Let’s get this out of the way first. It may have been easy to form a certain narrative around Kanye West’s Sunday Service at Coachella today. In Twitter speak, his “cancelling” has followed his vocal support of President Donald Trump. Today’s narrative could have been one of resurrection on top a Ye-made mountain in a car park of narcissists, one of Insta-framed redemption via a flooding of hashtags on social media, or through a flurry of hits such as Jesus Walks and any song from his Messiah complex album Yeezus.
The biggest surprise, however, was that the Sunday Service the rapper and impresario brought to Coachella was not in service of his own ego. It was in service of music.
Kanye has been holding these Sunday morning services since earlier this year, with a gospel choir performing new renditions of his songs. Up until now, these have been livestreamed on Instagram from unknown locations, with the most privileged of his peers present (Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom and Tyler The Creator attended one last month).This weekend, instead of doing a traditional headline slot, he asked festivalgoers to rise from their pits at an inhospitable hour on Sunday morning and come to a secret location for 9am.
Some attendees were genuinely looking to be spiritually uplifted. One woman who is a Kardashian obsessive just wanted to catch a glimpse of her inspirations.
At an Uber drop-off point, a path two-and-a-half-miles long led people to the supposed place of worship. En route, the punters weren’t necessarily swallowing Ye’s latest stunt. They were here out of curiosity. Some attendees were attending for the gospel which they’d never experienced like this before. Some attendees were genuinely looking to be spiritually uplifted. One woman who is a Kardashian obsessive just wanted to catch a glimpse of her inspirations. “Not so much Kanye,” she scoffed.
Rumours the night before were that Kanye had ordered 500 trucks to bring in enough dirt from which he could build his mountain. True or not, the mountain was there for all to see in the parking lot. On one side, the artists and their guests could approach it very closely. Most of them lazed on the hillside taking in the spectacle, as Kanye’s dancers lay among them, sometimes rising and re-grouping to jump along to the ecstasy and unity of church song. On the other side, the regular crowd got as close to the barrier as they could – a huge physical mass nodding along in unison to the soulful hymns of Kanye’s gigantic choir.
Jokes on Twitter jibed that this was nothing but promotion for a new clothing line, and indeed there was a stall at the back of the field selling “CHURCH CLOTHES”. But the intention of this display was more about mercy than the merch on sale.
For the first half hour of the performance, you couldn’t even detect Kanye. It triggered the memory back to all the experiences of Kanye live over the years. The patchy Glastonbury headline performance that veered between brilliance and hubris; the Saint Pablo tour in which he stood alone on a platform surfing over enormous crowds for hours – solitary, exalted, confined.
That Kanye was somewhere in the mix of scores of affiliates in identical robes on the mountain suggested he was trying to encourage a community. On the mountain, he was not by himself. He was supported by a full force of performers, and notable ones too – Chance The Rapper being the most significant additional voice. The focus wasn’t really on Kanye at all, though whenever he moved off the mountain, hoards of people flocked like sheep towards him, worried they might miss a glimpse of the action.
What does Sunday Service say about Ye? What does it say about celebrity? What does it say about our concept of religion? Big questions for any Sunday morning hangover. Interesting though that once a bass drops 24 minutes into the two-hour performance here, Kanye’s choir started melding old hits with his own material, and seamlessly, as if to say that Kanye’s music has always been about joy, celebration and praising a higher power. The Gap Band’s Outstanding was sampled. As was Stevie Wonder’s As and Soul II Soul’s Back To Life.
With the sun beating down on our backs and the smell of fresh grass filling our lungs, it was impossible not to feel the glory and goodness of such elated renditions. Calls for the congregation to put their “hands in the air” were met. “Lift it up!” said one leader. “How excellent!” Kanye’s own catalogue – from Power and All Falls Down, to Faded, Ultra Light Beam and a new song called Water – Ye’s music was set within the context of repeated positive affirmations and mantras. “We have everything we need” was one.
It was impossible not to feel the glory and goodness of such elated renditions
Every now and then you caught a look of Kanye circling the mountain, his disciples dancing all around him. He knelt down on the face of it as Jesus Walks ended. That song begins with a line saying “mostly we at war with ourselves”. It’s essentially about internal conflict and one of Ye’s earliest rap endorsements of religion. He descended the mountain with a security team on either side of him, and for the first time his wife Kim Kardashian West and child North became apparent as he planted a kiss on Kim’s face. It was a humble and traditional move.
On paper this entire thing was bombastic. But, whether you’re bowing down to your favourite artist on the main stage, or attending a real Easter church service, music is a historic access point to things we can’t quite understand. For Kanye, the music doesn’t redeem him. Perhaps it was never supposed to.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Music, Culture, Capital, Future and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.