“I Gotta Testify”: Conversations on Kanye West, Religion & Hip-Hop                                   


Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History, University of Maryland Eastern Shore                                
VaNatta Ford, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, Williams College      
Adria Goldman, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communication, Gordon State College

Is Kanye West taking his listeners to heaven or hell? Is he a modern day bluesman promoting the devil’s music or a secular alternative to traditional as well as contemporary religious music? These are important questions to consider when evaluating the spiritual characteristics of hip-hop’s most polarizing artist. Since his 2004 debut album The College Dropout, Kanye West has been engaging his audience in ongoing conversations about God, religion, spirituality, and theodicy. Kanye’s fascination with these topics has been evident since his first hit song “Through the Wire,” which credits God for his survival from a nearly fatal car accident. An alternate music video for his Grammy Award winning song “Jesus Walks,” visualizes man’s personal relationship with Christ by featuring Kanye walking through the hood with his homeboy Jesus.

Kanye provides listeners with a revival-like experience through his “GOOD Music” as he testifies on his sophomore album, Late Registration, about God’s mercy, his grandmother’s illness, inequality, temptation, gold diggers, the evils of the world, and “looking extra fly.”  His third album, Graduation, with its heavy emphasis on Nommo (a West African term for the generative power of words) and self-fulfilling prophecies could be a soundtrack for the prosperity theology of self-help preachers. While his fourth album, 808s & Heartbreak, is a sonic lamentation about the loss of his mother and his fiancé, his next albums, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus, can be viewed as contemporary versions of 1960s Black liberation theology. Ironically, Kanye is currently working on a documentary film about Nation of Islam leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan. On New Year’s Eve 2014 he released a tribute song “Only One,” to his daughter North which featured a fictional conversation with his deceased mother Donda West from Heaven. Four months later Kanye and his wife Kim Kardashian flew to Jerusalem to have their daughter baptized at the Cathedral of St. James.

Although, Kanye views himself as a vessel for God, his critics do not support his conviction. They cite his extreme vanity, ego, narcissism, materialism, elitism, and notable public outbursts as contradictory to the teachings found in religious texts. For instance, in the same verse for Big Sean’s hit single “Blessings,” featuring Drake and Kanye West,” Kanye raps about his young daughter as a blessing and also how blessed he is to be so well endowed genitally. The discussion of pornographic sex in his lyrics has not only offended many who profess Christianity, but also some women and men who view him as a misogynist. His militant pro-Black male posturing and Black nationalistic views only validate those critics who see him as a sexist and a racist, rather than someone walking in the image of God.

Does Kanye West have a god complex? His decision to name his 2013 album Yeezus; his use of an actor portraying Jesus Christ for his Yeezus tour; his song “I Am a God,” his use of the term “god” to describe himself; and his 2009 Rolling Stone magazine cover inspired by The Passion of Christ have led many people to answer this question with an emphatic “yes.” When Kanye speaks of forming a new religion in “No Church in the Wild,” from his collaborative album Watch the Throne with Jay Z, conspiracy theorists associated him with the illuminati and satanic worship.  

Scholars Michael Eric Dyson and Monica Miller have called Kanye’s music a representation of the intersection between hip-hop, religion, and theology. Debates over whether Kanye’s behavior is sacred or sacrilegious are a microcosm of debates surrounding hip-hop’s role in religion.  I would argue that Hip-Hop is a modern version of the blues. Theologian James Cone refers to the blues as the profane cousin of the sacred Negro spirituals. Although the blues was labeled by some Christians at the time as the devil’s music because of its narratives of violence, sex, and what some middle class blacks deemed as “unrespectable” imagery, the blues expressed the same emotions of sorrow, escapism, and hope in the midst of despair as its religious counterpart.  In fact many of the same people bumping and grinding to the blues Saturday nights in juke joints were praising the Lord in church Sundaymornings. The same juxtaposition is evident today for many individuals who love both God and hip-hop; even though several pastors and churchgoers believe that the two cannot coexist.   

We are seeking contributors to our forthcoming book: “I Gotta Testify”: Conversations on Kanye West, Religion & Hip-Hop. Multiple books have been published on rap icon Kanye West including Mark Beaumont’s Kanye West: God and Monster (2015) and Justin Bailey’s The Cultural Impact of Kanye West (2014). But there has yet to be an entire academic study devoted to the emcee’s influence on the discussion of religion and spirituality in hip-hop. This edited volume will be composed of ten to twelve multidisciplinary essays and five meditations that explore these previously discussed topics and others not mentioned by using the music, live performances, music videos, fashion, the artwork for the albums and singles, interviews, family life, and public persona of Kanye West. The goal of this book is to add a new perspective to the scholarly discourse on hip-hop and religion within classrooms, religious institutions, and popular culture by focusing on one of hip-hop’s most influential artist in the past decade. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson has been confirmed to write the foreword. We are currently in discussion with a publisher to have this book released in 2017. Potential contributors should send a 300-500 word abstract of their essay in Times New Roman 12-point font and a 150-300 word bio to Joshua K. Wright (jkwright1492@yahoo.comand CC VaNatta Ford (vanattaford@gmail.comby October 19, 2015. Accepted proposals will be notified by December 1, 2015. Completed chapter drafts should written in Chicago style and will be due by May 1, 2016.  All reviewed essays will be returned to the contributors by August 1, 2016Contributors should return their revised essays by September 1, 2016. We will consider chapter topics ranging from (but not limited to):

–Biblical [RE]interpretations of Kanye West’s Music
–Black Liberation Theology as a Theme in Kanye West’s Music
–Bluesy and Blasphemous
–Capitalism and Christianity
–Deconstructing “Jesus Walks”
–Ecclesiastical Pimping and Misogyny in the Music Videos of Kanye West
–808s & Lamentations
–Hip-Hop: The New Religion for the Millennial Generation
–Kanye West as A Neo-liberal Religious Figure
–Kim and Kanye’s Excellent Adventure to the Holy Land
–New Religious Ideologies of Kanye West
–Prophetic Utterance or Self-Righteousness
–Prosperity Theology, Kanye West, and The Real Preachers Reality Series Franchise
–Religious Iconography in the Music of Kanye West
–Religion, Rap, and Rebellion
–Religion versus Spirituality in Hip-Hop
–The Hip-Hop Illuminati
–The Religious Symbolism of the Yeezus tour
–The Soul of the Sample in Kanye West’s Albums
–Watch the Throne: The God Complex of Jay Z & Kanye West

If you have any additional questions or concerns, please feel free to email us. We hope you would consider submitting a chapter to this edited volume and we look forward to hearing from you soon.


Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. (co-editor)      
Assistant Professor of History                                

University of Maryland Eastern Shore

VaNatta Ford, Ph.D. (co-editor)        
Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies 

Williams College                                                                                            

Adria Goldman, Ph.D. (co-editor)        
Assistant Professor of Communication

Gordon State College