oh god

My Time in the Desert With Kanye

Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella

It’s 9 a.m. on Easter Sunday, a perfectly clear morning, and behind me three men are debating the miraculous descent from the heavens that they’ve come here to witness, here at the Mountain at the Campground. “It’s Kanye, it will be extra,” says one, a man in a poncho. The other suggests there might be some complicated rigging, like Kanye flying in on angel’s wings or in a golden chariot, as if he’s adapted Sunday Services — the intimate-but-Instagrammed gathering that Kanye West has hosted in studios and outdoor venues in Calabasas for the past four months, before bringing it here to 50,000 people at Coachella — into a supernatural-themed Vegas show. That’s impossible, the third argues; we’re in an open field, so where would the suspension wires go? “Listen, Kanye can do it, if anyone can,” says the first.

It had been a long journey here: Ubers into the desert at sunrise, past signs advertising Genesis (a forthcoming housing development) and through security, where the man scanning wristbands reminded all of the women in tube tops and under-ass-baring shorts that Jesus really loves them. It’s still unclear if this morning is a church service, or a concert, or an elaborate announcement for Ye’s delayed album, Yandhi. But they are here, because Kanye, because FOMO. The plant-based burritos are $18, and the mottled mauve sweatshirts — Holy Spirit on the front, Sunday Services on the back — go for $225. (Tomorrow, they will be flipped on Grailed.)

The musicians — more than a dozen playing keyboards, horns, a harp — are dressed all in lavender versions of Kanye’s signature cult chic: monochrome cotton-tunic sweats that look like they were plucked right off the Yeezy runway (from any season). The choir, all in dusty rose ponchos and matching pants, stands in a circle, and then recesses without making a sound, as if modeling a Rajneeshpuram X Yeezy collaboration. The organ music swells as the Kardashian-Jenners file in: all in white, except Kim, wearing the same lavender as her husband, along with the sunglasses (her own line) she’d teased on her Instagram video of the private last Sunday Service. As they arrive at their spot, ringed by the usual disciples — Travis Scott, Luka Sabbat, and La La Anthony — two lavender-cloaked attendants step forward and lay down a gold swath of fabric for them to sit on.

Some attendees wear tour shirts for Yeezus or Life of Pablo, some wear their version of Church whites, many Instagram themselves with hands pressed together in fake devotion with the Church Clothes sign as a backdrop. But two women, at the very front of the crowd, standing right up against the barricade, as close as they can get to the summit, are dressed for actual church, in outfits that even my Baptist grandmother would have approved of. They are upgraded into VIP. “GOD HAS BLESSED US,” one yells as they run past security, to join Donald Glover, Justin Bieber, Idris Elba and Jaden and Willow Smith.

Religion has come to Coachella before. Last year, Bieber sang worship songs at a small Churchome event hosted by Judah Smith, a Seattle-based pastor-in-sneakers who has become one of Bieber’s mentors in his born-again phase. But West, who has sung about religion since his “Jesus Walks” days and had the gall to rechristen himself Yeezus, has ratcheted things up a notch, tempting think pieces and puns as if by design: Ye is risen on Ye-Easter Sunday, in Palm Springs, a week after Palm Sunday, in a desert, where he’ll give his version of a sermon on a mount. Is this religious cosplay, or a Ye-vangelical church? (My turn.)

Maybe things have been leading up to this moment ever since the phrase “celebrity worship” was coined. In recent years, it has been pastors — sometimes even wearing Yeezys — who have gotten press by borrowing the playbook (and the shine) of celebrities; it seems inevitable that now celebrities get a chance to play pastor — or choirmaster, or God, or whatever it is Kanye is trying. Jon Caramanica, reviewing the Coachella performance for the New York Times, argued that the division between church and not-church is a merch line. But every new-wave evangelical church, from Zoe, to Hillsong, to Vous Church run by Kanye’s own pastor, Rich Wilkerson — who made $100 million last year — sells tees and socks and water bottles in a tent outside the venue. (And the Catholic Church, after all, sold sin forgiveness for years — indulgences might have been the Yeezys of their time.)

Phil Cornish, a keyboardist who has played with 2 Chainz and Musiq Soulchild, and for gospel choirs his whole life, first got the call to join Kanye for one of his early Sunday Services at the beginning of December. The invitation was casual, light on details: “Just come jam.” They were just going to rework popular songs into gospel renditions; West told him he wanted it to feel like “Luther Vandross, or Anita Baker, or Marvin Gaye.” There’s a tradition behind this kind of project, a long history of black musicians like Al Green and Aretha Franklin using their music to sermonize, in actual churches. (Green even founded his own church in Memphis) “Kanye is ministering musically,” Cornish explains. “It’s intended to really, genuinely offer something that he can stand behind and say this can help people.” Cornish says that this isn’t an act or a ploy for attention, that Kanye has reconnected with Christ, and this is how it’s manifested. “You never stray too far away from God’s grace,” he said. “So if he’s in that place where he’s finding his way back, then I celebrate that.”

Back in January, Kim Kardashian West started posting footage each Sunday from those jam sessions to her followers. It started indoors, in domelike spaces, saturated in pink and purple light, and eventually moved to mysterious outdoor locations in Calabasas. Each week, choir members and musicians dressed in matching cultlike sweat clothing (blue one week, beige, the next). Celebrity attendees — Kid Cudi, Diplo, and Courtney Love — all posted and diligently hashtagged #SundayServices. The Kardashian-Wests have a church tradition they’re drawing on, too: Kris Jenner started California Community Church in 2009, widely viewed as a tax shelter. She hand-plucked the pastor, Brad Johnson, from damnation (the Starbucks he was working in after an extramarital affair cost him his previous ministry). Her members pay 1,000 tax-deductible dollars a month.

Lanny Smith, a former basketball player who started Active Faith (a Steph Curry–approved activewear company that seeks to be the Nike of Christian sports gear), said he had no idea what to expect when Cornish threw him an invite. He attended on a day in late March — the day DMX led the opening prayer, Katy Perry sat in the pews, and 5-year-old North West, in snakeskin bike shorts and a matching shirt, danced like she’d caught the Holy Spirit. The service was at a ranch-style house in Calabasas — not the Kardashian-Wests’ own home — for which he’d been given the address the day before. There was hot chocolate and doughnuts waiting, for preservice mingling. Behind the house, someone had built circular risers, and the musicians, dressed in gray that week, were waiting. The choir performed “Amazing,” and “Jesus Walks,” among other songs. Afterward, they had brunch, prepared by hired chefs: eggs, waffles, bacon, fruit, lox, coffee, and orange juice. Everyone ate together, and talked about the performance, and prayed.

Smith, a Houston boy who had grown up in the black church, told me how much it felt like those experiences — even without a traditional sermon. Out there in the rolling green hills of Calabasas, he forgot himself, he forgot about the celebrities in celebrity row, he even forgot about Kanye. The music moved him, reminded him of something higher.

Kanye’s entrance into the Coachella performance is simple, deliberate, serious, and about 45 minutes too long into the set for most people who were really there to see Kanye, and just Kanye. He strode up the hill, his hair dyed purple to match his and everyone else’s outfits, and entered the circle of musicians vamping a jazz-fusion “Outstanding,” giving them hugs and backslaps and smiles. He joined Chance the Rapper and Francis of Francis and the Lights who were dancing around, ecstatically.

Kanye himself performed very little at his Coachella service. But he was all over the place, running through the dancers, leading the choir around, and eventually falling to his knees after rapping “Jesus Walks.” When he forgot the words to “All Falls Down,” the choir stepped in and rapped for him. DMX, who once spontaneously preached to a crowd at a St. Louis airport Chili’s and then bought them shots, led a prayer, in his voice that will never not sound like dogs barking over a hard beat. Kanye wept. Somewhere in VIP, Bieber wept. One of the universe’s great mysteries will forever be if Jesus wept, too.

The choir did most of the work of energizing the crowd. They sang “This is a God dream,” a phrase that Kayne’s pastor Wilkerson likes to use in his sermons, too. They sang “Father Stretch My Hands,” with the line about the bleached asshole redacted, and people raised their arms above their heads in worship (or fandom — though, what’s the difference?). I watched two friends, in matching durags, hold hands and jump. I wanted to join a woman smoking a joint and dancing barefoot in circles freely, taken over by a vague spirit, like an extra in Jesus Christ Superstar. It was fun. And if it turned out later that all of the dancing, and music, and getting high in the sun turned out to be church all along, it seems like they wouldn’t care. They’d be hyped to brag about being at the first one.

I asked a 34-year-old from San Francisco, in an unintentionally on-theme lavender jumpsuit, if she’d ever join the church of Kanye. She asked if “God” had to be involved and whether we could avoid using the word join. It was the word join that really bothered her. She and her group of four friends all agreed that they were spiritual but not religious, a phrase handily copped from OkCupid-profile self-identifiers, and common for an era when everyone seems to meditate, and seeks to escape the inescapable pull of a social internet driven, in no small part, by West and his in-laws. “I think a lot of people will walk out of here more open to God,” she said. “I’d attend if it was like this.” Her friend chimed in, “I mean, the Catholic Church is way more sus.”

I thought of something I’d overheard in the merch line: “Kanye can do whatever bullshit he wants, and I’ll still buy it.” But also of my conversation with a Puerto Rican attendee who brought her 13-year-old daughter to Coachella. After struggling to find the right words in English to pinpoint exactly what she found so unnerving about the event, she eventually settled on “We’re all going to hell.”

My Time in the Desert With Kanye