How Kanye West Became the Reincarnation of Al Green

Kanye West has made a career of throwing people off balance, just as he is doing now with his embrace of Christianity. And when Kanye embraces something, he goes all the way. In October, he released a set of Christian praise songs,  Jesus Is King. The next month, he appeared at the mega-church of celebrity pastor Joel Osteen. Oh, and on Christmas Day, he released Jesus Is Born, an album version of his Sunday Service worship events.

Is he for real? How could a hip-hop artist who has seemingly rapped about every sexual act imaginable now release Christian music? Is the Sunday Service a sincere attempt to spread God’s word, or is Kanye just hustling us to sell more music and $240 crewnecks? What’s up with West appearing at Joel Osteen’s church, discussing his love for Jesus, and then announcing that he’s the greatest artist God has ever created?

As journalist Tobi Oredein wrote of Kanye’s Sunday Service, “He’s employing a choir of people who are not only singing his songs, but are all dressed in his apparel. Is Christ really at the centre of this gathering? I’m not sure he is.”

In fact, Kanye West, is not taking a left turn. In his art, spiritual themes have existed alongside the profane for years, most notably in the song, “Jesus Walks,” from his 2008 album, The College Dropout. His exploration of spirituality alongside songs about consumerism, sexuality, crime, and racism have always made him a more interesting and complex artist.

He’s not the first artist to explore the spiritual and earthly realms in his music. Let’s go back to 1974 to take a closer look at another man who confounded his audience by injecting faith into his music.

Al Green: Sex and the Lord’s Prayer

Al Green. One of the greatest soul singers ever. He sang “Love and Happiness,” “So Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s Stay Together,” and a host of other hits about love, sex, and romance, on his way to becoming named one of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”

But at the peak of his popularity, there was more to Al Green than “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).” He was also capable of unsettling contradictions. For example, watch the following video from a 1974 appearance on Soul Train, in which he seduces an enraptured audience while gyrating in canary-yellow pants. He sings, “Oh, I wanna dance with my sweet love sixteen” in between grunts and shouts — and then, in one fluid motion, he brings the song “Sweet Sixteen,” a song about obsession with young love, to a close — and recites the Lord’s Prayer. Yes, the Lord’s Prayer.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” he prays with the same conviction as when he sang “You try to move your body, you might lose control” only seconds earlier. Then, as his band lays down a quiet groove, he eases into “Jesus Is Waiting,” the song that closes his 1973 masterpiece, Call Me.

“Jesus, save my soul, I’ll live for You,” he sings, his bejeweled fingers gesturing to the audience, his arms outstretched. With a charismatic flourish, he presents the Bible with one hand and Lolita in the other.

The disturbing part is that the moment works. Perfectly. Why? Because in the Soul Train performance, Al Green creates a convincingly smooth persona who is part-Lothario, part-preacher. This persona makes no distinctions between the carnal “Sweet Sixteen” and the spiritual “Jesus Is Waiting.” He is the same slender, twisting, sexual dervish, as he performs both.

In doing so, he shows us there is no difference between seducing and preaching. Both actions draw from the same reservoir of energy. When he recites the Lord’s Prayer, he is both praying and engaging in foreplay.

And is this association off the mark? Not at all. We all know of real-life ministers throughout history whose legacies have been tarnished by sexual misconduct — some of them well known (Jimmy Swaggart), some of them historical (Martin Luther King Jr.). But the stories of prominent pastors stumbling badly keep coming. Consider “the Billy Graham Rule,” or Rev. Billy Graham’s practice of avoiding meeting women in private to avoid falling prey to temptation. Billy Graham knows whereof Al Green sings.

As The Daily Beast commented in the aftermath of a number of high-profile cases of ministerial sexual misconduct, “Exposing religious sexual hypocrisy is, as the cliché goes, like shooting fish in a barrel. If you follow the right Twitter accounts, literally every day there’s a new story of religious conservative leaders philandering, downloading illegal pornography, cruising for gay sex on the down low, or, by far worst of all, sexually abusing minors or other vulnerable people.”

With this 11-minute musical flourish, Al Green seems to say, “It ain’t hypocrisy if you own it.” In doing so, he teaches us something about great art: art confronts and confounds. Great art makes connections you don’t see, but were right in front of you: in this case, the carnal and the spiritual.

Dual Impulses in Song

Those dual impulses were always evident in Al Green’s recorded music. “Jesus Is Waiting” (“Jesus is waiting/If you’re broken down/Jesus is waiting/Don’t let yourself down”) appeared on the same album in which he sang of a smoldering, unapologetically sexual attraction in “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” (“All this love’s inside of me/I believe there’s going to be an explosion”). When he wrote the hit song “You Ought to Be with Me” in 1972, he had God in mind, not a woman. As author Jimmy McDonough recounts in Soul Survivor, a recently published Al Green biography:

When writing the song [“You Ought to Be with Me”], Al explained that he was “playing with God . . . I was so arrogant at the time, not being born again . . . I was saying: ‘You’ — Green pointed upward — ‘ought to be with me.’”

In the song “Take Me to the River,” from Al Green Explores Your Mind, carnal desire and gospel overtones somehow made their way into the same song.

The sacred and the profane themes were an expression of Al Green’s own life. Spiritual forces and sexual desire roiled away inside him always. According to Soul Survivor, he was a notorious womanizer, happily (and callously) partaking of groupies and paramours, even after having a religious awakening in Anaheim in the early 1970s. As Al Green wrote in his autobiography, Take Me to the River:

As I spent more and more time out on the road, I had begun to accumulate a certain type of girlfriend from one town to the next. It wasn’t a romantic or even a physical thing, just a way to satisfy the fascination I’ve always had for beautiful women. I’d come into town and give them a call, and they were always available to drop by and spend a little time.

In 1974, one of Al Green’s girlfriends, a woman named Mary Woodson, assaulted him with boiling grits in his home, before committing suicide, despondent that Green would not marry her. This ugly incident contributed to the mythology of Al Green: a man so desirable that a woman would kill herself if she could not have him.

And yet, spiritual impulses coexisted with his fascination with women. The spiritual longing manifested itself in 1975, when he founded the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Al Green had become a minister for real.

Alienating His Audience

After he became a minister, Green attempted to amplify the spiritual side of his identity in his concerts, praying onstage and making overt references to Jesus in his stage patter. His immersion in both worlds of love and spirituality could be upsetting. One of his longtime musical collaborators, Mabon Lewis “Teenie” Hodges, became frightened. As quoted in Soul Survivor:

I got scared. He started mixing the songs up, R&B and gospel . . . I can understand if he do a show and then maybe a few gospel songs at the end. But going from “Sweet Sixteen” to “Jesus Is Waiting?” No, I couldn’t handle that.

Al Green’s audiences eventually couldn’t handle it either. Here’s how Soul Survivor describes one night when his references to scripture onstage went too far:

It happened again one night when Al was playing “this weird little casino gig. I stood onstage and said, ‘When you open the Bible to Deuteronomy’ . . . I had never seen 3,000 people leaving out of a place so fast! All the pimps and their ladies . . . were gone.” Lee Hildebrand attended a Circle Star Theatre show where Green started preaching between hits. “I remember a lady sitting behind me saying quite loudly, ‘I didn’t pay to hear no gospel shit!’ She was upset.” When the woman rushed the stage to touch the hem of Al’s garment, he recoiled: ‘No, no, no — I want you to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.’”

Al Green went from packing theaters to clearing them. His willingness to push an audience beyond their comfort zones was costing him commercially. He continued to mix love and spirituality on his records, as in the 1977 album, Belle, when he sang, “It’s you I want, but Him I need.” But after an incident in which he fell off a stage, he took it as a sign from God that it was time to stop singing secular music.

The Flawed Preacher

Al Green began to record gospel exclusively and focused on preaching. He met another gospel singer, Shirley Kyles, who became his wife. But this new direction didn’t stop women from throwing themselves at him, even in church — perhaps especially in church. For Al Green as a minister was as charismatic as he was a singer. Now he possessed spiritual agency. And women knew where to find him every Sunday. According to Soul Survivor:

One woman in particular was a thorn in Green’s side. He and the band returned from the road to find an unexpected visitor in Al’s home. “She’d jumped over the fence, went to the pool and was lyin’ out there naked.” This same dame showed up at the service wanting to say a few words about what the Almighty had done for her. “The Lord turned out to be Al Green, and she was dreaming of having sex with him right there in the middle of the service,” said Johnny Brown, who claims Al “knocked her cold.”

A man facing these kinds of temptations regularly needed more than the Billy Graham rule. He needed a 24/7 watch. And, as it turns out, he fell, and fell often. Shirley Kyles filed for divorce twice, alleging adultery and spousal abuse. He admitted to spousal abuse under oath.

Although his church sermons evolved into free-form concerts, his recorded music became one-dimensional. Gone were songs about burning for women. He sang about God full-time. He won Grammy awards for his gospel, but McDonough contends that Green lost his artistic spark. Indeed his gospel albums are generally less critically acclaimed than his secular music, and I seldom listen to them. His gospel lacks the tension between the secular and spiritual; the tension that made his music so interesting was gone.

In addition to losing his secular audience, he also struggled to gain acceptance by other gospel singers. He was viewed with suspicion, as Kanye West is now. Was Al Green for real? Was he going gospel only because he had run out of secular songs to write? But those misgivings did not stop him. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he recorded even more gospel. At the same time, he was immersed in cocaine. His performances became erratic.

Such are the risks that people take when they strive for a life of the spirit: they fall short. And he fell short in his personal life, while becoming a less-interesting artist.

A Return to the Secular

Eventually, Al Green returned to secular music, recording three albums full of familiar themes of romance and love throughout the 2000s. These albums received generally positive reviews. They did not open any new artistic vistas, but they reminded the world that he was capable of singing about those time-honored themes that made him famous in the 1970s.

These days, Al Green continues to preach at Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. It is said that his sermons are still like dynamic showtime. Here’s a taste of Al Green in the present day, exuding emotion as he preaches and sings in a free-form style — you can judge for yourself:

He recently toured as a secular artist, too. At one concert in Chicago, he played the role of gospel-tinged romancer, handing out roses to the women (as he famously did at the height of his fame) and once again moving between songs about earthly love. But he was older and out of shape. His performance lacked the power of Al Green in his prime, although that sweet voice could still hit those high notes.

Kanye West: Spiritual Narcissist

The Kanye West we know today has updated Al Green’s secular preacher persona with his own spin. For Kanye, faith exists comfortably alongside narcissism and materialism. On “Closed on Sunday” from Jesus Is King, he sang, “Follow Jesus, listen and obey/No more livin’ for the culture, we nobody’s slave.” But on the show, Carpool Karaokehe gushed about getting a $68 million tax refund and thanked God for the financial windfall.

This duality was evident when Kanye appeared at the mega-church of Joel Osteen on November 17. He talked of God sending him visions and the struggle to be taken seriously as a gospel performer. He referred to himself as a superstar and then said, “The only superstar is Jesus,” in one sentence.

Here, apparently, is Kanye West as he wants to be known today: follower of Jesus and denier of the devil. “I’m here in service to God,” he said at Osteen’s church, and denounced his past “service to fame.” Even so, standing onstage at a church, his notorious egotistical behavior emerged as he gave his confession: “Now, the greatest artist that God has ever created is now working for him.”

Hence, the questions about Kanye. Is he in love with God, money, himself, or all three? In fact, the Kanye who talks of money is completely in sync with the teachings of “prosperity theology,” a type of Christianity that teaches God rewards the faithful with material blessings on earth. Prosperity theology also teaches that God wants us to experience happiness and joy. Prosperity theology has been criticized for encouraging people to become focused on material wealth. Its critics also contend that and that taken to an extreme, prosperity theology’s ethos of self-care can lead to narcissism.

Prosperity theology has been around awhile, adopted by a number of televangelists, such as the aptly named Creflo Dollar. Guess who the face of prosperity theology is today? Why, none other than Joel Osteen. But he’s far from the only proponent. After analyzing the growth of prosperity theology and visiting with Osteen personally, Edward Luce of the Financial Timeswrote in 2019:

Hardline evangelicals dismiss the prosperity gospel as unchristian. Some of Lakewood’s more firebrand critics even label it “heresy.” They point to the belief, which Osteen seems to personify, that God is a supernatural ally whom you can enlist to help enrich your life. There is scant mention of humanity’s fallen condition in his motivational talks.

Yet the market share of US churches run by celebrity prosperity preachers, such as Osteen, Creflo Dollar (sic), Kenneth Copeland, and Paula White keeps growing. Three out of four of the largest megachurches in America subscribe to the prosperity gospel. Formal religion in the US has been waning for years. Almost a quarter of Americans now profess to having none. Among the Christian brands, only “non-denominational charismatics” — a scholarly term for the prosperity preachers — are expanding.

Though precise numbers are hard to find, one in five Americans is estimated to follow a prosperity gospel church. This offshoot of Christianity is quintessentially American — a blend of the Pentecostal tradition and faith-healing. It is also expanding worldwide. Among its largest growth markets are South Korea, the Philippines, and Brazil.

Luce also observes that Osteen himself has a fortune estimated at $60 million and lives in a $10 million mansion. So just how incongruous is Kanye’s Jesus-Is-King-of-My-Wallet ethos with this brand of Christianity? It seems perfectly fitting that there is talk of Kanye and Joel Osteen touring together.

Will the Struggle Stay Real?

As with Al Green, Kanye West now faces perhaps one of the biggest challenges of his career: growing as an artist. Jesus Is King debuted at Number One on the Billboard charts, and all 11 of its singles debuted on the Billboard Hot 100. But the jury’s still out as to whether the album represents an artistic triumph. The album received a 55 Metacritic score, meaning mixed or average reviews.

I find Jesus Is King to be fairly standard praise music — overreaching for emotional highs in a singular pursuit of sermonizing. And frankly, the video for “Closed on Sunday” looks like a cringeworthy, if slickly produced, segment of Kanye and the Kardashians.

I prefer the earthier, complex “Jesus Walks” and wonder if Kanye, like Al Green, will end up becoming a less-interesting artist. But Jesus Is King is new to my ears. Sometimes a new sound for an artist takes time to catch on. And I’m encouraged by the news that he will collaborate with Dr. Dre on the sequel to Jesus Is King. I’m praying that Dre’s influence will go beyond his legendary production skills.

As for Kanye the flawed preacher, I’ll let Al Green have the last word from his biography:

Black people in America have always been torn between walking with Jesus and wandering in the world, clear back to the times of slavery when we either cried out in captivity by singing the blues or held out for a better hope by singing spirituals. We’ve been walking the line for hundreds of years. It’s only natural that some of us lose our balance once in a while. That struggle is part of what makes us great as a people, and part of what makes our music so powerful.

Struggle makes Kanye West create great art. Will Kanye the Christian keep the inner struggle alive?

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