The invites for Kanye West’s Sunday Service went out on Saturday, inviting a small selection of fashion types to join him at 8:45 the next morning at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. If you follow the tabloids or social media, you’ll recognize his Sunday Service as mostly invite-only spiritual jam sessions where a gospel choir sings, Kanye might rap, Kim and Kanye’s kids might dance, and friends like Justin Bieber might grab the mike. It started in California—at Coachella, the Forum in Inglewood, and the Kardashian-Wests’ own property in Calabasas—and it’s since moved on to Chicago, where it coincided with the N.B.A. All-Star Game. At bigger venues, tickets are sold. Hashtag saved.
How could I not go, if only for the incredible eye roll of seeing stiff-armed French fashion people try to navigate the charismatic testifying of the African-American gospel tradition? In a country where public displays of religion are, at best, a subject of vigorous debate? I imagined the dyspeptic air that lingered over the Windsors as Bishop Michael Curry blessed Harry and Meghan’s nuptials and multiplied it with a language barrier. It just seemed too delicious. I arrived on time and got a front-row seat.
There are so many reasons to wonder about Kanye West as a self-styled religious figure. There’s his curious identification with Donald Trump, his flirting with the “Think positive and it will happen” prosperity gospel, and the Sunday Service–branded merchandise on sale. (Socks, T-shirts, and sweatshirts over-dyed in the peachy, beige-y tones we know from West’s streetwear line, Yeezy, go for $50–$225.) There are Yeezy limited-edition sneakers in a new Sinai Desert–friendly colorway, “Zyon”—the same color the choir was wearing as they spiraled out around a single piano on the stark, unfinished stage of Peter Brook’s theater, dressed in matching surgical scrubs and off-blue Yeezy sneaks. Though, to be fair, Christianity and marketing have gone hand in hand since Constantine converted, in 312 A.D.
Then the 120 singers West flew in from California started to sing with perfectly calibrated voices, piercing the cool, silent air. And it was transcendent. At some point West joined the group, relatively hidden among them in the same scrubs, as they segued back and forth between gospel standards and pop songs, whose lyrics West asked the choir’s lyricists to churchify. (The first line of the chorus of the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” became “If you believe, you’ll receive, God has all the power.”) If anyone present—the crowd included A.P.C.’s Jean Touitou, Haider Ackermann, Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, as well as Kim Kardashian West and her sister Kourtney—was taken aback by exhortations to lift up their hands and say they believed, they got comfortable with the milieu quickly. The singers, who cheered and smiled and urged the audience to join them without missing a note, greatly helped. Many of the raised arms in the crowd had smartphones attached, busily filming, but in the age of social media is this not its own form of testifying?
How could I not go, if only for seeing stiff-armed French fashion people try to navigate the African-American gospel tradition?
There was no merch on sale, nor gift bags. Everyone clapped along. There were many fewer ready to embrace the J-word as often as it came from the lips of the choirmaster, who also preached at intervals, but everyone smiled at each other exuberantly and appeared to actually mean it. That alone is an achievement.
The playwright du moment Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play), dressed in head-to-toe, Cognac-colored acetate Schiaparelli with a bejeweled Schiaparelli headpiece—“I had to wear a hat to church”—sat two seats over, responding to the call of the choir. After the show I confessed to him I had come with suspicious motives and found instead a sublime act of generosity. “The beauty of the black-church tradition,” he said, “is that it’s all about generosity and grace. It’s also theatrical. I learned dramaturgy from the black church growing up. And it’s really exhilarating that Kanye is figuring out ways to engage and integrate these places, even if it’s imperfect.” Indeed, as a spectacle, you could see West’s collaborations with choreographer Vanessa Beecroft influence the staging, as well as, Harris noted, Peter Brook’s ideas of empty space. (Now 94, Brook, who has been based in Paris for a half-century, is uninterested in seamless performance and sees theater as a consensual search for meaning between spectator and performer.)
If West can’t help but think like a marketer, he is also an incredibly sophisticated musician and an exacting producer. When a stage is in the mix, never bet against him. He is also clearly a true believer who was many times near tears on Sunday morning, when a glimpse of his face became visible among the crowd. Both his wife and Jason White, the former musical director of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, who assembled and directs the Sunday Service choir and was present on Sunday, have said that West is in the midst of a heartfelt Christian spiritual rebirth. (The follow-up to West’s October release, Jesus Is Born, considered to be the choir’s debut album, came out on Christmas Day.) At Sunday Service, you could go with God or simply appreciate a gift of talented people making joyful music and come out ahead. At the end of the ceremony, certain guests received an invitation to the Yeezy show the following night, where West and his oldest daughter, aged six, would deliver a vocal performance as affectless models walked past. Brand Kanye contains multitudes.
Alexandra Marshall is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL