The concept of a gospel concert led by an icon as hip and profane as Kanye West is strange enough, but even as a member of the Jewish faith, I found myself to be one of the least unusual attendees in the crowd.
Last Thursday afternoon, I noticed a few of my housemates giddily focused on their computers and phones. They were talking about a concert dubbed “Sunday Service” that had been spontaneously advertised across social media and would be held in Detroit the very next day.
The mere notion of attending a gospel concert had never appealed to me before, but my time at Hillsdale College has broadened my understanding of the Judeo-Christian faith, and I found myself intrigued by the modern interpretation of gospel. I doubted I would ever have the chance to experience this again.
The allure of a free Kanye West event was enough to convince me. I sped to my computer, waited in the online queue, and successfully obtained two of only about six thousand tickets available. In the span of just fifteen minutes, all of the seats had been taken. I had hardly realized how esteemed this event was.
I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with West’s Sunday Services, a concept the Chicago rapper developed this past year which consists of gospel music combined with electronic elements. I first heard of them from my housemate, and I had thought that it would be a rap concert with a few elements of gospel music.
I was wrong.
Held in the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre in Detroit, an airy venue right along Detroit River, the event proved to be a combination of traditional gospel music, the talent of West and his choir, and a diverse crowd, the members of which held only a love of music in common.
Advertisements said the show would begin at 12 p.m. Almost two hours after my housemate and I arrived, the concert finally started at 2 p.m. A large crowd of colorfully-dressed performers walked on stage and warmed up their instruments. When West finally arrived, he was greeted with massive applause.
To my surprise, he didn’t seem to be the center of attention. Dressed in a large, nondescript hoodie, Kanye maintained his iconic appearance despite branching off from his typical style of music. Rather, the group of colorfully-dressed singers, called the “Sunday Service Collective,” seemed to be the focus of the show as they surrounded West and began singing gospel hymns.
The communal power of more than 50 members on stage amplified the meticulously-clear tone of their voices. They started the show with a performance of “Hallelujah, Salvation and Glory.” This wasn’t the debut of new music. Instead, it was a beautiful tribute to great, old songs. For me, a practicing Jew, it was an education in Christian culture as well as an unforgettable musical experience.
That’s not to say that the event was uninfluenced by Kanye’s signature touch. West performed more conservative renditions of “Father Stretch My Hands” and “Ultralight Beam,” two of his more famous songs, both of which typically use electronic elements.
Nearly every piece was performed with vocals, brass, drums, and an organ, staying true to each hymn’s authenticity, filling the airy amphitheater with booming percussion and piercing trumpet notes. I even felt the voices of the choir resonating through the seats, as though as an audience member I was inside of each song.
The few exceptions involved West live-mixing eccentric samples while accompanied by the energetic dancing of the Sunday Service Collective that inspired most audience members to get up and dance. It was a comprehensive expression of music in which everyone could participate.
Attending a gospel concert had been a new enough experience for me already, but the legitimacy of the Christian elements imbued in Kanye’s music was solidified when Pastor Adam Tyson walked on stage halfway through the 90-minute concert and delivered a sermon to the crowd.
While I wouldn’t know how the sermon compared to typical ones, it certainly seemed authentic as proven by the rise in the crowd and the occasional “hallelujah!” shouted by the singers and echoed by a few audience members. Even the concert-goers were inspired by the pastor’s raspy and echoing voice, letting their arms rise above their heads in an expression of inspired faith. His speech emphasized the importance of The Lord among other topics of Christianity and gave me an intimate view of the passion behind the Christian faith.
Overall, Kanye West’s Sunday Service was nothing short of an unforgettable — dare I say, religious — experience, from the dynamic music to the focus on worship. West proved that modernity doesn’t have to stray from tradition and that the importance of praising God has not been forgotten.