some say Kanye uses religion as a tool for reaction and attention but I tend to disagree with this position. Kanye has always made it clear that he is a devout Christian and throughout the “I Am A God” track, he recognizes the power of the Almighty.
I see Kanye West as a human being who sees himself created in the image of God and unapologetically brings that to life. In the Old Testament, Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Shouldn’t all Christians embrace this verse? Could Kanye’s album title Yeezus and track “I Am A God” be his way of conveying this message?
Sometimes I think we as a society and as Christians attack the message because of who the messenger is. Or in this case who the messenger’s girlfriend is, what the messenger wears, and how the messenger reacts to the public and most notably, the paparazzi.
In a rare interview, Kanye West called Hot 97’s DJ Enuff earlier this year out of frustration with MTV’s Hottest MCs List. During the 4-minute interview, he states that he believes his critics don’t like him because of what he wears and who he is dating, “They don’t like Givenchy Kanye, they don’t like Kanye in a kilt, they don’t like Kanye in a relationship.” Is there some truth to this? Are we (society and Christians) judging him not on the quality of his work and message, but on leather kilts and Kim Kardashian? Very few artists in the ultra-masculine genre of hip-hop are as open about their thoughts, feelings and emotions as Kanye West. I think we take that for granted.
Kanye West speaks his truth to power
In “Jesus Walks,” “Never Let Me Down” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” Kanye talks openly about his shortcomings, temptations, and struggles. In “Jesus Walks” he cries, “God show me the way because the Devil trying break me down.” In “Never Let Me Down” he raps, “I done dirt and went to church to get my hands scrubbed/Swear I’ve been baptized least 3 or 4 times.” In “Can’t Tell Me Nothing, Kanye says, “I told God I’d be back in a second/Man it’s so hard not to act reckless/To whom much is given, much is tested.”
Like all Christians, he is a work in progress. Like all Christians, he falls short. Unlike most Christians, his religious journey is being watched by millions of people. Even with that being the case, he still lets us in. One of the things I admire the most about West is that he seems to create his music from such an authentic and honest space. Most people, let alone artists, never find or speak their truth.
While holding a Yeezus listening session for a few hundred people at Milk Studios in Manhattan, Kanye said, “I feel like I know who I am.” I think that short statement is so profound. Once he figured out who he was, it allowed him to be free and once you are free, you speak your truth.
That’s what Nas, Tupac, and Kanye all have in common; they speak and spoke their truth to power, whether we agree or disagree with it. Laying out your naked truth, straight with no chaser, is a courageous thing to do.
When talking to Rolling Stone about Kanye West in 2006, recording executive Antonio “L.A.” Reid stated, “With Kanye, it’s either say nothing or tell the truth.” Remember, it was Jesus who said, “The truth shall set you free.”
Seems like Kanye has figured that out. Maybe it’s the rest of us that need to catch up.
Rashad Drakeford is a marketing and advertising consultant based in New York City. Follow Rashad on Twitter @RDrakeford