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Kanye West, Joel Osteen, and the prison of public opinion
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Kanye West, Joel Osteen, and the prison of public opinion

'What have you been hearin' from the Christians?'

William Shakespeare once dubbed public opinion the "mistress of success." For Kanye West, that mistress has routinely reminded him of who he ought to be from the time he was a record producer to the time he publicly devoted his life and career to Jesus Christ.

To his credit, West doesn't operate within draconian rubrics and never has. He's not interested in currying favor with anyone, especially not now.

And while one would think that deviating from expectations would be a quality worth celebrating in industries such as fashion, art, music, media, and entertainment – the very hubs that are theoretically supposed to prop up what makes artists original and exceptional – that's never a safe bet.

Last year, when West declared his support for President Donald Trump and conservative political activist Candace Owens in a tweet, he sparked a national debate as intense as the debate surrounding his Hurricane Katrina remarks. It was like déjà vu for the media only this time, it was much different.

He said the hat "made me feel like Superman," and in a way, he had given license to black Americans to affirm their support for an unpopular figure like President Trump. He had encouraged the Democrats' most loyal constituency to question their allegiance to a party West says hasn't done much for African Americans.

When he speaks of the troubles facing the African American population, he often cites welfare dependence, abortion, and the violence in Chicago as examples of how the Democrats have failed their constituents.

At the Fast Company Innovation Festival, West urged African Americans to "Own your power. Your power is not to just vote Democrat for the rest of our lives. That's not the power."

For perspective, 88 percent of black Americans voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election compared to the 97 percent who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Only 8 percent voted for President Trump in 2016.

Anyone who has followed his avant-garde career knows that there is never a shortage of criticism and controversy when it comes to his outbursts, his ideas about influencing the culture, and his artistic expression through music and fashion. They are perennial.

Since he announced his conversion to Christianity and released his highly anticipated gospel album titled, "Jesus Is King" — which missed two planned release dates in September — West prompted another debate surrounding his Christianity and authenticity.

Skeptics and Christians who have followed the evolution of Kanye West are expecting a dramatic end to a grand publicity stunt, and who can blame them? West has described himself as a wild card.

It's arduous and even risky for Christians to vouch for an artist of his caliber. No one wants to hop on the bandwagon too quickly. They're afraid of being duped and having the gospel misconstrued.

This has never been done before by someone as mainstream as West; he's essentially divorcing the culture that permitted him to become famous.

When megachurch Pastor Joel Osteen invited West to his Lakewood Church in Houston, critics, again, went into hyperdrive. Prosperity theology is a polarizing issue among Christians.

But I was curious, so I piled into my car and drove over four hours from Dallas to Houston to attend Sunday Service at Lakewood Church.

I have fond memories of West, and I wasn't going to miss an opportunity to witness one of the most transformative moments in his career.

I was infatuated with West's 2007 studio album "Graduation" in high school. I used to listen to it every day with my best friend, Gigi Franco, during our lunch hour. It was as if that album put my late teens in a glass crystal ball that I can go back and reflect on every now and again. I'm convinced that time travel is already possible through music in this way.

The weather in Houston that weekend was prettier than I remembered it being as a kid.

The only memories I had of the city were from early adolescence. I remember Houston being sticky, hot, and miserable — the air from the Gulf of Mexico felt like it was choking me the last time I was there.

But this weekend's weather was inerrant. Low 70s, bright, beautiful skies, and low humidity.

I woke up the morning of Sunday Service at 6 a.m. I assumed there would be large crowds, so I made my way there early.

I arrived by 10 with a venti black coffee in hand. My mental state was non compos mentis. I hadn't slept much.

I read in a news article that some 45,000 people pass through Lakewood Church weekly, but the parking lot wasn't at all as chaotic as I envisioned it would be knowing this. The chaos was waiting behind the glass door entrance to the church.

The former arena was once home to the NBA's Houston Rockets and holds up to 16,000 attendees at once. When a group of us from Blaze Media arrived, Osteen's media relations wrangler, Andrea Davis, welcomed us through the doors. She was warm and gave us hugs and said she was a fan of our network. I call her the wrangler because she moved people like cattle that Sunday, including us. One slip up by Osteen's staff could be a catalyst for chaos and confusion, even on a Sunday when everyone is expected to be delightful.

People were everywhere — in the halls, the restrooms, and trying to find their seats. When I walked into the former arena, I saw the Jumbotrons hanging from the ceiling, and peered into a sea of people below me, above me, and to the right and left of me. I wondered to myself if this is how it is every Sunday. It didn't look any different than on television. It was all very modern with no crosses.

It was impossible to tell who was in attendance for Osteen Ministries and who was there for West.

The media was there for West.

The service opened with phenomenal music; it easily rivaled the biggest talent in Hollywood. I kept thinking to myself that it felt like I was in a movie. "Is this really happening right now? Am I really at Joel Osteen's church about to listen to Kanye West share his testimony and perform Sunday Service?"

The entire day was surreal.

When the musical performance was over, West and Osteen took the stage and West began to talk in a stream of consciousness about culture, indoctrination, serving God, the tribulation of fame, and his rebirth as an artist after his mental breakdown.

"Well, I know that God's been calling for a long time and the devil's been distracting me for a long time," said West.

"When I was at my lowest point, God was there sending me visions and inspiring me. And I remember sitting in the hospital at UCLA after having a mental breakdown and there's documentations of me drawing a church in Calabasas," he continued.

"And even after that I went and made the 'Life of Pablo' album. I said, 'This is a gospel album.' And I didn't know how to totally make a gospel album. And the Christians that were around were too, I would say, beaten into submission by society and not speak up and profess the gospel to ... me because I was a superstar. But the only superstar is Jesus."

He then went on to talk about how the "devil stole all the good producers, all the good designers, all the good business people, and said, 'You gotta come work for me.' And now the shift is going to change. Jesus has won the victory."

As soon as West wrapped up his testimony on stage next to Osteen and gave a good soundbite the media could use to write up news articles and drive clicks to their bylines, they left the service. We were only midway through.

A woman behind me noticed the empty seats and thanked us for staying. We didn't make it until the end either. Andrea, the wrangler, grabbed us and took us downstairs to the media center where we lined up with other news networks to ask Osteen and West one question each.

It wasn't the question we wanted to ask, but we were under the impression that it would only be Osteen coming to see us, and we were advised not to ask him anything political.

So, instead of asking what advice he'd give the media — given that he had just railed against indoctrination on stage — we instead asked how the two men came together to host a Sunday Service at Lakewood.

West complimented the necklace, my colleague, Kevin Ryan, was wearing and politely answered the question. He said he listens to Osteen in his car all the time. I was taken aback by how soft-spoken and polite he was.

The artist, who once said he had a hard time empathizing with people who lack self-confidence, was as polite as ever.

We left and returned for Sunday Service at 6:30 p.m. The scene was again chaotic. After all, the most decorated artist of the 21st century was performing. Service was supposed to begin at 7:30 p.m., but it began about an hour later and lasted for a solid 2 1/2 hours.

We were in awe of the choir, the energy in the room, and the production. A few signature West songs that were refitted for Christianity were performed including his College Dropout single, "Jesus Walks."

To be there to witness a performance dedicated to Jesus by one of the most influential artists of our time isn't something you leave unchanged.

Anyone who questions the authenticity of West's intentions should ask themselves this: Has Kanye ever not been authentic, even when it was to his own detriment and embarrassment?

Flashback to 2005 when West claimed, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" on national television during NBCUniversal's "A Concert for Hurricane Relief."

The unpredictable West veered off-script to talk about the negative perceptions of African Americans in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. He was supposed to deliver the facts and instructions on how Americans can help the victims, but he instead ignited a national debate about race and disaster relief.

Bush called the infamous remarks the lowest point of his presidency.

Coincidentally, YouTube had launched that same year making West's comments a viral sensation instantly despite the network's efforts to cut his remarks from the telethon before it aired on the West Coast.

And who could forget the controversy West stirred up at the MTV Video Music Awards with Taylor Swift?

Former President Barack Obama, whom West still admires, called him a "jackass" after he stormed the stage at the VMAs in 2009 to interrupt Swift's acceptance speech for best female video.

West said Beyoncé should have won.

That moment encased his career, and the backlash he received was severe. He had fomented a reputation for sparking outrage and being uncontrollable. West talks a lot about being controlled by agents, corporations, and culture in his music.

In subsequent interviews, West seemed disappointed by the fallout and the first black president's reaction to his VMA stunt.

He said he felt like Obama should have contacted him privately to express his frustration with his outburst, but he didn't.

"Touch the Sky" was played at Obama's inauguration in 2009 and West says he's always been Obama's favorite musician.

Nonetheless, embarrassing outbursts should serve as an example of some element of his authenticity to critics.

In fact, West left the country following the media storm that surrounded the situation to decompress, even though he was the cause of his own turmoil.

Embarrassment is a hard pill to swallow for West, and it affects him deeply.

Although his earlier music wouldn't share the same shelves with Christian gospel music, his lyrics have always held Christian undertones.

He's described his struggle with fame, women, God, and keeping up with an industry that's notorious for expending careers rapidly.

West is swimming against two cultures: the culture of the entertainment industry and the culture of Christianity.

He's essentially volunteered himself for a firing squad. But why? For Jesus, he says.

Critics who accuse the artist faking his Christian conversion for marketing purposes should listen to the predictions West has made about himself for years.

In the court of public opinion, perhaps the truth is as pervasive as many would like it to be.

This isn't public opinion between a government and its citizens. With the advent of social media, everyone has a platform and a voice. Before social media, those who wanted to voice their concerns about government and society wrote letters to newspaper editors to make their voices heard in their communities

Our voices are now amplified, and our ideas are disseminated more widely and rapidly without gatekeepers.

He's transformed himself throughout his career when he transitioned from a well-known producer to a rapper to a fashion designer, Trump supporter, and now Christian convert.

Unconventional thought is why an artist like West continues to evolve, even to the chagrin of critics.

West has compared himself to Steve Jobs, Michelangelo, Howard Hughes, David Sterns, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Puff Daddy — and Kanye West.

During a 2013 Breakfast Club interview, West said that his comparison to the most influential thinkers and inventors of our time was "a compliment to them."

West considers himself a first of his kind, much like Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley were.

In interviews, there's a conscious awareness West clings to that what he's doing through music, art, and fashion has never been done before, that he's ahead of his time. He's also said that human language hasn't caught up with how to describe him.

His role models are artists, idealists, innovators, thought leaders, and disrupters. Why would a person who has built a reputation on being outspoken suddenly not be genuine? West says he's been so controversial that he's been "canceled" before cancel culture was even a thing.

In the end, it's better to be wrong about Kanye West's conversion to Christianity than to reject someone's genuine religious conversion.

After all, "Hands Down" prolifically predicted the reaction from Christians:

"Told people God was my mission
What have you been hearin' from the Christians?
They'll be the first one to judge me"

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