Forgotten: The Things We Lost In Kanye's Gospel Year
We should not forget that Zora Neale Hurston was forgotten. By 1975, when Alice Walker wrote an essay honoring Hurston's life, all of her works had gone out of print.1 Walker had to go on a search for her, had to find her unmarked grave, had to excavate forgotten histories, testimonies, narratives, in order to find the woman who wrote about the characteristics of Negro expression, who wrote about the practice of dissidence found in black religiosity, who wrote about nighttime searches for God in the stars, who wrote and sang and played a full and dense life of black love and laughter.
An anthropologist, novelist, worker of black language and song: We forget that Hurston was forgotten. And if we forget she was forgotten, we forget her writings, too — we forget, through a kind of exponential loss of memory, the touchstones of thought and practice that she inhabited and elaborated. We will have forgotten, then, the essay she wrote titled "The Sanctified Church," from which emerged a class critique internal to black social life, attending to the modes, patterns, behaviors, of what we colloquially call the black church.
In this essay, Hurston states, "the Sanctified Church is a protest against the high-brow tendency in Negro Protestant congregations as the Negroes gain more education and wealth."2 She urges outsiders to focus on the way folks sing and shout and praise at church —their noise, their choreographic and sonic method for meeting the divine.
What strikes me are the ways Hurston's words allow for us to consider performance as carrying the capacity for commentary, for critique: how performance is the place in which engagement and argument should happen. Hurston's words let me consider how the ways one sings, shouts, praises, the way one calls attention to the flesh, can be in the service of either engaging with or breaking from the habits, behaviors and political economy of the normative world.
If we use Zora Neale Hurston as our guide, we can understand that the black church has always been a place of class antagonism, and we can use that complexity to think about current trends in popular culture. We can wrestle with how political and economic critique have been separated out from performance, leaving the mere style, the mere method. And we can wrestle with the transformation of that style and method into that which it was created to critique. We can see a kind of disavowal of political and economic dissent, and then a superseding of what has been disavowed. After such a separation of style from substance, we can sense how some people desire to repurpose the style for any political or economic reality.
One way we see this practice executed with clarity and force is in the concept of celebrity. And celebrities sometimes gather with others on Sundays to have service with song.
In May of 2018, Kanye West was interviewed by TMZ. The topic turned, weirdly, to enslavement in the United States. He offered this opinion:
"When you hear about slavery for 400 years ... For 400 years? That sounds like a choice."
And, "You were there for 400 years and it's all of y'all. It's like we're mentally imprisoned."
The responses ensued, swift and strong. He went to Twitter to clarify, writing:
"Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will. ... My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means that we were mentally enslaved."
And, "the reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can't be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years. We need free thought now. Even the statement was an example of free thought. It was just an idea."
And, "Once again I am being attacked for presenting new ideas."
The idea of these statements as a novel thought, never spoken previous to his enactment of free thinking, is intriguing — because it is incorrect. These notions were the "reason" given for the enslavement of black people by those who captured and stole and brutalized and enacted violence on them. They alleged a lack of religious, and thus moral, fitness for civilization and citizenship in Indigenous and African peoples, or claimed the color of their skin underscored their supposed natural disposition towards and desiring to practice servitude.
What Kanye offered, in other words, was neither new nor "free": It was the rehearsal of well-worn, worn-out, outmoded modes of thought. The things he said had already been said, but forgotten, by the time he said them. Not knowing occasioned their assertion as new, such that they could be considered serious and rigorous. In clarifying them, he rather performed the deep entrenchment of that peculiar and violent strain of thought regarding enslaved people, natural servitude, mental dispositions and the practice of religion.
It was after the backlash to this spectacle that he, apparently, got saved. It began with a tweet from his wife, Kim Kardashian West, on Jan. 6, 2019: "Our new Sunday Service is starting. Check out the rehearsals on my Instagram stories."
Initially these were private, invitation-only gatherings at the Wests' home. Sharing on social media made the private less so, and the services made a public debut at the 2019 Coachella festival, where the sight of a dozens-strong choir singing West's work alongside live-remixed gospel standards was received with great fanfare. Growing still, they were made free ticketed concerts in parks and churches, held in cities including Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C. Along with these public services came the announcement of a Kanye West gospel album, Jesus Is King, set to be released this Friday with a companion film. (Though as with every promised release of his recent career, perhaps it might instead come next week, or next year, or never.)
There is much excitement about these services, much ado about Kanye's salvation, much said about the sonic capacity of the makeshift choir, much, much, much. There is so much muchness in it all, in the idea that Kanye could not just love God, but specifically Jesus — that this is a Christological thing, a Jesus thing, a thing about a very specific concept of humanity and its relation to the divine. What concerns me, what I wonder about, are the things forgotten, and the fact that we've forgotten that we forgot.
We have forgotten empire is naked.
Called "the little Nightingale of Fyn" as a youngster because of his moving, melodious soprano, a voice he would use to entertain workers at his childhood apprenticeship, Hans Christian Andersen eventually became a writer of children's fairy tales. Perhaps his best-known and most beloved story is "The Emperor's New Clothes," a story about a leader so narcissistic, he is tricked into believing he is wearing the finest silk spun from the most luxurious material, when in fact he wears nothing.
The leader is placated, because those around him want proximity to his power and authority, and because the leader's ego desires such placation. It isn't until he marches down the street and a child screams, "But he doesn't have anything on!" that onlookers begin whispering to their neighbors, acknowledging the charade, the farce. Soon the entire crowd is laughing.
But what do we do when we learn that the little Nightingale of Fyn was the child victim of violence and assault, because of what we today call patriarchy? As described by his biographer Jackie Wullschlager, the young Andersen's voice was so unanticipated to the men for which he performed at his apprenticeship that "they soon decided that he must be a girl, and forcibly undressed him to find out — whereupon he fled home to his mother, who promised he need never return."3 Their refusal to believe him a boy occasioned their peering into his body, their desire to ogle and handle him.
After learning this, I began to consider the story of the naked emperor to not only be about the problem of empire, but about the myth-telling necessary for empire to act with unfettered violence. About what forms of life, what modes of existence, have been willed in us to forget — like Hans Christian Andersen's voice, and his nakedness. We do not forget the spectacular occurrences, the large events that draw crowds in droves. Rather, we forget the ordinary, the everyday, the daily interactions that become grounds for doing harm.
Embedded in the story of the emperor's nakedness is violence against a child. Embedded in the nakedness of any emperor is the forgetting of quotidian violence, of violations that we have not only forgotten, but forgotten that we have forgotten: a doubled refusal to remember, a loss of memory with exponential force. We have to search to recover it, to remember, in order to practice justice.
It is not an identity, empire, but a practice. It uses those who work with and in and through creative deployments of imagination to do its bidding, the transformation of art into political propaganda. And it uses the domain of celebrity for its furtherance, for its practice of exclusion and violence.
In his book It, the scholar Joseph Roach describes how celebrity exerts its power. Eyeing a GQ magazine cover at a barbershop, which features a glamour shot of Uma Thurman, he notes the tactics inherent in the image's presentation: a "public intimacy" in how she appears to make eye contact, creating "the illusion of availability"; a vicarious "synthetic experience"; a practice of "personality-driven mass attraction."4 Celebrity, similar to empire, emerges through a call toward forgetfulness. It is the presence of absence, of an avatar that makes itself public as it simultaneously withdraws from engagement, from knowing intimacy. It is the practice of renouncing relationship to the social world, and using that renounced relationship as the practice of intimacy. Celebrity: the cause for held breath. Celebrity: the practice of forgetting to breathe. Celebrity: our gaze and listening turned toward the ones who hold the position at the center of the stage, or the pulpit. We hold our breath because we want to share space with them. And we forget to breathe at our own peril and demise.
In September, when Sunday Service traveled to in Atlanta, I watched via livestream from my home in Charlottesville, Va. Inside the cavernous space of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, I saw a performance made to sound like a typical black church service, complete with the Hammond organ as the sonic foundation of all that is said and sung. As I looked on, I considered the various things the moment was asking me to forget in the service of worship, of this celebrity, and of celebrity in general.
Was I to forget that there was no follow-up clarification regarding enslaved peoples, their descendants and the purported "choice" they made for their own victimization? Am I now to forget that during his Howard University performance in October, West declared that next time, if people are attempting to enslave "us" — and I would love to know who is included in such an "us" — then perhaps we should not stand in the same place, lest the nets capture us all together? (How does he think enslavement happened?) Should I forget what he said in Salt Lake City — that it was the party of Lincoln who freed the enslaved, and that voting for only one political party is mental slavery?
When I watch these performances, I notice West's posture. I am reminded of how Roach describes that enticing magazine photo: how its subject "looks to be completely alone," how it "somehow keeps a modicum of privacy where none seems possible, a discreet veil of solitude in a world brought into illusory fullness of being by the general congregation of unaverted stares." At any performance of Sunday Service, the crowd is affixed to West, his posture, his gesture, his voice. It is supposed to look effortless, serious, sensuous. But what is forgotten to allow such unaverted stares, such rapt attention?
Investment in celebrity, to riff on Erica Edwards' examinations of charisma, is an investment in "the myth — or fiction — that charismatic leadership is a necessary precondition for social change, political access, and historical progress."5 Kanye West in May 2018 spoke what he considered to be "free thinking" under the guise of a desired movement towards social change, and critiqued the stalled progress of enslaved people as a consequence of their own willful choice. To stand at rapt attention, with bated breath, is to forget this.
In 1906, William Seymour, the black preacher whom I consider to be the founder of the modern Pentecostal movement, led the Azusa Street Revival. People came together from all over the world to gather in his Los Angeles prayer meeting, desiring the experience of speaking in tongues as a sign of Spirit baptism — evidence of the Holy Spirit living within the believer, a gift of profound grace that is available to all who desire it.
Seymour initially preached the idea of "initial evidence" regarding the Pentecostal experience: Speaking in tongues would be the first and most demonstrative "evidence" of Spirit baptism in the lives of believers. In its three years of thrice-daily church services, one aspect of the revival that was continually noted was its interracial nature: how black and white and brown folks worshipped together, prayed and sang together, spoke in tongues together.
But as Pentecostal church organizations formed in the years after that initial revival, many white congregants began to renounce relation to nonwhite believers, and to political and economic critique as an element of worship. No longer seeking after an experience that was a disruption to the current order of things — to racism, to racial division — they settled for the practice.
In time, Seymour stopped believing in the concept of "initial evidence" of tongues-speech. He began to believe, instead, that the evidence of Spirit baptism would have to be a demonstration of how one practices justice and equity with other people. He landed on the practice of love as the meaning and evidence of Spirit baptism — and identified dissidence against the normative political economy as essential to that love. Like Hurston discovered, the evidence of Spirit for Seymour would have to be a posture of protest. It would have to be a practice that is not merely a style, but also a political practice.
We are always mixing the political and economic with the religious. Kanye West has used the concept of salvation to obscure that — to disallow thoughtful engagement with his politics. His salvation conceptually supersedes his political messaging about enslaved people in the past, or about sitting presidents today. Such superseding is supposed to make the messaging unimportant. It is a kind of tongues-speech that is disconnected from, and breaks with, critique.
We have forgotten that black gospel music was fashioned by the courageous inventiveness of black migrants from Southern states to places like Chicago and Detroit. The style they created had within it a political and economic critique of racial capitalism: One need only peruse the lyrical content about joblessness, motherlessness, despair, to see it. But we forget that this lyrical content, like what Zora Neale Hurston said about the Sanctified Church, was also sounded out in a register that marked its difference from established Christian denominations. In this way, black gospel was not fundamentally about utopian otherworldliness and the sweet by-and-by, even when the lyrics were.
As the minister Candace Simpson says, "Gospel music, to me, is music that encourages people to look out, look up, look internally and wonder how we might ethically spend our days on this Earth." If Hurston is our guide, then perhaps we have to consider how the sound of gospel — the way performances happen — announces the possibility for a different world. Black gospel performances, following Eddie Glaude's theorizing in his African American Religion: A Very Short Introduction, are generative for imagining beyond the constraints of any now moment. Gospel performance at its inception was the announcement of the practice of different worlds, the fact that alternatives are available, the sounding out of the here and now breaking with the normative and violent world. Sounds of otherwise possibility.
Kanye's choir compels me to ask questions about what we are supposed to let slip from memory regarding the purpose of gospel music. Watching Sunday Service, his voice sounds untrained and unrehearsed, in stark contrast to the exactitude of those he sings with. The space between the precision of the choir's voices on the one side and Kanye's imprecise monotone on the other is the space in which celebrity happens, in which it is cultivated, into which the affective energies of non-celebrities are deposited. That nonchalance evinces, for the congregation and for the streaming audience, his genius as spiritual conviction. Forget the fact of his celebrity, the various things he's said, and continues to say: We are continually goaded to only think about his salvation, his individual claim for conversion.
His seeming nonpreparation underscores a pervasive idea about black social life, about working-class black culture: that it is simple and simplistic, that practice isn't necessary. These are the ones who believe black life is improvisational — like jazz — and that improvisation means making things up. They misunderstand: Improvisation is a practice based in deep study, not a forgetting but a dense form and mode and enunciation of remembering. Zora Neale Hurston edges us to consider differently, to remember the complexity that we will have forgotten in the cause and celebration of celebrity, of empire. Kanye standing in pulpits with microphones, speaking with no sense of preparation for the sacred nature of being with other people to imagine the world as otherwise than it is, is allowable because of celebrity, because the concept inoculates him from critique.
We forget that the gospel message doesn't belong, like private property, to the Christians, because the message is not a narrative of ownership but one of loving relation against empire. We forget that a brown-skinned depiction of Jesus on Kanye's merch — that does not wrestle with Jesus' political and economic message of liberation against empire — is merely representation. It relegates Jesus, like these performances relegate the music, to style and skin color, rather than a disruption to practices of harm and exploitation and violence.
Seen alongside his praise of the political status quo, made evident in his donning a red hat, and his ideas about enslaved people and choice, Kanye's use of gospel seems to celebrate a lack of imagination, an entrenchment into the constraints of the now moment, the current crisis. A living into the racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism of the status quo as a genuine good not to be overcome, but to be suffered for spiritual nourishment. One could only think this if one believes that gospel is a mere style, with no embedded critique. If one has forgotten Zora Neale Hurston, and forgotten that they have forgotten.
What has been forgotten during Kanye's gospel year is the relation to the world that this music is meant to have, how its purpose is to incite the imagination towards a more capacious, more open, more just practice of care. The choir sings, with precision and poise, songs like Jeffrey LaValley's "Revelation 19:1 (Hallelujah, Salvation and Glory)," and "Perfect Praise (Oh Lord, How Excellent)." The musicians play the drums and the Hammond. There are hand claps, foot stomps, swaying to music with arms raised. But also there, always there, are the histories of Indigenous genocide and colonization, of anti-black racism and queer antagonism, of sexism, misogyny, misogynoir and the like.
What is urgent for us to consider is what the use of this music, what the use of religion and the individual conversion narrative, wants us to misremember. What the declaration of salvation is supposed to make us forget.
Ashon Crawley is an associate professor of Religious Studies and African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press) and The Lonely Letters (forthcoming from Duke University Press).
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.