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Beginning early this year, Kanye West has been hosting weekly invite-only “Sunday Services,” where he and friends sing both gospel songs and gospel covers of his own songs. Each event comes complete with a choir, and performers and churchgoers dress in his branded clothing. This past Easter Sunday, in a performance on a grassy knoll at Coachella which was streamed live on YouTube, West brought his Sunday Service to its biggest audience yet. On a more personal level, it seems representative of Kanye returning to his spiritual roots after recent struggles with his mental health and the death of his mother in 2007. God has always been a part of West’s musical oeuvre, but it has come to the forefront of his work in the past year.
In theaters across America, people are able to witness a different kind of gospel. Originally shot in 1972, Aretha Franklin’s previously unreleased concert film Amazing Grace has finally come out. The live recording of her best-selling album of the same name was shot on five 16mm cameras by director Sydney Pollack and his crew, but due to a technical mistake, the sound was never synced, and the film was shelved until recently. Both Franklin and West’s fame have impacted the public perception of their Christianity. While drastically different in aesthetic and approach, Amazing Grace and the Coachella Sunday Service similarly put into question the relationship between religion and celebrity. What does acceptable public faith look like?
At the time of their respective performances, both figures were embroiled in controversy. Franklin, who had mostly recorded soul and pop music, had been accused of turning her back on the church. Traditionalists resented her integration of contemporary music like Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” into Amazing Grace. Franklin’s personal life, notably her tumultuous marriage to Ted White, was frequent tabloid fodder. In recent years, Kanye West has thrown his support behind Donald Trump and argued that American slavery was a choice made by enslaved people. His marriage to Kim Kardashian and the wider Kardashian/Jenner media empire have framed his career within an even greater scope of celebrity and branding. The fact that he sold expensive merchandise during his Coachella concert has only amplified criticism of his Sunday Services.
Kanye’s Coachella set list incorporated traditional hymns, pop odes by Stevie Wonder and DMX, and his own music, all themed around worship. But the style of filming clashes with this. The various cameras used to stream the performance were equipped with peephole lenses/filters. This gave the images a hint of a halo, or religious paintings of the past. In cinema, peephole shots have historically been used to suggest voyeurism. They make the viewer feel as though they’re looking into something private, inviting a certain amount of intimacy while also maintaining a distance. In fleeting moments, as Kanye and other performers shed tears, it feels monumental, but the sense of intrusion is never quite shed. When the camera falls on members of the crowd, they are occasionally swaying to the music, but more often they are engaging passively with their phones out. This reinforces the divide between the average viewer and the class of celebrity and privilege of those attending. There is a disconnect from a deeper sense of community, a void where the faithful should be.
While Kanye’s outdoor concert reaches toward the heavens, Franklin chose to perform in a church. This was a link to her past. She grew up in that world, the daughter of famed minister and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin. Beyond that, the setting establishes a connection between Aretha and the faithful. It’s one thing to hear the album, but another thing entirely to see the performance itself. There’s the intimacy of Franklin’s father wiping the sweat off her brow, or the parishioners dancing and praising in the pews, all under a mural of Jesus in the River Jordan. The viewer can feel the fervor of the shared experience and catharsis in gospel music. There is a deep sense of familiarity and accessibility that is raw, beautiful, and transcendent. Aretha’s brother, the Reverend Cecil Franklin, saw the album as a historic moment for black people in America. In an era of violence and tumult, “Aretha helped lead us back to God.”
Kanye’s “service” cannot be reconciled to his reputation in the same way. It’s difficult to divest considerations of his work and faith from his alignment with Trump and conservative ideals of personal responsibility over community. This context turns his Sunday Service into a celebration without a message. What is his faith a balm against? He packages God as a branded opportunity accessible only to those who can afford it. There is certainly beauty in both these performances, idiosyncratic and intimate, but the healing bridge on one side is for all, while the other is for one.
Amazing Grace is in theaters now.
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