The Kanye West Religion (Part 1)

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Who Is This For?

  • Artists and creative independents. Kanye West’s most recent albums sound nothing like the one before. In an age of blockbusters and calculated risk, he proclaims his strategy is no strategy. Yet he has also cultivated one of the most fervent fan bases, rivaling the Beyhive, Beliebers, and the Swifties. Rolling Stone and Billboard said he made the best recording album of the 2010s. Love him or hate him, there’s something to learn.
  • Leaders. Kanye took his fanbase, his investments into product, and his reputation, and figured out how to create and extract hundreds of million dollars worth of value from it. In an age where the artist has been declared dead, Kanye transcends. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a CEO, or a politician, you’ll get a lot from understanding his psychology and what convinces people—fans or collaborators—to buy into his thoughts.
  • Thinkers. From popular culture to high fashion, and business to politics, Kanye West understands the world from a unique perspective and has taken the time to develop his own worldview. It’s important to discern the values behind what he talks about, because his words hold weight with a lot of people. It’s like how Kanye’s alma mater Nike talks about athletes. If you’re a human being, you’re a thinker—and you’re going to find this piece really interesting.

See, I invented Kanye,
It wasn’t any Kanyes,
And now I look and look around,
And there’s so many Kanyes.
— I Love Kanye,” Kanye West, 2016

Kanye West is not Picasso
I am Picasso
Kanye West is not Edison
I am Edison
I am Tesla
Jay-Z is not the Dylan of anything
I am the Dylan of anything
I am the Kanye West of Kanye West
The Kanye West
Of the great bogus shift of bullshit culture
From one boutique to another
I am Tesla
I am his coil
The coil that made electricity soft as a bed
I am the Kanye West Kanye West thinks he is
When he shoves your ass off the stage
I am the real Kanye West
I don’t get around much anymore
I never have
I only come alive after a war
And we have not had it yet
Leonard Cohen, 2015

Like our own stories, we know how this one ends. But unlike our stories, anything that could happen has happened to Kanye West, and we have literally no idea what will happen next. Some of us have chosen to stop watching, but most of us don’t. Before the 21 Grammys, before Rolling Stone and Billboard, before the Adidas and Gap deals that would make him a billionaire, only Kanye knew that he would be the greatest artist of our generation.

This is the first of a series covering the religion of Kanye West. I read Mario Gabriele’s piece on Modern Gospels, and I had to do it. Gabriele’s piece introduced me to sociologist Émile Durkheim, who says a religion consists of three elements: 

  • “A unified system of beliefs and practices”—the values, practices, and beliefs that bind Kanye’s followers to his religion
  • “Sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden”—Kanye himself, his creative process, and his products (see the Kanye halo effect)
  • “One single moral community called a Church”—the companies, communities, and individuals who have bought into Kanye West’s beliefs and practices

Jargon alert: This piece will introduce Kanye West and cover one unified belief of the sacred object that ties the moral community together. I would love to do more parts that cover the other unified beliefs, as well as the Kanye West mythology and how he became a sacred object. I’d also like to write about the collective effervescence that sustains it (through concerts, products, and content), as well as the moral community (the Churches of Kanye). If you end up getting something from this article, consider buying my latest book, which was written with the spirit of Kanye West’s creative process.

Fervent celebrity worship is nothing new—for example, the church of John Coltrane has stood for over five decades. But even then, the case of Kanye West unlike any other. Love him or hate him, Kanye’s influence on today’s culture is undeniable. His admirers have ascended into powerful positions (e.g., Donald Glover has called himself the son of Kanye). Many of his collaborators have as well—the most prominent exhibit would be Virgil Abloh, who took the coveted menswear designer position at LVMH.

People worship Kanye the way they worship Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, etc… Maybe even moreso, frankly. Some of these people carry the big bucks. Consider how Gap Inc., a Fortune 500 company, is betting on Kanye’s company, brand, and product insights to turn its core business around

Creating a religion is a simple feat the same way telling a story is a simple feat; it starts easy, but it’s actually really difficult. The hardest parts involve believing in yourself, getting people to care and believe you, and actually making the story come true.

This is an investigation into why people care about Kanye. Ever since he released 808s and Heartbreak, people have considered Kanye’s career to be increasingly irrelevant. Yet, not only does he survive, he thrives. It’s not merely the controversy; otherwise, we would still be watching Charlie Sheen and Tekashi69. Why did you click into this article? Why do we care?

“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” Jay-Z rapped on “Diamonds (Remix)” with Kanye West. Kanye is no longer just a business or a brand—he has informally created a modern gospel that his fans can latch on to and incorporate into the world. Here’s what it looks like, and why it works.

Disclaimer: Kanye West as a person is different from his persona, I imagine, and I don’t know the guy personally. Like many in the Church of Kanye, I am only familiar with the persona—the one at the core of millions, if not billions, of parasocial relationships. Like Kanye says, I’m going to use that disadvantage as my advantage though.

I wrote this for entertainment value. Other people have written books about this topic, so feel free to look into them if you want a comprehensive, academic, view of Kanye West’s religion. For now, I see this as a foundational sketch—not a final painting—of his work. An introduction to ideas beyond the headlines, perhaps like a demo of a song, if you will… 

Kanye, the Free Thinker

These past few years, we’ve heard Kanye West repeatedly compare himself to people like Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Karl Lagerfeld, Howard Hughes, Michael Jackson, and such. These comparisons don’t hint at his intellectual background necessarily—they’re references for what Kanye wants people to see his possibilities as. He says, “In no way do I want to be the next any one of them. But I am the first me. So I only mention those other names to try to give people a little bit of context.” 

The most prominent intellectual influence on Kanye West happened at home; his mother, Professor Donda West. Donda West was a notable English professor at Chicago State University, whose dissertation involved systems approaches to education (as seen in the recently published Donda’s Rules). 

It’s clear Donda West’s expertise provided Kanye with a wealth of literary experience and systems thinking to draw from. Through his mother, Kanye became the product of some of the world’s most forward literary thinkers. The world owes Donda West a lot more credit for cultivating Kanye West to be the genius he is. 

While Kanye was growing up, his mother made church an important pillar of their lives. On p. 138 of Raising Kanye, Donda West writes:

We’d go every Sunday to Christ Universal Temple in Chicago. I liked the church because the minister, Johnnie Colemon, preached prosperity. I had belonged to Hillside Church, which was very similar, before moving from Atlanta, and would take Kanye there. Barbara King, the minister there, was also a very spiritual and progressive thinker. I wanted Kanye to be steeped in that kind of exposure to God. I never bought into the fire-and-brimstone type of religion or one that was repressive. Certainly, I would not expose Kanye to that. But I felt compelled to see to it that a spiritual component was a key part of Kanye’s upbringing.

Colemon’s and King’s churches are associated with New Thought, a metaphysical movement encouraging positive thinking, and material wealth as a sign of God’s blessings. There are many movements that fall into New Thought, the most popular one today might be The Secret and the Law of Attraction. Other contemporaries include Goop and Soulcycle. 

The fusion of New Thought and Christianity is known as prosperity gospel, the term for a variation of Christianity which proposes that through faith and hard work, God will make your financial and physical dreams come true. 

This childhood exposure to prosperity gospel and New Thought is also a core belief, or as Kanye puts it, the “dragon energy,” that binds Kanye West and Donald Trump together. Fred Trump would take a young Donald Trump to Marble Collegiate Church to listen to Norman Vincent Peale’s speeches. Peale is the author of The Power of Positive Thinking

Kanye’s mentor and “big brother,” Jay-Z, has been at least a dabbler of new thought, recommending books like The Seat of the Soul, as well The Celestine Prophecy. Similarly, a writer Kanye West works with, Sakiya Sandifer, is a proponent of new thought as well. 

Kate Bowler, author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, describes New Thought: “Adherents, acting in accordance with divine principles, relied on their minds to transform thought and speech into heaven-sent blessings.” Three aspects of New Thought are rooted in the twentieth-century’s view on how the power of the mind:

  • High anthropology: God and humanity separated only by degree
  • Priority of spiritual reality: The world should be reimagined as thought, rather than substance
  • Generative power of positive thought: People share in God’s power to create by means of thought; they can shape their own worlds by their thinking

And ever since he became a reborn Christian, Kanye’s particular Christianity is the one of his youth—prosperity gospel. He’s hanging out with Joel Osteen. Here’s an example of something Joel Osteen has said, “The guilt is finished. The depression is finished. The low self-esteem is finished. The mediocrity is finished. It is all finished.” Kanye speaks publicly with the tenets of New Thought; here’s an example.

Kate Bowler identifies three intersecting streams of prosperity gospel: 

  • Pentecostalism: A direct, personal, experience with God
  • New Thought: Channel your mind’s powers through divine principles to manifest blessings
  • The American gospel of pragmatism, individualism, and upward mobility

My friends would say that I am a huge fan of Kanye West. A few years ago, I even made an unofficial sequel to his book. It started when I looked at my iTunes Most Played playlist and saw Kanye all over it. These days, even though I’ve never bought a Yeezy-related product, I still like the music, but it’s his interviews that stay on my mind. I didn’t realize why I found his ideas so appealing until this essay; and once I did, I couldn’t unsee it. This abstract, intertwined, nature of New Thought completely fits in with Kanye’s persona. For example, this essay he wrote for PAPER oozes it. Here’s the opening: 

I know people want to talk about the American Dream, but my dream is a world dream. It’s a world in which everyone’s main goal would be to help each other. The first thing I told my team on New Year’s Day was, “You know, people say bad news travels fast, but this year let’s make good news travel faster.” You get back what you put out, and the more positive energy you put out, the more positive energy you’ll get back.

Clearly, Kanye West values his ideas and thoughts. He has likened his ideas to oxygen, calling free thinking his superpower. He is known for his convicted, contrarian, stances—supporting Trump against the norm of his industry and the media. Even his debut album, entitled The College Dropout, suggested an alternative to higher education and student debt (“Use school, don’t let school use you,” used to be one of Kanye’s favorite sayings—Raising Kanye, p. 104).

Influences on Kanye

There is no shortage of influences on Kanye West. Early collaborator GLC has likened Kanye to a sponge, explaining that Kanye’s behavior changes to adapt to whomever he is around. This expands beyond just his peers—Kanye has been said to take feedback on his music from a delivery guy in his studio. The influences around the sponge change fast and slow, but Kanye remains the nucleus.

Of course, there’s his father Ray West, whom Kanye spent summers with. Pharrell Williams was an early role model for Kanye’s career, fusing the worlds of “real fashion” and hip hop. The late fashion designer Louise Wilson supported Kanye’s fashion efforts. 

Charlie Munger may doubt Kanye West’s wisdom, mainly because Kanye is a non-reader of books. But, Kanye also just hires the people he admires to consult with him. (For example, Kanye met Alejandro Jodorowsky, the director of Holy Mountain, the film he put muted on repeat during recording.)

As for the rest of the time he could have spent reading books, Kanye West watches a lot of movies, which influences his thought, his contextual and aesthetic references, and his creative output. (I’m still waiting on that Watching the Throne movie interview.) For example, he has said, “The Matrix is like the Bible of the post information age.” 

Even amongst celebrities, Kanye is probably one of the most well-connected across industries. Elon Musk wrote his TIME essay. He made a film with Spike Jonze, and another with Nick Knight. He funds James Turrell’s spaces. He got his wife on the cover of Vogue, thanks to Anna Wintour. 

Now that we’ve established some of Kanye West’s intellectual and spiritual roots, we can dive into the first of the unified beliefs that bring his moral community together. 

Belief One: Everyone can Be a Genius

I am one with the people. — Saint Pablo, Kanye West, 2016

The throughline of New Thought is the idea that your mind can unlock the secrets to a better life. There are variations of this—for example, the Law of Attraction suggests that your mind attracts what it is focused on. If it’s obsessed with the positive, it will attract positive people and outcomes. If it’s focused on the negative, it will attract negative outcomes.

The tenets of the New Thought movement are outstanding in our culture today. It is intertwined with spirituality, the American Dream, and even with medicine. It is about believing in yourself, and making your dreams come true against any circumstance. Therefore, it’s hardly a surprise when Kanye says something like… 

“Go listen to all my music, it’s the codes of self esteem. It’s the codes of who you are,” he says in the Zane Lowe (2013) interview. If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me. You’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m just the espresso. I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going, to make you believe that you can overcome that situation that you’re dealing with all the time.”

In a podcast around the same era, he says to Bret Easton Ellis (36:00), “I’m not concerned with people liking me. I’m concerned with people liking themselves more.” Or as he says to David Letterman, “I love people being the maximum version of their character. I love people being themselves.”

From this perspective, Kanye is a humanist. Soylent co-founder and former CEO Rob Rhinehart writes, “Kanye West is a genius. But more importantly, he realizes that everyone is a genius. They just forgot. He knows how to inspire people. He will bring out the best in people.” 

Kanye believes that most people are controlled by fear, and limited by their perception of themselves. Society programs most people that way, to control them. After saying that we’re at war with terrorism, and racism, he raps, “But most of all, we’re at war with ourselves,” on “Jesus Walks.” By contrast, Kanye was named, “Only one,” and raised to believe that he could overcome any limit. He wants his music to enable all other people to do the same.

The first key to that, of course, is bringing out the best in himself. He committed decades of his life, and tens of millions of dollars, to the mastery of music and fashion. For example, even though he won Grammy Awards as a rapper, he says (5:15), he was the weakest rapper out of the people in the groups he was a part of. Kanye overcame this with his work ethic, which almost indirectly killed him in 2002—he fell asleep at the wheel, causing a near-fatal car accident.

Make the Most of Today, Because Life is Impermanent

Image: “A Life Restored,” by Ernie Barnes. Commissioned by Kanye West.

The shock of the near death experience, paired with the time allowed for recovery, set Kanye up to finally release his debut album The College Dropout, which set the stage for his artist career. Kanye credits God as the central force of the album, saying to Charlie Rose, “The music on this CD—I was only the vessel for this. God was in the studio with me. In the future, I don’t know if I’ll be able to make anything like this. This was my healing process. This was my rehabilitation CD.” 

The first words of his Grammy speech are, “When I had my accident, I found out at that moment nothing in life is promised, except death. If you have the opportunity to play this game of life, you need to appreciate every moment.” Kanye doesn’t fret about existentialism; he speaks with purpose. He says, “We’re all going to die one day. Live like that. Live like you could die tomorrow. Go for it.” 

The accident also made Kanye even less patient than he was before. He says, “I think I started to approach time in a different way after the accident. Before I was more willing to give my time to people and things that I wasn’t as interested in because somehow I allowed myself to be brainwashed into being forced to work with other people or on other projects that I had no interest in. So simply, the accident gave me the opportunity to do what I really wanted to do.”

He is unwilling to compromise not only on his goals, but also on his approach. “Waiting for everyone to agree may take too long. I’m not going to sit inside a corporation for 20 years. The time is now. The time is now to express, and for people to believe in themselves. The time is now for it to be okay to be great. People in this world shun people for being great; for being a bright color, for standing out. But the time is now to be okay to be the greatest you.”

Be the Greatest You

Perhaps these sacrifices have earned him the right to declare that he is a genius, which he does constantly. His approach stands out to his predecessor, Pharell Williams, who once said, “Credit isn’t to be taken, it’s to be given.” For his sixth album, Kanye even recorded a song entitled, “I Am A God.” To be clear, as he sings, he is not “the Most High,” but he is “a close high.” 

One of Kanye’s unique traits is, through his songs, he has the capability of getting people to repeat his words. Fans of hip-hop know this well—when we rap out the songs, we put ourselves in the artist’s position. If Kanye is saying, “Wait till I get my money right/Then you can’t tell me nothing right,” he’s not saying that to us—we’re saying it to someone else. In Trying Not to Try, Edward Slingerland writes (p. 74), “One early Warring States Confucian text notes that what is special about music is “its ability to enter inside and pluck at the heartstrings.’”

This is one of the ultimate draws of being a Kanye fan, and one of the foundations of his religion. He elicits a wishful identification in listeners, one of supreme confidence, and capability to exceed any circumstance. 

And these days, a lot of people are facing a lot of tough circumstances. We are all told the rich are getting richer, faster. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We see people showing off on our social media feeds, while we’re just trying to get by. People want—need—hope.

Kanye has spoken on self-love, and owns the hypocrisy and contradictions of being himself. He says, “People say I’m a hypocrite, right? Yes, I am. 100%. I’m a human being. I’m super hypocritical. I can feel something one time, and completely a different way another time.” Or as he describes it, “I think just my usual pattern is like that. It’s like a pendulum. The pendulum gains momentum by swinging in the other direction.” 

You might call this an excuse, but Kanye also embodies dialectical thinking—constantly switching and stretching between contradictory trains of thought. He won’t let practicality and reality get in the way of his dreams. (He even calls reality a negative word.)

Viewed from this perspective, if he had an opportunity, why wouldn’t he run for president? It’s not like the media has been kind to him—nor has he been courting the media.

Kanye has an extremely internal locus of self, expanding his responsibilities to the point where he blamed himself for the death of his mother. “If I had lived in New York, she’d still be here. That’s how I really feel. A lot of my apprehension toward celebrity and pop culture comes from the concept of real versus fake.” 

Everybody Is Equal

If everyone could be a genius, that makes no one person inherently better than another. In the 2000s, Kanye pushed for justice in racism. In the 2010s, Kanye has pushed to level classism in all sorts of ways—making music about it, but also creating clothing to make rich people dress like homeless people. These types of responses are exactly what he wanted.

Kanye is interested in designing cities, but he chose to start with homeless shelters—which are placed in nearly every interview he has spoken of lately. Another musician recalls Kanye spending $100,000 to personally rehabilitate a homeless man.

That wasn’t the only time Kanye has said he was the vessel for God; he has also positioned himself as a servant. He has also talked about how God made him a billionaire to show off to the rest of the world.

The Legacy Continues

Kanye’s unified belief is one that is core to his personality. Because of his background in New Thought, he believes that everyone can be a genius, but most people are programmed not to be. He sees his responsibility to break that programming, and to help people tap into their inner confidence, creativity, and genius. He has a genuine desire to help the world, in his way (even from a young age, he stole khakis for his friend, only to have his friend steal his chain from him). 

In order to tell a good story, you need to genuinely believe it. You need to tap into your feelings, into the core of your being, and where your convictions are. If you don’t believe you have any convictions, then you need to dig deeper—back into your childhood, back into the things you believe the most. Don’t let facts hold you back from what your feelings tell you. 

This level of conviction and belief is what will connect you with other people and encourage them to buy into your work and your movement. You can’t artificially cook up a story out of this; you have to do the psychological work to make those connections.

“Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” Kanye demands on his song, “Feedback.” Kanye’s life and work are incarnations of this line. You can count on Kanye to say how he feels, and with conviction. On songs, his words come out perfectly; in live interviews, they’re muddled and phrased in literally one of the worst possible ways he could have said. 

This is just the first, most fundamental, belief that turns casual listeners and buyers into fervent followers. People return to the Church of Kanye for a renewal in confidence in themselves, which Kanye provides them happily. There are a few other beliefs that tie the Church of Kanye together, as well as the sacred objects—Kanye’s content, products, and of course Kanye himself—that people put their energy into and build relationships with. 

In future posts, I also hope to further explore how Kanye distinguished himself from the other “demigods” of celebrity and entertainment, and the many numerous cores that support Kanye’s moves. (Shouts to r/WestSubEver, r/kanye, KTT2, TeamKanyeDaily, Watching the Throne, YeezyMafia… I’m sure unintentionally left some out for now, but—if you know, you know.) 

If you like what you read, you can support me by buying my book! A lot of Kanye’s creative process is in it—as well as insights from his collaborators, including Joe Perez, DJ Dahi, and Virgil Abloh.