Concert Review

Kanye West's Sunday School Choir Sang In The House Of The Devil

Local anti-religion activist Vigil Quenzer holds protest signs outside of Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe during Awaken 2020.
Local anti-religion activist Vigil Quenzer holds protest signs outside of Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe during Awaken 2020. Benjamin Leatherman
To paraphrase W.B. Yeats: And what rough hypebeast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Tempe to be born again?

Sitting in the bleachers at Sun Devil Stadium waiting for Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir to assemble onstage, I couldn’t help but think of another line from Yeats’ “Second Coming:” ”The worst are full of passionate intensity.” All around me people whooped and hollered with arms aloft and lips mouthing silent prayers while the P.T. Barnums in church clothing sold them cheap miracles onstage. Neither the worst nor passionate intensity were in short supply at Awaken 2020.

A 10-hour Evangelical prayer rally set inside a stadium named after the organizers' nemesis, Awaken 2020 drew a large crowd, but not nearly as large as one would expect from an event projected to draw thousands.

click to enlarge A street preacher speaks with attendees of Awaken 2020 outside of Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
A street preacher speaks with attendees of Awaken 2020 outside of Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.
Benjamin Leatherman
Despite billing itself as a sold-out event, a fair chunk of the bleachers were empty for the first few hours of Awaken 2020. By the time headliner Kanye West took the stage around 4 p.m., the crowd had increased in size, though it was still by no means a packed house. The Shawn Mendes concert at Gila River last year had a better draw than West’s set.

Maybe Awaken’s bookers can lock down Mendes and Camilla Cabello to do some PG role-playing as Mary and Joseph at next year’s Jesuspalooza. Nothing too kinky, though. Despite the many times that the speakers onstage talked rapturously about chains and bondage and the Lord coming on you, it’s not that kind of event.

Opening for West were Eddie James and David Herzog. They were a study in extreme contrasts when it came to working a crowd. James worked as both a bandleader and a minister, leading a large multicultural ensemble through a set of worship songs that crisscrossed a wide array of genres: funk, rock, soul, and rap.

The Sun Devil sound system did James and company no favors. Their sound was so muffled and tinny it sounded like they were playing in a submarine that had sunk to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. But the audience was into James’ music, swaying and responding enthusiastically to the call-and-response karaoke lyrics flashing on the video screen over the stage.

David Herzog was a different story.

Slotted in the warmup spot before Kanye’s performance, Herzog prowled the stage in a leather jacket and tried to engage the audience with some faith healing. It was like watching a TV psychic try and fail to pull a name out of their ass that matched somebody’s dead relative.

Exhorting the audience to search their bodies for signs of God healing them as he spoke, Herzog insisted God could cure any physical ailment or affliction. Judging by the constant moist sheen clinging to his face, the Almighty can’t do anything about flop sweat.

click to enlarge Kanye's Sunday Service Choir in action. - ASHLEY NAFTULE
Kanye's Sunday Service Choir in action.
Ashley Naftule

But it would take more than a faith healer bombing onstage to sour people on the Sunday Service Choir. Appearing with little in the way of ceremony, the choir gathered around a staircase leading up to a heavenly window, wearing matching white outfits and singing “O Fortuna." Once everyone was onstage, the conductor led them through a rendition of “Ultralight Beam,” sans Kanye.

The power of that choir could not be dampened or contained by the stadium’s sound system. Their voices soared skyward, full of an intensity of feeling that was deeply moving. As much as I remain deeply skeptical about West’s newfound devotion to spiritual music, it’s hard to deny how effective his choir is. You could get them to sing “Scatman (Ski-ba-bop-ba-dop-bop),” and there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house.

The choir continued with “Every Hour”; still, their ringleader was still nowhere to be seen. For a moment, it seemed possible that he wasn’t going to show at all. Then Yeezus finally materialized during “Selah,” almost indistinguishable from the rest of the choir.

Given how often he's lambasted for being a narcissist, it was surprising how much Kanye ceded the spotlight to his choir. Dressed in the same white clothing as the rest of the ensemble, he would often turn his back to the crowd or disappear entirely from view when he wasn’t singing. For large portions of the set, he was silent. Ye's choir director and the guest preacher did more talking onstage than he did.

The choir’s live band showed off their chops on “Closed on Sunday” and “Follow God,” laying down supple grooves for the choir to harmonize over. “Closed on Sunday” was probably the most hyped Kanye got at Awaken, cheerfully yelping "CHICK-FIL-A" at the end of the song with as much goofy gusto as he does on Jesus Is King. The choir also did “Father Stretch My Hands,” though Kanye omitted the parts about fucking bleached model assholes in his raps.

Watching the choir at work, I was struck by how vibrant and beautiful the music was. What sounded small and half-assed on the album was overwhelming and full-bodied in this live context. At times, it almost made me forget about any misgivings I might have about Kanye performing at an event like this.

But there are some things beauty and art can’t supersede. A rose growing in an abattoir may be beautiful, but it doesn’t make the abattoir a rose garden. It was nice that speakers onstage at Awaken 2020 talked about respecting different cultures and loving all of mankind. But that doesn’t change the fact that many of the people involved with Awaken hold virulent anti-LGBTQ beliefs. Speakers like Guillermo Maldonado, Che Ahn, Cindy Jacobs, and Lou Engle (who was scheduled to speak at Awaken, but was taken off the lineup after public outcry surfaced about his involvement earlier this week) have all gone on record expressing deeply retrograde and ugly beliefs about homosexuality.

Those aren’t just words. These are people who shape minds and can influence public policy. They organize giant crossover events like this that help spread their message of "God loves you (but He’d love you even more if you stopped doing that)."

Much like his love for President Red Hat, Kanye has chosen to align himself with people who are just as desperate for attention and validation as he is. By bringing his Sunday Service to Awaken, he’s granted the event and everyone associated with it a level of legitimacy and relevancy they don’t deserve.

He’s choosing to boost the signal of people who are propagating hatred against communities that have supported him for years and inspired and shaped his art and fashion. And for what: a check he doesn’t need? Is any amount of money worth being the Fiji mermaid in this holy-roller sideshow?

By the time the choir got to closing number “Jesus Walks,” I was picturing in my mind the old Kanye. The Kanye who was so good at acknowledging warring impulses and desires, who knew about blood diamonds but wanted a Jacob piece anyway, who could yearn for spiritual transcendence on the same song where he’s bemoaning getting bleach stains from anal sex, the one who’s a world-class egomaniac but isn’t afraid to admit he’s insecure. Maybe that Kanye could see the blasphemy in bringing together a heavenly assembly of voices to make them sing hosannas about chicken sandwiches and treating chauffeurs like shit. Maybe the Kanye from a couple of years ago could see Awaken for what it is: God as a brand campaign, his choir the premium content for subscribers.

Maybe he sees all this and doesn’t care. A year ago, he was art-directing a porn award show, and now he’s headlining a prayer rally. Nobody here thinks twice about it. Perhaps that’s why he’s embraced the religious community so fiercely. They ask so little of him. He can put as much effort into his salvation as he did into making Ye, and he’ll still be saved. Must be nice.

click to enlarge More of the Sunday Service Choir. - ASHLEY NAFTULE
More of the Sunday Service Choir.
Ashley Naftule
Critic's Notebook

The Crowd: 80 percent true believers rubbing shoulders with 20 percent Yeezy Boost-rockin' hypebeasts in lint-rolled Saint Pablo shirts.

Overheard: "Let the Lord come on you. He's going to use you like you've never been used before." — David Herzog, clearly quoting from the Book of Brazzers.

Random Notebook Dump: As much as I question the motives and integrity of the people organizing this event, the people attending it mostly seem all right. They're happy and excited to be here. Some of them even seem to have enjoyed that train-wreck of a faith healing presentation.
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Ashley Naftule