Creflo Dollar, Jay-Z and Kanye: The high priests of the prosperity gospel

Preachers of the prosperity ministry like Creflo Dollar in many ways parallel high priests of hip-hop like Sean “Jay-Z” Carter and Kanye West. Both prey on their followers to elevate their own lifestyles and fortify their personal kingdoms. For hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash prophesied this over 30 years ago in the early days of the art form. In his song The Message, he proclaims “…it’s all about money, ain’t a damn thing funny, you got to have a con in this land of milk and honey.” Because the music industry is a business, these words of truth are not shocking, but what about the church? How did the church, particularly parts of the black church, get here?

The black church played an instrumental role in the landmark legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s. However, there were unintended consequences that came along with those victories.

From the shadow of emancipation until the dawn of desegregation, black communities contained the full depth and breadth of black existence — doctors, lawyers, teachers, musicians, artists, day laborers, share croppers, winos and petty thieves — the whole gamut of black life. When blacks were allowed through legislative victories to move out of predominately black communities into “better” white communities, the members of the community who were best equipped to take advantage of this “opportunity” were the most educated and affluent. Over time, black communities were depleted of precious resources, leaving the makeup of the communities more homogeneously poor and under-educated.

The families that left were still culturally tethered to their former communities by one institution — the black church. These families could not get the authentic black church experience in the suburbs, and many families had been tied to these institutions for generations. The black church was a spiritual and cultural lifeline to those who left.

The church desperately needed those families as well. The churches needed to do all that they could to keep the “tithes and offerings” from leaving along with the exodus, so some adopted the prosperity theology as a way to draw back the affluent who wanted the black church experience and have them comfortably fit in with the “least of these,” the under-educated and impoverished from the community. The prosperity ministry held up the affluent as role models and also may have assuaged any anxiety or “survivor’s remorse” that they may have had when returning to a decaying community.

This is a dangerous mix. Any hierarchy, implied or otherwise, in a spiritual institution based upon material possession is a disaster waiting to happen, with the poor and disenfranchised ultimately paying the price and stuffing the coffers as they wait their turn to be blessed — pyramid scheme 101.

We got a peek behind that curtain last week. Creflo Dollar, Pastor of the World Changers Church in Georgia, made a plea to his followers to replace his broken down jet with a new one to the tune of $60 million.

This rises to the level of the truly absurd and sounds more like a rap verse that would come from Jay-Z or Kanye West, who both, by the way, have blasphemous nicknames connoting them to God the Father (J-Hova) and his son Jesus Christ (Yeezus) respectively. Isn’t it ironic (or maybe not) that a preacher has a monetary moniker and rappers want to be connected to the divine?

Jay-Z, Kanye and their ilk have been spreading their own insidious brand of the prosperity ministry through their music and lifestyle brands. Their audience is much wider than the black community, but nonetheless, they prey on the same group that the prosperity preachers target.

Many left behind in today’s black communities simply do not have the up close and personal interaction with role models that was more prevalent 50 years ago. The presence of these role models can make a significant impact on the life choices of many of those in the community in their quest to live out the American Dream.

Unfortunately, the version of the American Dream that too many in the black community have opted for is the one that is preached in 4 — 5 minute songs.  Not only is the message aspirational, but just like in many prosperity churches, you can buy a copy of the sermon, the book, a T-shirt, etc. The high priests of hip-hop offer up for sale all of the accouterments of their lofty lifestyle; they just don’t offer a way to truly obtain or sustain it — at least the prosperity preachers defer to God for that one.

This not a blanket indictment of the black church, nor hip-hop. There are plenty of examples of preachers and rappers who do not embody this ethos. Kendrick Lamar is an example of a rapper who is diametrically opposed to the preaching and playbook of the high priests. In a recent New York Times interview, Lamar revealed that he is a Christian who “rarely drinks or smokes [and] eschews fancy clothes and jewelry.” That’s not to make Lamar out to be a saint, but he does have a refreshing take on his responsibility as an artist and a Christian.

“I’m the closest thing to a preacher that [my listeners] have… I know from being on tour — kids are living my music…[However,] my word will never be as strong as God’s word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work… From my perspective, I can only give you the good with the bad; it’s bigger than a responsibility, it’s a calling.”

Lamar’s latest album, which was released on Monday, is entitled “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Hopefully, it will get a wide audience if for no other reason than to balance out the preaching of the high priests. Creflo Dollar dropped his own release last week: “To Pimp God’s People So I Can Fly.” Hopefully, this release and others like it by the high priests of hip hop will be exposed for what it truly is — fraud.

Andre Kimo Stone Guess is a contributing writer for theGrio.com and cultural critic. He is a former CEO of the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh and former VP and Producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. Follow him on Twitter – @educatedguess and visit his blog at aeducatedguess.com

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