Kanye West, the popular, controversial rap star who released his first gospel album last week, staged one of his “Sunday Service” concerts beneath the giant white crosses on the vast Bethany Church South lawn off Rieger Road. Despite the last-minute announcement for the Baton Rouge event, the open-air concert drew thousands.
With neither a stage nor video screens to aid visibility, West and his 80-member “Sunday Service” choir performed on a section of concrete in front of the white crosses that greet drivers on Interstate 10. Concertgoers who found places to stand on two small, nearby hills, had the best view.
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West arrived at 7:40 p.m., followed soon thereafter by his “Sunday Service” choir. Bethany Church pastor Jonathan Stockstill introduced the concert with some brief preaching.
“Can we hear it for Jesus?” Stockstill asked. “He is king tonight.”
West opened the show with “Closed On Sunday,” a song from his new album, “Jesus Is King.” Many in the crowd knew already its lyrics and Christian message.
“You my Chick-Fil-A,” West rapped. “Hold the selfies. Put the ’gram away. Get your family. Y’all hold hands and pray. … Raise our sons. Train them in the faith, through temptations. Make sure they’re wide awake. Follow Jesus. Listen and obey.”
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Another of the night’s selections, “Follow God,” featured West’s signature rapping alongside the chorus’ sung lines of “stretch out my hands to you.”
Early in the concert, West lifted his 6-year-old daughter, North, and then 3-year-old son, Saint, two of his four children with Kim Kardashian, on his shoulders.
In addition to the massive choir, West performed with a brass band, keyboards and a battery of percussion instruments.
The audience included West fans and people who were simply curious about the famous rapper and his surprise concert in Baton Rouge.
“I’m excited that he’s here,” said Sierra Scoggins, 24, an elementary school teacher in Baton Rouge. “It’s really good for the Baton Rouge community to be here and lift up Jesus’ name.”
Scoggins has been West fan ever since she can remember.
“He has always lifted up God’s name,” she said. “I’m excited that he’s reaching a multitude of people.”
Curiosity drew Jessica Haslom, 31, a Baton Rouge broker, to the concert.
“I’m intrigued,” she said. “I’m interested in why he would choose the crosses. I don’t know if I’m OK with it.”
Frank Manguno, 22, an insurance salesman from Plaquemine, wasn’t a West fan before the release of “Jesus Is King.”
“I was interested because he said he was going go completely Christian,” Manguno said. “I was, like, ‘Well, this is crazy. Let me see about this.’"
Since January, West has been staging “Sunday Service” events at his home in Los Angeles and in various locales across the country, including Chicago, Atlanta, Dayton, Ohio, and California’s Coachella music festival. Friday’s event in Baton Rouge was billed as “BRunchchella,” with a brunch buffet included for the $49.99 ticket price.
West’s album, “Jesus Is King,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and iTunes charts. Its Christian focus stands in deep contrast to rap and hip-hop music’s often hedonistic lyrics. In the spirit of the album and West's surprise Baton Rouge concert, alcohol, cigarettes and vaping were not permitted.
Although Christian themes aren’t new to West — he featured the choir-accompanied “Jesus Walks” on his 2004 album debut — he’s turned increasingly to the genre in recent years. He’s also said he may abandon rap music because it’s “the devil’s music.” But with “Jesus Is King,” West has successfully melded his platinum-selling rap skills with worship-themed lyrics and contemporary Christian and gospel music.
West recently told Apple Music’s Beats 1 online radio show that his non-musical ambitions include running for president of the United States. An ardent supporter of President Donald J. Trump, the rapper has been knocked for sporting a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat. In the same Apple Music interview, West made Trump-style claims, citing himself as “unquestionably, undoubtedly the greatest human artist of all time.”