I Watched Kanye’s Christmas Pageant So You Don’t Have To

…Or… if you want to watch, or already did—if you are into that sort of thing—it’s not a problem, we can compare notes. This production is interesting in several ways— especially if you care about the cultural politics of religion in US popular music, or are the sort of person who was turned on by the Broadway-meets-hip-hop extravaganza of Hamilton.

Or maybe you simply want to know a bare minimum about a “prestige event” to discuss with your friends who listen to NPR—it was at Lincoln Center and was reviewed in the New York Times. And then of course according to Kanye he is among the most important “genius” artists in the history of the world. (That’s absurd, but then again hip-hop is among the most influential music forms of the past century, and Kanye does rank amid the most important hip-hip artists—which does say a mouthful.)

Maybe you even care about Christian Contemporary Music, and are wondering if Kanye is the next step forward for that marketing niche—the “new Kirk Franklin” who can spark up the sound or make some noteworthy conceptual interventions.

On the other hand, maybe you are in the group that is trying to “cancel” Kanye on social media, or at least radically undercut his cultural capital as compared to more worthy musicians. This is largely the place where I live, although I dislike “cancel culture” and I study religion and hip-hop, so I need to keep up even if some of my work is “hate-listening.” Most of my Kanye listening lately has been in that category—for all his past importance and continuing flashes of brilliance, I think he has been overrated for some time, with little of interest to say and now rapidly transitioning into saying retrograde things about Trump and the prosperity gospel.

In any case, let’s take an inventory for Kanye’s new “opera” called “Mary.”

Do you like standard white-bread Christmas pageants—the type that appear in A Charlie Brown Christmas or happen the week before Christmas at a local church with kids dressed up in bathrobes as Mary, Joseph, and angels (sometimes spiced up with live sheep for the downscale or a laser light show and camels for megachurches.) Do you like the sentimental underlying logic along the lines of “Baby Jesus wants you to be nice instead of naughty” or the triumphalist moral of “Baby Jesus will later die for your sins, so all the world should convert to Christianity”?

Would you like these even better with top shelf musicians, cool headpieces that look like halos, ponderous yet not-entirely-boring dancing with a lot of walking in circles, and a lovely theatrical set with an earth-toned color palette? Would you like to hear new choral arrangements of traditional songs like “O Holy Night” and “The Little Drummer Boy” accompanied by a small orchestra? Most small to medium size cities mount at least one such pageant every year with good choirs, quality choreography, and fine musical arrangements—but now Kanye has entered the space.

The main thing that “Mary” adds to this, other than Kanye’s complex baggage, is an all-black cast. I would not say this lacks interest. Further, I will note that I have attended many Christmas concerts that lean far less into—or simply leave out—the bloody parts of the story about King Herod killing the children. Kanye stages that part with powerful music and choreography. On the other hand, most pageants lean more, both into the theme of “no room at the inn” for refugees and homeless people, and the arguably most central theme in the Biblical text that is typically read—the hopes for “peace on earth” in a context of war and empire. Both of these themes are, as in most Christmas pageants, depoliticized afterthoughts in “Mary.”

In any case, to have some of these politically resonant parts (notably around Herod) performed by a prominent artist who has sometimes been outspoken about racism—including in a video version of his most important religious song, “Jesus Walks”—makes this more interesting than most Christmas pageants. There are still a few glimpses of black theology hinted at here, however underdeveloped and overshadowed. Noticing this part of the Christmas story might be a step forward for some fraction of Kanye’s fans.

Still, on balance my impression was of Kanye not leaning into this—certainly not consistently—and largely leaning away. Overall there was little to direct our attention away from his current chosen version of Christianity—the “hard-working-genuises-can-pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps-and-become-billionaires” theology of Joel Osteen. Praise Jesus for blessing rich people with riches! Let’s have lots of nice Christmas gifts to mark the occasion. Baby Jesus will later die for the sins of the Christians and save the world, so bow to his power now (or would that be bow to the power of his Republican spokespeople?) Perhaps that was not Kanye’s intended message for me—in any case it was the major one I heard. I don’t like it any better with a black cast than a white one.

Aside from the triumphalist associations and the anti-oppression resonances in the Herod sequence, on balance this show is more de-politicized than most Christmas pageants I’ve seen—I would place it politically to the right of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and miles further right than the church that made news by outfitting its nativity scene with Mary, Jesus, and the baby as refugees in cages.

Readers should note—since our mileage may vary—that the all black cast of Hamilton and its foray into hip-hop Broadway also was necessary for me to pay attention to that project, but also not sufficient to make me a fan. Hamilton’s sound did not grab me and I wanted a sharper underlying political critique. Like most people, I prefer Obama to Trump, but still the Hamilton hype struck me as complacent about Obama’s defanged multiculturalism. Since Kanye seems to be staking out a stance far to the political right of Hamilton, aligning his creativity with Trump and a prosperity gospel I find noxious, this is not a good formula to win me over. Still, if you liked heroic US multicultural founding fathers as black, rapping passably well, you may like the shepherds and wise men as black, too, with their pretty good choir.

Now about the sound of “Mary.”

I fully agree with my friend Ashon Crawley’s take on how something essential is missing in the sound of Kanye’s new gospel choir—however competent their chops are, and how powerful they sometimes are in an overly-rehearsed way. I will link to Ashon instead of trying to summarize his analysis here.

Here I simply add that Kanye and his collaborators are straining harder in “Mary,” as compared to their debut record Jesus is King, to incorporate an establishment sound palette. Gospel voicings come and go, hip-hop parts are understated (a few riffs from Kanye records like “Power” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” are effectively reworked in a stuffier mode, and there is a cool-sounding gesture toward FKA Twig’s Magdalene record that could have some feminist resonances) and much of the performance is straight-ahead choral performance in a classical style. The blend is not uninteresting to consider, but not compelling either, at least to me. Think going downtown to the Episcopal Cathedral to hear the choir on Christmas Eve—which is fine if you like it, and of course Kanye has every right to do it. Still if you don’t like it, you may not like his version either.

Speaking of not loving music at white establishment churches, I also watched the stream of Kanye’s concert at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood megachurch—the one that used to be the Houston Rockets’ basketball arena. You should really thank me for that!

Some of this performance was far less appealing than the arrangements in “Mary.” Some was solid gospel, albeit with the uneasy sense of slick hollowness that Crawley notes. But if you have seen the famous South Park episode in which Cartman forms a Christian rock band and reworks pop songs by changing “I love you, baby” into “I love you, Jesus”—then you will understand what I mean when I say, in all seriousness, that some of Kanye’s new material lives all the way down to the level that South Park presented as savage satire. An example that I much regret having heard (since it is an earworm) is his reworking of Beyonce’s sex song “Say My Name” into “Call His Name.” We can commend Kanye for upping his choice of material for “Mary.”

Crawley commented on Kanye’s willfully amateurish voice in his new band’s set-up—how he is notably informal and undisciplined when juxtaposed with a slick choir, and so paradoxically ends up ostentatiously self-effacing—and how this works as a gambit to draw fans into his version of projecting sincerity in the service of celebrity culture.

In the “Mary” operetta, the gambit does not work aesthetically at all—Kanye reads from the Bible throughout, but only with a level of skill and gravitas that I might expect from a high school student reading in a local church without rehearsing.

I try to give Kanye the benefit of doubt for working in unfiltered ways—I think we need to take his good with his bad, and that the genius that often shines through his work is hard-wired into the same package that gives us “problematic Kanye.”

Still, I feel that his recent embrace of the prosperity gospel represents one of his most problematic moves to date—even though his “greed is good and I’ve got mine, Jack” philosophy was no more satisfying to me in its earlier atheistic forms than it is in its newly ramped-up pious ones.

As I finish writing today, I’ve begun to listen to the new Kanye Jesus Is Born record. It has little to do with the thematic arc of the music on “Mary.” A fair amount of the arrangements were in the concert streamed from Osteen’s church, and in general it doesn’t grab me. For example, here is another earworm (remember, you were warned!) in Cartman’s tradition. Still, Kanye the world-class beat maker is still down in this mix somewhere, and sometimes cuts through the schlock. Check out how this piece builds; it is an example of Kanye putting his best foot forward with his arranging genius on full display.

Sadly the overt theology is the same as I was complaining about before, but the music has a surplus that transcends it. If Kanye can achieve this sort of result more consistently while reintegrating some of his earlier insights about “Jesus Walking” on an antiracist or anti-materialistic path, he may yet come up with some gospel I want to invite into my soundscape.

 

MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it.

 

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