What do some of today's leading artists in the Christian gospel, worship and mainstream genres have to say about Kanye West and his radical conversion, as well as his recently dropped album Jesus Is King? I did a music industry roundtable interview asking to hear their perspective.
When Kanye released his album, it didn't just have ramifications on his career; he also entered into a new genre of music with a bang, and he is poised to affect Christian music from this point on. Realize that he may be nominated by such award shows as Dove, K-LOVE and even the Grammy Awards for Christian gospel music.
Several mainstream artists have released worship albums before—Elvis, Bob Dylan and a few others—but none had quite the personal change. Nor have they embraced directives to change their whole career—to be focused on being an artist for God and to go after winning people over to the cause of Jesus—like Kanye has been proclaiming.
I wanted to ask artists in the Christian music world, who are now somewhat peers to Kanye, what they thought of all things Kanye West. I asked people who are no strangers to Christian radio and who have won or been nominated for the same awards Kanye himself might be nominated for in the next round.
Here are my interview panelists:
Danny Gokey—2019 K-LOVE Fan Awards Male Artist of the Year; 2017 Grammy Awards nomination for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album; American Idol contestant, season 8; The Voice contestant, season 2
Kim Walker-Smith—worship leader for the Jesus Culture Band and Jesus Culture events; 2019 Grammy Awards nomination for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album
Mandisa—2014 Grammy Awards winner for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album; American Idol contestant, season 5
S. Blake Kanicka and his wife, Brittany—2019 Grammy Awards nomination for Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song; multi-instrumentalist and composer-songwriter
Josh Baldwin—Bethel Music artist, 2019 K-LOVE Fan Awards nomination in the Breakout Single of the Year and Worship Song of the Year, 2019 GMA Dove Awards nomination for New Artist of the Year
My first question for you is: What do you think of Kanye's conversion and entrance into the Christian world?
Danny Gokey: For me, I was happily surprised. It was really, really welcome. We get to be witnesses of what the power of God can do. We are witnesses on a really big platform of what God can do.
S. Blake Kanicka: I think it's one of the greatest things we have seen in our lifetime—to have someone who goes all out with everything he does, come to the Lord and have the Lord. We see the zealousness and purity of a new creation, but he is also wildly, brilliantly artistic, and that is really a beautiful and challenging thing.
Kim Walker-Smith: I think it's exciting. The first time I listened to the album, I honestly just sat in my car and cried. I was actually really moved, simply by his faith as a new Christian and his zeal for Jesus. Things aren't perfect, but that zeal and that passion after just coming out of the darkness and into Jesus—my first reaction to it was a lot of tears in a really great way.
Mandisa: I was questioning a lot, but the more I watched interviews and listened to the music, the more I can now see the fruit. I've been reading the comments from the world reacting to Kanye. I saw a comment the other day that said "I am getting baptized Sunday. If God can save Kanye, he can save me."
Josh Baldwin: I want to be honest—my reaction was excited but also wondering, Is this for real? But not in a bad way. I just wanted to hold on and see, but then, listening to his album, I was blown away by how much it's packed full of the gospel. Very few nonbelievers are listening to my album, but they are listening to Kanye. This is the real thing, and it can touch so many people and spearhead another major awakening.
Have you experienced any of the negativity toward Kanye in your world?
Danny Gokey: There is a side narrative going on in Christianity that can be negative, but it's not in the circles I am in. I hear him being criticized on social media, but not by anyone I know.
Mandisa: I don't see it with my peers, but I have seen it show up on social media. He has a song on his album about how Christians are responding to him, and I would tell any follower of Jesus: Watch how you are responding to him. Take a mantle of prayer up for him. (I interjected the question: Have you heard some Christians who are afraid this is just part of his mental illness?): To the Christians who don't believe in his faith or think this is part of his mental illness mania, what if it is a mania? God can use that too. God can even use mentally ill people. He can use anything. I don't think that it is, but I can't judge Kanye's heart. I would say look at the fruit. God is bringing us back to the book of Acts. How would I look at Saul who was persecuting Christians? I would probably judge him as mentally ill, but they took Saul under their wings and discipled him. Let's gather around Kanye and pray for him, and if mental illness is playing a role, let's ask God to heal his mind.
How could the Christian world benefit from Kanye? One of the top artists of our generation is all of a sudden giving his whole talent to Christ. How is this going to affect the music industry and Christianity at large?
Danny Gokey: Look at his passion for Jesus. I want that passion! The industry affects everybody. It's so refreshing to see someone have that fresh encounter with God. The church can see again what it looks like. Kanye took his job and what he does and put Christ in the center of that. The church can benefit by looking at its first love.
S. Blake Kanicka: He is changing everything. A lot of what is out there in modern Christianity isn't as vulnerable and daring as it could be, like what initially made Christianity so beautiful. It hasn't had the level of honesty that he is bringing to his own faith journey, which I think is electric and has appeal to everyone in the world—believers, nonbelievers, all age groups. "Faith music" seems to resonate the most when it has the least amount of boundaries artistically. We went to the Nebuchadnezzar opera, and it was for everyone and anyone. The engine behind his faith is so strong and his conviction is so pure. Some of the lyrics on his tracks like "Selah" speak so aptly about how we won't be in bondage to any man and he who the Son sets free is free indeed. He is all in. He isn't worried about anyone judging him. Through him, we are getting to see Christian art at a level that it hasn't been at in a long time.
Josh Baldwin: He is going to ramp up the creativity to another level in music, and for people who were going through the motions in writing and performing, this steps it up. We have to take it seriously. I was thinking even for myself, Am I writing in a way that anyone would want to listen to this? His artistry is awesome, as is the way that this is opening up this whole other group of people who are going to be listening to his music. Maybe people who are listening to Kanye are going to listen to other Christian music. Is the music we are making going to keep them listening? It's a great challenge to go to the next level. Also, am I writing music that is moving people's hearts toward the Lord, people who have never been moved to know the Lord?
How should Christianity treat Kanye right now?
S. Blake and Brittany Kanicka: The church needs to be open to new believers. We also need to be praying for people in the music industry and Hollywood who aren't believers, because anything can happen and God can do anything. To let go of that spirit of openness in people is not what Jesus would want right now. We are really excited that Kanye is a believer and also excited that this can be a blazing picture of what Christ can do to and with a mega-celebrity. We're excited about what that means for the world and all the people who listen to him who aren't believers, and so many got saved already! This is so miraculous. Who is next? What would happen if a huge actor got saved? It takes back the culture. Christians should be freaking out about this and so excited.
Josh Baldwin: We need to love him. One side of the church and believers are all for him and think the best, and the other side is suspicious. We preach that the blood of Jesus covers all, but then we have to apply it to Kanye's past, and it's hard for people to do that in certain places of Christianity. It's going to be so important to just love and support him. I love that Joel Osteen had him at his church—that was a pretty bold thing. Think about it. Two to three years ago, it would be unthinkable that he would give his platform to Kanye for 20 to 30 minutes. It's amazing, the doors that Kanye has to walk through and share the gospel, probably doors no one else on the earth has. Let's love him as he walks through them. We have needed someone like Kanye to shake things up.
Kim Walker-Smith: Knowing that some people are having a negative reaction or anger is bizarre to me. To me, I view and hear him as a new Christian. You would never get angry at a new Christian for doing some things a little bit wrong or imperfectly when they are still being made perfect (like the rest of us in that process). Lyric after lyric says Jesus is King, and he glorifies God, and I can imagine the interviews in mainstream he is doing.
What are you excited about when it comes to one of the top celebrities in our generation surrendering to Jesus and then using his career and art to serve him?
Mandisa: The people who are listening to Kanye are probably not listening to my music. I love that. God is shaking it up between the labels and boxes in the Christian music industry. Kanye is showing that. Most people came to know me through American Idol, and I am a black girl but also a CCM artist. I think I have a perspective that not everything needs to fit into a certain box. I am excited that God is raising up people who may not fit into the box of Christian music, and God is saying to stop labeling this. I feel the more the merrier. My brother just came to the Lord a few years ago, and he wouldn't listen to most Christian music, but he is listening to Kanye. It is easy to judge by appearance, but we have to judge by the fruit.
Danny Gokey: I am a lyricist, and after listening to the album nine times, I think his music is great. My band and I were critiquing his music together, and Jesus Is King has become one of my favorite albums ever.
Kim Walker-Smith: I had friends go to one of his concerts and watch hundreds of people give their lives to Jesus. We need this. I think that our first response should be excitement. God can use the big mess of our lives and He is. If we are seeing all these people getting saved, the church should be on the ground going to the events. The church should be there and ready to disciple. We should be covering Kanye in prayer and praying for true, godly mentors in his life who help grow him in his walk with Jesus. He has made this choice and it's for real now, and he is really going to do it with his life, but he is still figuring it out. The church needs to surround him and encourage him and recognize the powerful platform he has. If he wants to use this to point people to Jesus, he needs our support. If you can remember when Jesus pulled you out of darkness and death and remember that "Oh God, you saved me" time, that is what I am hearing from Kanye.
What do you think about Kanye bringing his family and kids into this new season?
Kim Walker-Smith: I think it's essential to include your kids. If I don't bring my kids into what I am doing, or if I am off doing something with all these other people while they are hiding in a green room, they could really resent what I am doing because it takes me away from them. I bring my kids into it and encourage them in it, and I show them it's something we all do together. I encourage what's already there inside of them with every baby step they take, like singing. I think it's important to talk about the fact that we do this because we want to encounter Jesus. They know I am helping people to find Jesus. The way Kanye is doing this is in a more involved way as a father than most fathers out there. The kids are getting to share in something really beautiful, not just the art and music, but in seeing people encountering God.
S. Blake and Brittany Kanicka: Our kids dance to this music. We see the joy of the Lord through our 1- and 2-year-old having dance parties to Mr. Kanye. His kids love going to church. From a family point of view, the fact that Kayne is so radical in his faith and so open is opening up his family, like the Kardashians. Our desire is that they could become a family that is a beacon of light in our world and the music industry. It is difficult as a family in the music industry. It's hard to think about raising kids in this culture, and they could do an amazing job of being that example.
What is your favorite song on the album?
Josh Baldwin: "God Is."
Kim Walker-Smith: "Closed on Sunday." My favorite line is when he talks about no longer being a slave to the culture, that his life is not his own and he is living for God. He is saying things with a truth and conviction that is more resounding than the lyrics sung in a lot of Christian music I have heard.
Mandisa: "Closed on Sunday" and "God Is."
S. Blake and Brittany Kanicka: "Closed on Sunday" resonated most with us. A girl we produced with actually wrote that song with Kanye, and it was the most intense song on the record.
All five of our guests were extremely favorable toward Kanye's conversion and entrance into the Christian music sphere. They seemed excited about the potential for what his great artistry can bring and how it can challenge the CCM and gospel music genres. Potentially, their answers show that there hasn't been such a challenge to advancing Christian music in their generation.
The lasting impact of Kanye West is being felt by people around the world. Right now he is one of the top-ranking news topics and celebrities being reported about, and we can all agree that he needs the church to be praying for him more than anything else. So like my friends in the music industry, I urge you to pray for him, his family and the Christian music industry as he enters in with a transforming grace from God.
Bonus question: What would you say to Kanye right now if you had one minute to talk to him?
Danny Gokey: You were raised for such a time as this. I think of Esther when I watch your journey. I appreciate you as a person, but I have never seen such a radical transformation of an artist like you, and you are called. You are coming out of the gate blazing. There are going to be bumps along the way, but stay close to Jesus. You have such an influence; we are praying for you to stay on guard.
Josh Baldwin: I would say thank you and we are praying for you. Keep going for it, and if there is anything you need, we are here for you. Thanks for ramping up the call—you have turned the fire upon all of us. I feel a fire lit under me, so thank you.
Mandisa: I would ask him how we can pray for him and then I would pray on the phone. We need to actually pray and let him hear our prayers.
And I, Shawn Bolz, would personally tell Kanye how much we love him and need him right now. We are so encouraged by his conversion and how he is really going after being a Christ-follower. We are inspired by his hunger for Scripture and his fearless zeal to say the name of Jesus from some of the biggest platforms in society right now. Thank you, Kanye!
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