Kanye West’s Critique of Prosperity Preaching

2003 was a pivotal year in the religious history of rap music, if for no other reason than the release of Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout, which featured the song “Jesus Walks.” This single signaled a new development in rap music, a genre that in its earlier years was firmly aligned with the visions of racial opposition and religious nationalism articulated by black Muslims, especially NOI and Five Percenters. As much as the song indicated a spiritual shift in hip hop—making Jesus a centerpiece of the culture—it also inaugurated a new (and related) class sensibility. No longer was the voice of “the hood,” as a stand-in for the black underclass, dominant. The College Dropout effused the anxieties of a particular black bourgeois sensibility, and the album put the lie to the myth that hip hop and middle-class identity are mutually exclusive. In fact, on the track “All Falls Down,” Kanye performed an overdose of the proverbial “conspicuous consumption” as he rapped:

I wanna act ballerific like it’s all terrific I got a couple past due bills,
I won’t get specific
I got a problem with spending before I get it
We all self conscious, I’m just the first to admit it

“Jesus Walks” promptly received ample attention and went on to win a Grammy. Kanye was invited to perform at churches, and the track was nominated (and then un-nominated) for a Stellar Award—the Christian music industry’s prime prize. At the same time, the song was in steady circulation on mainstream radio and in nightclubs across the United States. Yet, in spite of all this fanfare, there is still so much about this song’s story that has been neglected.

For instance, a lot of folks still have not heard (or even heard of), “Muhammad Walks,” a remix by Lupe Fiasco (who also hails from Chicago) that was only released on the Internet. Fiasco shares his decision to put the song on the Web for free in verse: “I’m not trying to profit off the prophet so this one’s for free.” He does this, ironically, even as his lyrics laud one of the most prominent black prosperity preachers, Creflo Dollar. Apparently, the two share a commitment to, as Lupe puts it, “no sex before you’re married,” if not a business ethic.

And then there’s the fact that Kanye recorded three different videos for the song. Two of these got plenty of play on major cable networks like MTV and BET; but very few people have seen the third video. In the song, Kanye seems to embrace personal spirituality (i.e., “the way I need Jesus”) over against an explicitly racial theology (i.e. “I ain’t here to argue about his facial features”), while insisting that Jesus walks with “the least of these”—namely, “strippers, murderers, drug dealers.” We might consider the song a pop culture take on a post-black liberation theology, perhaps…

In the third video, titled the “Street Version,” Kanye offers a more explicit, if subtle, parody of the prosperity gospel. Throughout the video Kanye is trailed through the streets of his hometown, Chicago, by an goofy white Jesus who performs a series of miracles. He puts cash in Kanye’s pocket. He fills an empty refrigerator with food. And he heals a young man on crutches, who then promptly breaks out into a praise dance. More than a clear theological message, ultimately “Jesus Walks” puts on display the silly (yet still seductive) idea that God might serve humans much like a personal assistant—but with extra-special powers. Kanye seems to be suggesting something to the effect of, as Harry Emerson Fosdick used to say, “”God is not a Cosmic bellboy”?

A third, and final, backstory to “Jesus Walks” is that the song wasn’t originally even Kanye’s. No, this is not an attempt at a hip hop expose that appeals to ghostwriters in order to question a rapper’s credentials. Admittedly, I’ve been a Kanye West fan since his debut. And I remain one, even after his string of award-show shenanigans. However, for hip hop posterity, it is important to note that the song so central to Kanye’s ascension to rap royalty was penned (at least in part) by another Chicago rapper, Rhymefest. In fact, one can find footage of Rhymefest performing his version, which includes a jab at Kanye (see video here), scattered across the Internet.

Additionally, in terms of hip hop’s religious history, in Rhymefest one can also trace the development of Kanye’s parody of the personal Jesus into a more trenchant (but still humorous) critique of prosperity preaching. Since the mid-1990s Michael Eric Dyson and others have pointed to some cultural sensibilities shared by Christian churches and hip hop music; namely male privilege, middle-class biases, sexism, and homophobia. Now, seven years after Kanye West left “Jesus Walks” talk behind, Rhymefest is still wrestling with one of the most dominant trends in contemporary Christianity.

So, having recently watched the video for his song “Prosperity,” I am wondering if Rhymefest is inaugurating a new era in hip hop’s religious sensibilities. Clearly, he capitalizes on a history of crude caricatures of preachers in popular culture (think Bernie Mac as pastor in Ice Cube’s movie Friday), but the critique is still biting. While Rhymefest fails to deploy the litany of race, class, and gender critiques alone, he does effectively call attention to the implications of a now all-too familiar theo-financial formula. Before you check out the video for yourself on YouTube, here’s a random sample of the song’s lyrics:

… For the low low price, you too can live the glamorous life,
you too can have the blood of Christ,
three easy payments, order tonight…
… I know I’m spiritual
I need a financial miracle
Please God, you’re the king imperial
And I’ll take the bible literal…
…On TV, I’ve seen it
They sell forgiveness, how convenient
Master, Visa, the shit’s ingenious
Why go to church, stay home with Jesus…
…I’m talking about televangelists,
need to be sued for spiritual damages…
…And I don’t know what right is,
And I ain’t all self-righteous
I just want to know what Christ is
I just want to know what Christ is…