It’s not often you get to write a sentence like this but Kanye West has had a relatively quiet 2019. After a disastrous 2018 where he continued his public endorsement of Trump and suggested that slavery was a choice, he’s sensibly muted his social media presence and channeled his energy into Sunday Service. He’s been putting on the gospel-inspired services for majority of the year, treating the celebs of Calabasas to a choir-driven church event that mixes renditions of his own songs with hymns. Footage of the services have trickled onto the internet through celebs like Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry, building hype for an inevitable public event.
That event came on Easter Sunday, as Coachella put on one of its most ambitious performances to date. On a custom-built lot just outside of the festival, Yeezy built his promised land, with Coachella allowing him his own hill to bring Sunday Service to the masses. Asking festival-goers on the final day to wake early to attend a church service is a big ask, particularly when Kanye was performing with Kid Cudi around 1am the night before, but it’s one that most were happy to participate in. Despite all the times Kanye has been ‘cancelled’ in the past year, thousands flooded the grounds, joining hefty crowds for merch and forming around the mountain where a band sat atop.
There were undoubtedly some there out of intrigue but for the most part it was a mix of Kanye die-hards and celebs. Hypebeasts in Yeezy shoes stood alongside a woman wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ cap. To the left, The Kardashians, all dressed in white, occupied the VIP section with the likes of Jaden and Willow Smith, Lil Pump and Lizzo. It wasn’t your regular Sunday church crowd but then again, it wasn’t your regular church service.
As everyone stood in the piercing desert sun, the band on top of the hill played experimental music for more than half an hour as we waited for a Kanye appearance. About an hour after the expected start time, he made his pilgrimage up the hill, flanked at the top Chance The Rapper, Kid Cudi, Ty Dolla $ign, Francis And The Lights and Teyana Taylor. A choir and dancers arrived to the hill from around the grounds dressed in muted colours.
The immediate spectacle was incredible. Before the choir even kicked in, it looked unlike anything we’ve ever seen as a festival before. It felt like an occasion and it even felt good to be at ‘church’, denouncing our sins from the weekend past.
As soon as the choir started singing, the power of it all was immediate. They howled through a version of Ultralight Beam before reaching peak impact on Power. On top of the mountain, Kanye’s band and crew celebrated. It was a celebration of the lord and redemption for those invested in it but even for the atheists in the crowd it was hard to not feel somewhat affected by the togetherness of the event. The setlist was made up of fragmented Kanye songs, covers of Stevie Wonder and Soul II Soul songs plus classic hymns like This Is The Day. When it came to choosing the Kanye songs, he delivered anything that housed an uplifting spirit. There were songs that directly referenced religion like Jesus Walks and others like Otis that simply felt powerful when in the hands of an incredibly accomplished gospel choir.
Surprisingly, for a man that once declared “I am a God,” Kanye took a backseat for the most part. He was always in sight but he only took to the mic on a few rare occasions, notably rapping during Jesus Walks. Instead, all his collaborators were given their moment. Chance delivered his magical Ultralight Beam verse, Cudi gave tingles with his Father Stretch My Hands hum and DMX made a surprise appearance for a rousing prayer. The best moment though came as Teyana Taylor rose on top of the mountain, giving a rich, soulful performance of her own song Never Would Have Made It. That performance exploded into a thundering rendition of Fade which saw nearly everyone flail their hands in the air as the choir ran down the hill with an infectious joy.
Those that were there less for religion and more for celebrity were also rewarded. At one point, Kim raced the kids, including North West, up the hill so that they could participate in the “poopity scoop” bit of Lift Yourself. Admittedly, it was entertaining to have a peek into the Calabasas Sunday lifestyle, watching Kylie Jenner cuddle up to Travis Scott and Kris Jenner bop to the music, surrounded by her grandchildren.
As the two-hour plus performance drew to a close, most were swept up in the event. Despite dropping to the ground for a prolonged moment with all the attention on him, this was a rare Kanye event that was not all about him. The magic of the experience was the feeling of community and togetherness, bound by the sheer power of the choir. There was obviously a strong Christian slant to it but the preaching was mostly delivered through the music, allowing those to find their own meaning.
It must be said, there is something a little off about selling $50 ‘church socks’ on Easter morning but then again, Coachella is a festival that commodifies any type of feeling. Overall though, Sunday Service felt like it was put on for the right reasons. It wasn’t an apology for the damage that Kanye did with his reckless, ill-considered statements last year but it was proof that there’s still power in the music of Kanye West. He’s an unbelievable curator and creator and when he’s able to detach his ego and zone his attention in on uplifting those around him, he’s unstoppable. What could’ve been a worship at the church of Kanye was actually a special, rare moment that just felt good to be a part of.