WHEN religion is done the right way, it elevates the soul and elicits acts of such breathtaking compassion. But there are other things that shape our social discourse such as pop culture.
Pop culture, with its pervasiveness and pretentiousness, pretends to offer what religion offers: that is, access to the divine. But it falls dismally short. This week, I am looking at both religion and pop culture; what they offer and what happens when they intersect.
The Billboard music charts released the news that Kanye West, hip hop music impresario and producer extraordinaire ninth music recording Jesus Is King is sitting top of the pile Stateside.
Jesus Is King was unveiled on October 25 via G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam Recordings, garnering 264 000 equivalent album units in the United States in the week ending October 31, according to Nielsen Music. Of that number, 109 000 constituted album sales, while the rest was powered largely by streaming activity.
The total sum of online audio streams for West’s Jesus is King album is 196,9 million for the album’s 11 tracks. That is staggering. West also ties Eminem in having nine consecutive number ones. Billboard reports that the two artistes now stand ahead of the Beatles, whose eight albums between 1965 and 1968 reached number one atop Billboard. But what does it matter to you, dear reader?
Maybe because hip-hop is what your kids listen to, especially from the age of 12 to even 35 years of age. It is the rock n’ roll of their generation. West is possibly their age’s Cliff Richard. The comparison is not far-fetched.
Cliff Richard, the British yesteryear pop star, was one who dallied with Christianity in his heyday. Where John Lennon of the Beatles was busy causing you to contemplate a world without heaven, West is saying Jesus Is King. It is a big deal right now.
The danger of having people of West’s power and influence dabble in something as visceral as Christianity is that fans tend to follow their idols. Idolatry is expressly forbidden in the Good Book, by the way. But the ethos of pop culture is the basis of pop culture.
It is a world of self-aggrandisement and self-love. In fact, hip-hop stars peddle braggadocio. The culture is competitive and essentially about who is the greatest or the “flyest”.
Yes, rap music has tackled very important topical subjects such as black disenfranchisement, but generally rappers are Muhammad Ali’s progeny in a sense. It is therefore head turning for West to deflect attention from himself and focus on Jesus of Nazareth. Pop culture is incredulous that Ye, as he is known, or Yandhi as he has postured, is really a changed man.
The reason is that gospel music cannot be truly delivered by a heathen soul. One has to be born again. Gospel music is music of experience, not a mere affectation.
As a pop culture icon, West is one of his generation’s most influential if not most controversial. He has produced some of hip-hop music’s most dominant artistes such as JAY Z and Nas. As a producer, he is revered. He is married to Kim Kardashian, a social media star, a controversial pop culture phenomenon in her own right.
She built her career on the back of “indecent exposure” with the release of a sex tape with an erstwhile lover. She then parlayed that notoriety for fame and fortune aided, of course, by social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. She has millions of followers and alongside her siblings Kylie Jenner and Kloe have built themselves into brands and influencers for various lifestyle products.
Just for good measure, Pokello Nare, a Zimbabwean socialite, names her as one of her inspirations. She pursued a similar path to fame/notoriety. What this indicates is the ubiquitous nature of US pop culture. Its purveyors are globally recognised and lionised.
The question now arises: Will more young people now turn to Christianity because of West? Well, a US publication reports that Google searches for “Jesus” and the query, “What do Christians believe?” spiked after West’s gospel-rap album Jesus Is King, when the album was released on October 25.
Will this lead to actual conversion? Perhaps. What is being hoped by the open-minded among Christians is that the seed has been planted out there. But West anticipates the backlash as the lyrics in his song Hands On indicates:
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Feelin’ like nobody love me
Told people God was my mission
Free the Word
Fox News reports that the American Bible Society’s annual State of the Bible Survey found that 61% of millennials and 58% of Gen Zers said they are curious about the Bible and half of the unchurched people said they are curious as well to know what the Bible actually says.
The society is offering free “Bibles for Kanye Fans”.Some religious figures see the need to fill the gap created by the “cultural curiosity” implied in West’s latest music offering. West has revealed that he reads the Bible before going to bed.
The hip-hop artiste started blurring the lines between pop culture and religion with his Sunday services where he would perform his famous hit songs and give them a religious or “churchified” feel. Over time, the events have attracted A-list Hollywood stars such as Brad Pitt and Jamie Foxx.
Questions have been raised about the music mogul’s personal, emotional and spiritual direction. He did appear to have a meltdown a few years ago while performing on stage and it led to him being hospitalised and put on medication.
What the record shows is that West has indeed reached out to men of the cloth to guide him in his quest for God. His personal pastor is Adam Tyson of Placerita Bible Church outside of Los Angeles.
Pop culture is the sum of a wide mix of genres and activities such as film, music, sports and the mass media in a given culture. One writer says that pop culture “is important because it’s a good indicator of where we are going in regards to future society, consumerism, and developments.”