One Day In L.A.: Inside Kanye West's Sunday Service Sanctuary
On one weekend in Los Angeles (March 31), I got the unique opportunity to partake in an otherworldly experience: Kanye West’s Sunday Service. It was transformative, to say the least, but that weekend, something else happened in L.A., too. Nipsey Hussle was murdered in front of his Marathon clothing store. A black man’s life was taken in cold blood, and as we collectively mourn, Kanye’s Sunday Service makes so much more sense in the context of this senseless murder.
But first, how did I even wind up at Ye’s exclusive weekly praise and worship-esque Sunday Service? I really have some dope people that continue to grace my life. Through all the things that I’m passionate about—my job, music, art, motherhood—I became friends with a music producer/actor/musician who was kind enough to get me on the list for service.
I’m a true audiophile, and my love of music, especially live instrumentation, had me all into those Sunday Service videos popping up on social feeds for some time. I was that kid in church texting my best friend, the church organist, to kick off the Holy Ghost session. I’m the same person who will slide to a jam session in any city I travel to just to catch a vibe. The music really spoke to me in the videos and I felt like this is the place where Kanye was getting back to his original self. I wanted to experience that. The nature of Sunday Service was so far from any of his “slavery is a choice” statements and wild Trump rhetoric that it forced me to wash away the negative sentiments and take this experience for what it was.
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I approached the mountainous California ranch locale with wonder, anticipation, and some lightweight hesitation: What if they making us draw blood and we have to sacrifice a lamb? What if they’re turning water to wine in here? What happens if they have us pass a collection plate for the building fund? I didn’t bring cash. What if he’s got people in the spot saying Yeezus instead of Jesus? My co-worker friend Lena and I pulled up to the gates just before 9 a.m. We got to the entrance and were checked off on the list, then were ushered in by greeters wearing all white. Most of the people inside were white, so I made a quiet joke that maybe this was Kanye’s attempt at enslaving white people and forcing them to make a “choice.” But then I saw some black staff members which put that conspiracy theory to rest.
As we waited in the estate’s holding area, a barista offered delicately crafted matchas and lattes with frothy designs. The cool L.A. air and wispy tree leaves carried the sounds of the choir and band rehearsing. We could also hear the stories of other people who waited: a white woman in her 30s who was there to see her boyfriend in the choir and really didn’t know what to expect; older neighbors who had a standing invite to Sunday Service; a black music producer from Houston whose friend was in the band; an L.A. artist who was the plus-one of one of his homies; a Latino family with their five-year-old little girl, her brother, mom and dad outfitted in Balenciaga.
Finally, we were ushered in about seven to 10 people at a time. We ascended a hill on a dirt road that took us to a rotunda. Soft music could be heard as the choir, the band, and Ye stood around dressed in all white. It was intimate, intimate, with around 75 people in the rotunda, and about 75 as a part of the band-slash-choir. Everyone was real chill, doing the little church hellos. And just like in the videos, the whole Kardashian family was there—except I didn’t see Rob, Mama Kris, or Caitlyn. I don’t really follow the Kardashians just because I actually can’t keep up, but they do have some beautiful children. The girls (North included) were so full of life and joy, like any other kids, which was refreshing. For whatever reason, I’m always so happy to see celebrity kids having what appears to be a carefree childhood.
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OK, onto the actual service. All I can say is think of the best church choir you’ve ever heard, then swag them out, drop some 808s on that, then put this all in the mountains closer to God. It was magic. Unpretentious, unassuming, beautiful, soulful, groove-evoking and as much as it was gospel, it was the rhythm and syncopation of hip-hop. It was Milly Rock. It was shaking dreads. It was soul claps. It was a few white folks clapping off-beat. It was dope. As a music lover with a keen ear for sound, I could tell each instrument and voice was hand-selected for a reason. And even with Kanye as the mastermind, my friend mentioned that he felt tertiary. I would even go as far to say he felt like the fifth element. It was God, the nature, the people, the band and choir, then Ye. Each song had medicinal purpose. There were recordings of Kanye’s voice orating about life and purpose and all of the questions we ask as we attempt to ascend and evolve. It was all so timely. I strive to live a purpose-centered life, but some portions feel like they need further definition. This felt like a catapult, like a launching pad, like a playground for inspiration.
Now slight pause, because I know you’re thinking, WE CANCELLED KANYE, VEJURNAÉ. He’s been too detrimental to the culture. He’s trying to trick you with these soulful beats and 808 machines, and some Jesus and matcha. Ni**a, you’re kiki-ing with Yeezy over some beats and tea. I thought about this, too. And still am. I think where I sit is a place that is all about purpose and intent. Kanye says some outrageous and outlandish things at times, some that we support and some that we go in on him for, but who doesn’t? What he is doing in this arena has greater weight than probably anything else he has ever done, in my eyes. What he’s doing will potentially change the way that millennials interact with church. It’s a needed shift. One guy we sat with said, “If church was like this, I’d never miss a Sunday.” We’ll get back to this, though.
It’s hard for me to recall the set list. Aly Us’ “Follow Me” was dope. (They need to bring this to the house picnic.) They did Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise.” For the church folk, the choir made this song effortless, but added a syncopation with the 808s that I will never forget. Most people know how completely perfect this specific song is, but this arrangement was PERFECTER. Yes, perfecter. The harmonies with the Amens, and breaking them down almost into footwork beats. Flipping back when they get to, “You are the source of my strength,” to hit the 808s and bring it back again. It was just... Shout out to my Second Baptist Church family that knows that Dr. Hycel B. Taylor special ending.
Then there was Stevie Wonder’s “I’ll Be Loving You Always.” That song is LOVE. I actually suggested it to my producer friend in the band a few weeks before I came to L.A. I know, that’s an extra request, and who am I? But my Mom always said, “If you never ask you’ll never know.” And yo, it actually happened. The band jammed with Kanye on the drum machine. HOW IS THIS MY LIFE? Pinch. THIS IS MY LIFE. The day before I left to go out west, my sons and I did car karaoke to this song. And how special is it that Kanye is sharing these moments with his kids, his family, his friends and the world? It’s special.
In the circular space, I was seated at eye level with Ye and the 808 machine. This was wild. You know when you’re a musician and you look at the crowd and you know who’s vibing? I was in that motherf**ker VIBING. For anyone who attends parties with me, church services, karaoke, in the car, it’s a given that music and dancing is a thing. Do you think I’m going to pull up to Kanye church and not f**k it up for Jesus (no disrespect)? With the sun beating down on all of us, the music accelerated. Then, I thought about deodorant… Have you ever started sweating hard and been hot and start thinking, How many swipes did I do this morning? Mind you, they are performing all the songs that require you to put your fully extended hands in the air… The dilemma! I just had to do a side sniff for freshness and deal with the pit stains, because I took my locs down and it was just like nirvana. We’re out here on a mountain praising God with a full choir, band and Kanye is smiling, smiling, playing the beat machine. Ni**a, whet!?
They also played some Ye classics like “Power,” “Jesus Walks,” “Good Morning,” and “Otis.” “Jesus, won’t leave us/Neva leaveeee us/NA NA,NA NA, NAH NAH NAH!” All the while, the babies are in the middle of the performance area living their best lives, dancing with their daddy. It was love. The purest love. Unadulterated God-sent love. The intensity of the band never waned, the choir never diminished, and the soloists were straight from Sister Mary Clarence for real, for real. I did the, “girl, Goodbye, you sing too good” wave about four times and I needed another cup of water, but I didn’t want to miss anything.
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When service ended and Ye announced that Sunday Service would be at Coachella during Weekend 2, we all then proceeded further up the hill for a full catered brunch. (Note: They had the thick bacon and at brunch, that is all anyone cares about, so thank you for that.) During the brunch, folks shared stories, networked, and simply took it all in. The West/Kardashian family mingled and embraced everyone on some regular Sunday after church service ish. I sat still in awe, thankful for the experience. I thought to go over to his table to say thank you, but I chilled because, you know, sometimes you just don’t want to be extra, so I just kept it moving recapping everything with my friend and airing out my underarms.
Post-brunch, we walked back down the hill and chatted with gospel artist Ricky Dillard about how positive the music was and how transformative the experience was. Once we got back to the original holding area, we saw Ye was just standing there talking to people as they left. Now was my time.
Me: (Gives Ye a hug) Yo, thank you.
Ye: Yo, I saw you vibing girl.
Me in My Head: NI**A, WHAT! I SAW YOU VIBING, TOO. THAT SH*T WAS BANANAS!
Me in Real Life (Remembers this is like church): I’m from Chi-town. Man, that was just amazing! It’s really going to change how young people approach church.
Me in My Head: You should let me bring Cairo and Phoenix out to Coachella.
Me in Real Life: I remember booking you when you came to [The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign] back in the beginning of your career. The show was like $11.
Ye: (Smiles) And look, this one cost even less.
Me in Real Life: (Laughs) You’re right. You need to bring this back to the crib.
Ye: Definitely, we’re on mission work!
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All of it was awesome. From the restorative power of the music to the purpose-driven message to the people out here giving their full glory to God. No additional anything. It was like, Let’s go praise God and that will be sufficient, that will be enough. Let’s put our full effort into praising the Lord and see where that gets us.
In retrospect, I think this energy is the same energy and same fervor that Nipsey used to inject into his community. Like, let’s see what it looks like when I empty the tank for my hood, for my people, for these kids. Nipsey being murdered on the same day of this experience felt like someone took a pin, popped the balloon and let all the helium out. After the Ye experience, we went to Malibu, then to Venice Beach to meet up with friends. That’s when the news that he had been shot six times and killed in front of his own store broke. Like many, I was at a loss for words. Just hours ago, I felt so inspired and hopeful, and now I sat in disbelief and anger. People in L.A. were so hurt. I was so hurt. It was essentially as if someone ever did something to Chance The Rapper—the hometown guy, the home team, the one that never left but instead building up his area, investing in his people. Slain.
The one thing that felt even more real after this day was the immediacy of now. Each and every moment is your moment. Waiting won’t get the job done. If you want to make an impact, you have to take the steps now. If you want a life of value, you have to move. I reflect back on the images of Nipsey and his partner Lauren London from their ethereal GQ shoot and I think about how striking those images are. They’re so beautiful. To have love captured on camera in that way and so close to him being murdered is unfathomable. In summation, whatever “it” is to you, do it now. Have that conversation, tell them you love them, make that move, invest in that business, repair that relationship, quit that job. Make it happen today, and know that regardless, whether His presence manifests through the pews of church or some rattling 808s or the warmth of the community that raised you, God is with you.