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Kanye West's Sunday Service: has the rapper started a church?

Dubbed a 'healing experience' by Kim Kardashian, the event will make its way to Coachella for Easter Sunday.

Dubbed a 'healing experience' by Kim Kardashian, the event will make its way to Coachella for Easter Sunday

Kanye West performs in 2016 from his album The Life of Pablo, which he called a hip-hop/gospel album. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

It's a scene you might expect to find in a movie, or perhaps on Sunday morning TV. Surrounded by mountains, a gospel choir, dressed all in white, sings and chants at the direction of a man, also in white. Just outside the frame, members of the congregation, also all in white, break into rapturous dancing and chanting.

If it looks and sounds like a church service, it's probably a church service, but in this case, it's something a little different. The man at the centre is rapper/producer Kanye West, his hair dyed bright red and a huge smile across his face, and rather than standing behind a pulpit, he's behind a keyboard and a sampler, crouched down and bobbing his head to the beat. Behind him, percussionists wait for their cue to join the choir, banging on drums to supplement the music coming from West's sampler; in this case it's gospel musician Fred Hammond's This is the Day.

West had a tumultuous 2018, alienating fans with his remarks on slavery and his relationship with Donald Trump, but since the beginning of 2019, he's been looking for redemption through conducting what he calls Sunday Service. It's a music-focused event held in various locations, including in and around his home in Los Angeles, the Adidas headquarters in Portland, Oregon and even on an airplane mid-flight. It was recently announced that the next stop is the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where West and his choir will be performing on Easter Sunday.

But what exactly is Sunday Service? Is it a recording session for a new album, a concert series, a church service, a celebrity cult? All of the above?

According to Kim Kardashian West, who also acts as the official videographer for Sunday Service, it's none of the above. "We didn't really have a name for it because it's more of just a healing experience," Kardashian, who was joined by sisters Kourtney and Khloé, said on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

"It's really uplifting and you feel excellent," added Khloé. "We have so many friends that maybe feel a little too judgmental when they go to church or something like that. When they come here they feel so free and safe."

There's no praying. There's no sermon. There's no word. It's just music and it's just a feeling.- Kim Kardashian West- Kim Kardashian West

When Kimmel asked, half-jokingly, whether they pray to Kanye or to a God at this church-not-a-church, Kim said, "Actually, there's no praying. There's no sermon. There's no word. It's just music and it's just a feeling."

At this point, her other sister, Kourtney, interjected with, "but it's Christian."

Despite the claim, there has been at least one sermon at Sunday Service, although it was delivered by rapper DMX, who lead the gathered attendees in a morning prayer on March 17.

Who is Sunday Service actually for?

As of yet, Sunday Service is an invite-only event, drawing in guests such as the West/Kardashian/Jenner family, but also David Letterman, Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom, Diplo, Rick Rubin, Paris Jackson, Courtney Love, Leon Bridges, Francis and the Lights and more.

Guests are asked to not speak to the press about the event, making information on it scarce, but there seem to be no rules against recording and posting it on social media.

"Who else needs a little positivity today?" wrote L.A.-based vocal coach Stevie Mackey on Instagram after attending a Sunday Service. "I grew up singing in every choir in town so this brings back so many fun memories."

Even though it's not technically a church, it seems to be based on one, with the addition of West, who acts as a hybrid of emcee, conductor, producer and, well, pastor. The ultimate goal of Sunday Service, according to longtime West collaborator Tony Williams, is to communicate the message of love effectively," he told a crowd at during a Sunday Service at the Adidas headquarters. "This is the church to go with you out into the world."

Kanye and Gospel

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has followed West's career. Gospel music has long had an influence on the producer/rapper, and West has never been one to hide his Christianity.

On 2004's Jesus Walks, West rapped, "They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus/ that means guns, sex, lies, video tape/ but if I talk about God my record won't get played."

Jesus Walks is, naturally, performed as part of Sunday Service, as are many other spiritual versions of his songs. In the hands of the choir, for example, West's 2010 King Crimson-sampling hit song Power becomes an uplifting self-empowerment sing-along.

There are also covers of other songs, such as Marvin Gaye's Save the Children and the Beatles' Blackbird. West will also perform live remixes of songs, such as the aforementioned This is the Day, which earned Hammond's approval.

"When I heard and seen it ... um um um #kanyewest flipped it!" Hammond wrote on Twitter. "Save the negative comments about this Luke 19:40 'I tell you,'" he replied, "if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out #choirmusicrocks."

Gospel samples have made their way into West's work in the past, dating back to his 2004 debut, College Dropout. His 2016 album The Life of Pablo was even called a hip-hop and gospel album. While it wasn't the uplifting album many fans had hoped for, parts of songs from Pablo that contain gospel elements are also regularly performed at Sunday Service.

There is also a workshop vibe to Sunday Service, especially when West remixes a song live or plays new music from his upcoming album Yahndi for the first time — an album that, judging on what we've heard, could be his most gospel-heavy yet.

If West is looking to put a controversial year behind him, it would seem he's looking to do it through gospel music — and hoping an Easter Sunday performance can give him redemption. 

"There's basically two buttons in this game: love and fear," he said at one event. "And some of us are just programmed to be more scared than others. But I represent overcoming fear and still being here."

Anyone who has Coachella tickets for April 21 will be able to find out firsthand what Sunday Service is about, but for now, you can also watch one of the services at the Adidas headquarters below.

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