On Kirk Franklin and Kanye West
Earlier this week, Kanye West released his new album entitled
So Help Me God Swish Waves “The Life of Pablo.” This album was released exclusively on Tidal, so you’re forgiven if you haven’t listened to it yet. The word on the street is that this album has already been illegally downloaded over 500,000 times. So much could be said about the album, from the triple meaning of the title (which is likely a reference to Pablo Escobar, Pablo Picasso, and Paul from the New Testament) to hints that Kanye is becoming mentally unstable, but I’m more interested in what happened on the first track of the record, Ultralight Beam ft. Kirk Franklin and Chance the Rapper.
In order to have this conversation, I need to stipulate to a couple things right. First, Ultralight Beam is a phenomenal song—haunting, hopeful, and perfectly timed. It’s best quality lies in it’s unexpectedness. Nothing in Kanye’s previous three albums hinted that he was interested in creating a song like this. It’s the type of song that will make grown men cry, and Kirk Franklin’s prayer at the end plays a significant role in creating this vibe. Yet this same prayer has spawned a firestorm of controversy in many circles because of the second stipulation. The album as a whole is an anthem to debauchery that has no place being internalized by anyone who takes their walk with Christ seriously. I’m not talking at all about whether the album is quality as a pure rap record; that’s a debate that will rage across the internet all year. I’m talking about the likely detrimental effect it will have on the spirituality of a person dedicated to walking with Christ.
Here is the crucial point: No one should be surprised by this.
But I’ll come back to that, let’s set the table. Kirk Franklin is probably the most prolific gospel artist today; he is a multiple Grammy winner and his music has been a staple in the Black Church nearly 25 years. He also has not been shy about mixing hip-hop and gospel before, having previously sampled Scarface, Notorious B.I.G., and, on his recent album “Losing My Religion,” Boogie Down Productions. Given Kirk’s strong gospel credentials, notwithstanding the hip-hop sampling, many in the Christian community have reacted strongly against his appearance on “The Life of Pablo.” (Inside joke: One of these critics is none other than G. Craige Lewis). I also, initially, thought this was a terrible idea. While I’ve changed my mind since then, it is important to understand where these critics are coming from.
KirkYe Hater Argument #1: The Capitalistic Cynic
These people argue that Kirk Franklin is now riding the “spirituality, not religion” wave that is the current cool-kid Christian trend. This trend was likely birthed by Jefferson Bethke’s famous spoken word piece from a few years ago, “Why I hate religion but love Jesus.” Kirk is becoming more and more secular these days, as even the title of his last album can attest. This is a marketing ploy, these people argue. Kirk is surfing this wave for dollars just like Beyoncé has conveniently hopped on the black power vibe. These people are also quick to point out that Kanye has done pretty much this exact thing before (Jesus Walks anyone?), using a gospel sound to increase his marketing ability.
I’m not particularly convinced by this argument. Kirk has made a lot of money over his career, and being seen as a sellout could cost him the stalwart support of the black church. The dollars gained by the new audience would likely be overshadowed by the dollars lost from his old audience. But the Capitalistic Cynics have a valid point, especially if you like conspiracy theorists.
KirkYe Hater Argument #2: The Evil Endorsement
This is the camp I originally fell in. Maybe Kirk has the best intentions. Maybe he is doing this as outreach to Kanye. That’s all well and good, but it ignores how having his name on the album could affect potential listeners. Kirk may not intend his feature to be an endorsement of the entire album, but for many people it will act as exactly that. Imagine that a pastor you really respect, TD Jakes or Myron Edmonds perhaps, tweeted out something like, “Wow! Kanye’s new album is fantastic, everyone should listen to it.” This would be instantly and correctly vilified by the Christian community as the album clearly hedonistic. I’m sure Kirk didn’t intend his prayer to operate that way, but that’s how many people would perceive it. Thus it possibly becomes a stumbling block for a large amount of people, as now many people might listen to the album who wouldn’t be interested if Kirk’s name wasn’t on it. These people argue that Kirk isn’t wrong, just using his fame irresponsibly.
There is something very compelling about this argument, as it sounds deep and spiritually mature. Many of us have heard sermons on not using our freedom to cause others to go astray. Except this argument misses a crucial point:
No one was surprised at how hedonistic Kanye’s album was.
This is such a big point that I need to repeat it. The content of TLOP was exactly what we have come to expect from Kanye lately. His previous album was called Yeezus for goodness sake. After the release of Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne, and Yeezus, people who are strong in their Christianity have no reason to seriously listen to Kanye anymore. Don’t debate me on this. Personally, I know I have regretted listening to the album, as the time it took out of my day and the effect it had on my mind wasn’t worth having the ability to participate in this conversation intelligently.
I think Kirk Franklin prayed on the album because he had more faith in the strength of us Christians than maybe we deserve. He was betting that the only people who would be really interested in hearing what Kanye had to say would be those who have no reason to be bothered by the hedonistic message in the first place. This was “club outreach.” And it’s only controversial because, it turns out, many of us Christians have not yet left the club. This album wasn’t meant for us. The prayer wasn’t meant for us. If we were bothered by Kirk being on the album, then, as my friend Corey Johnson said, why were we listening to it in the first place?
This speaks to a much larger issue in Millennial Christianity. The simple fact is that a lot of us struggle to keep our media inputs clean. We like Scandal, and Kanye, and Drake, and Jay-Z, and Orange is the New Black, and even Game of Thrones, knowing good and well that this isn’t conducive to our spirituality. I’m not judging; I’m there too. I’ve probably cut Jay-Z off, just to reinstate him, just to cut him off again a half-dozen times. But this cycle is holding back our growth and preventing us from making good judgments about the right thing to do in our lives. We need to move from baby milk to solid food. We need to let Kanye go.
By: Charles Eaton