A Jew Finds Yeezus
My night with Kanye West and 20,000 other believers
I remember everything about the first time I was in the same room as Kanye West. There was the gold robot-alien, a pair of glow-in-the-dark Yeezy sneakers, and an unforgettable dance move where West held himself with one arm behind his back and thrust his body up towards the crowd. It was intoxicating.
In May 2008, the second-to-last month of my junior year of high school, Kanye West changed my life. I was a casual radio listener at the time; I knew the hits, but never really pursued new music on my own. I didn’t realize the power of sound until I attended a show on West’s Glow in the Dark tour.
So when West announced the Yeezus tour in September, I bought tickets as soon as I could. But this time I wasn’t seeking another awakening. One was enough, and I definitely don’t need more religion in my life. I’m a Modern Orthodox Jew who grew up in a Modern Orthodox home and went to a Modern Orthodox yeshiva. I have enough biblical imagery, guilt, and awareness of God in my life without Kanye West. But the man, I realized, has spiritual powers.
Five, who knows five? I know five. Five are the sections of the Yeezus tour. The first is called ‘Fighting.’ West walks onstage singing “On sight.” There are 19,500 screaming fans in attendance, but West doesn’t fit in with them—or most of the world, for that matter. He’s an outsider, a monster.
“I like his music, but I can’t stand the guy,” I heard over and over in the arena before the show.
“I’m totally weird, and I’m totally honest and I’m totally inappropriate sometimes,” West said in a recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live. A few weeks later, after the first night of Yeezus at Madison Square Garden, he told New York hop-hop station Power 105, “I’m a professional dreamer.”
Like Joseph, hated by his brothers for dreaming too big, West takes the hit for being overzealous. People will go to his show, but say they don’t like him. He’s a new slave, but that won’t stop him from being the next king of Egypt.
Next comes ‘Rising’ and we’re told to prepare for revolt. We charge ahead, a growing sense of camaraderie among the crowd. Even those who don’t like his ego still bought the ticket. They’re in it for the long run now. Our fearless leader appears atop a mountain to sing “Power.”
“The system broken, the school is closed, the prison’s open,” he raps. Let’s fix it, I dream with him. “In this white man world, we the ones chosen.” Wait, me too. My people were chosen too. And on cue he goes into “Clique,” the posse anthem. We’re going to fix this broken thing together. He starts “Black Skinhead” and screams into the microphone. Now do you believe him?
Yet the tests continue. We’ve reached ‘Falling,’ and as West sings “Coldest Winter” he reveals it’s about his mother’s 2007 death. His family is breaking down; a devil figure climbs out from behind the mountain. I grow weary alongside him. Maybe one man can’t change the world. The song is slower, moodier, not the kind of thumping, up-tempo rap anthem meant for a stadium show. West lies on his back, distant, dejected and full of emotion. He’s lost among endless vices, unable to regain control of his vision.
But as West struggles, I find my belief in the message growing. He’s not an unattainable deity, but a relatable human. He’s flawed, like all of us. The reviving heartbeat of “Heartless” jolts in and West sings, “Ayyo, I did some thing’s but that’s the old me,” admitting to past mistakes and moving on. He sings “Blood on the Leaves” as a fire starts to burn down the stage.
And then we get to ‘Searching.’ The omnipotent arena voice tells us that when we go looking for God we won’t be let down. Seek and you will find. Out of the broken, charred mountain emerges a group of people dressed in all white, holding a cross, swinging thuribles. I turn to my friend and take a minute to catch my breath as the crowd waits for Kanye to reappear post-destruction.
He walks back out in a new outfit, talking about moving to New York City and writing “Lost in the World,” which he first composed in an email to now-fiance Kim Kardashian. This is something a worshipper in 2013 can get behind; a leader who knows how it feels to be lost in a new city, overwhelmed.
He plays the first notes of “Runaway” and the Garden freaks out. Then Kanye starts to talk. Or sing-talk through an auto-tune microphone in what he calls a “visionary stream of consciousness.” He calls rap music modern day poetry, but in that moment, as a Jew falling for Yeezus, I know it’s more than that. It’s a modern-day oral history. What else can you call something that nearly 20,000 people can recite by heart, in unison, on beat?
Now West starts talking about the mission. “And we gonna combine all the creatives. The best creators on the planet,” he sing-says about DONDA, his mysterious creative agency. “And we gonna lower the motherfucking prices. So everybody can get it.”
It’s a mission he’s repeated over and over again. He said it on Power 105: “We work as a group. It’s not about me having the best thing at this time, it’s about us having the best thing.” He said it to the New York Times: “I want the world to be better! All I want is positive! All I want is dopeness!”
Back at the concert and preaching to his followers he says, “I know we were royalty. I know we built the pyramids. I know anything is possible.” I don’t care what West was thinking when he said “we” because it was me. My people built the pyramids. I can make the world a better place.
So then comes the final chapter; ‘Finding.’ West sings “Stronger” and “Through the Wire.” An actor playing Jesus walks on stage and West says, “White Jesus, is that you?” Everyone laughs. White Jesus, not just Jesus. West doesn’t make this figure the one true icon, just one possible icon.
“Thank you all for believing in me,” he tells the crowd after a few more songs. “I want to thank you all for believing in yourself. I know it’s so many people that will never say something and that’s why I always gotta say something.”
“Nobody looks stupider than me,” he continues. “If I can say my dreams out loud, then you can say your dreams out loud.” The show ends with Jesus on a mountain, but by this point it doesn’t even matter. It’s Kanye we’re following now. He may cross the line sometimes (most recently dabbling in anti-Semitic tropes ) but I’ll admit it anyway: I’m a Jew for Yeezus.
‘Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Call to Transcendence,’ by Shai Held