“'The “gods” know nothing, they understand nothing./They walk about in darkness;/all the foundations of the earth are shaken./'I said, “you are 'gods';/you are all sons of the Most High.”'” - Psalms 82:5-6 (NIV)
In the midst of all the talking and thinking and general clamoring around the recent release of Kanye West's Yeezus, the song “I Am A God,” has been one of the biggest sticking points. Playing conveniently into the most popular plot lines about Kanye—that he's an egomaniac, that he's controversial, that he's insane—it's prompted discussion, mockery, critiques and defenses from music fans, the celebrity press and, naturally, parts of the religious community.
But why is this claim being taken so seriously? After all, there's a long tradition of musicians making similarly bold religious statements, and Kanye is far from the first rapper to compare himself to a god or even God, specifically. Rakim is the God MC; Jay-Z is also Jay-Hova; Nas is God's Son; Lil B is the Based God. It's not even the first time Kanye's made a similar comparison: Last year he released a song called “New God Flow,” and on 2010's “See Me Now” he claimed to be a “rap god.”
Is it because we kind of secretly suspect he might be right? Do we recognize a grain of truth in the idea that our celebrities—or our favorite smartphone makers—might be a type of #newgods? Surely there are more people obsessed with Kanye—lots of celebrities, for that matter—than there have been with some religious icons throughout history (shouts out to all you minor deities out there, though—I know your albums are dropping soon). In his two recent interviews, with W and the New York Times, Kanye's rattled off, as inspirations, lists of prominent thinkers, creatives and especially musicians, suggesting they (and he, as their successor) deserved an almost superhuman level of respect.
“Nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go,” he told W, talking about the song's origins as a diss to a fashion designer asking him not to attend other designers' shows. “Man, I’m the No. 1 living and breathing rock star. I am Axl Rose; I am Jim Morrison; I am Jimi Hendrix. You can’t say that you love music and then say that Kanye West can’t come to your show! To even think they could tell me where I could and couldn’t go is just ludicrous. It’s blasphemous—to rock ’n’ roll, and to music.”
What Kanye didn't say, but likely knows, is that there's some precedent for thinking of actual people as gods. In fact, when the rumor broke that the album, or at least a song on it, would be called “I Am God,” contributing songwriter and G.O.O.D. Music affiliate Malik Yusef tweeted to clarify that it was actually called “I Am A God,” a reference to the Bible's Psalm 82, which says, explicitly, “you are gods.” To figure out more about whether Kanye was, by some definition, a god or could become one, I talked to an expert on the anthropology of religion, a professor of Greek and Roman mythology and a Methodist minister. I came up with five interpretations of Kanye's divine status:
Man of God: Kanye as believer
“I just talked to Jesus/He said, 'What up Yeezus?'/I said, 'Shit I'm chilling/Trying to stack these millions'/I know he the most high/But I am a close high/Mi casa, su casa/That's that cosa nostra/I am a god/I am a god/I am a god” – Kanye West, “I Am A God”
“I am a god/Even though I'm a man of God/My whole life in the hands of God/So y'all better quit playing with God” – Kanye West, “I Am A God”
There's actually a pretty extensive biblical basis for the idea that humans are somehow godlike, including Psalm 82, Rev. Dr. Michael W. Waters, senior and founding pastor of Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Church in Dallas, told me. Waters has given the specific issue of Kanye some thought, too: He specializes in contextualizing Christianity through the lens of hip-hop, and he has conducted sermon series (at what is possibly the coolest church there is) on the work of artists like Jay-Z, UGK and Aaliyah.
He pointed out that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which says that humans were made in God's image—at the very lowest just a couple steps down the divinity ladder—Kanye's statements aren't really even that controversial. Unlike, say, Lil B, who filmed his "I'm God" video in a church, Kanye maintains a clearer hierarchy and more respectful approach. He says he's "a close high," and he seems pretty pumped about talking to Jesus, which suggests that Yeezus looks up to his namesake. And by saying “you need to stop playing with God,” Kanye is, in Waters's eyes, suggesting reverence.
“So all of those references suggest to me, at least in their presentation, that in no way is Kanye, if you will, being blasphemous to God or on par with God,” Waters concluded. “[He's not] as God, but close to God. Which, arguably, is the hope and desire of all people – that you can make some kind of claim that you are close to God in your relationship, to the point that, as Kanye has already suggested in his artistry, that you can walk and talk with God.”
Basically, Kanye still needs Jesus the way Kathy Lee needed Regis, it's just that he and Jesus are kicking it at the Porsche dealership instead of the Avis rental car counter. It's notable that they're on a first name basis, though. Waters immediately remarked on Kanye's view of God and Jesus as people he can talk to rather than transcendent beings, an interpretation that's particularly common among historically oppressed and and marginalized groups.
“They've had to view God as one who would take up their cause, as one who would unite with them in the struggle, as one who was visually present with them, leading them out of that oppression and marginalization to a state of justice and equality,” Waters explained, adding that taking that same anthropomorphic view fits with Kanye's political commentary on race, especially on Yeezus.
At the same time, one common criticism of Yeezus so far has been that it does some marginalizing of its own, in the form of graphically sexual imagery that some might categorize as misogynistic. Likewise, Kanye's ongoing flaunting of wealth might make some question whether he could fit his Lambo through the eye of a needle, as the saying goes.
Here, Waters is critical, comparing Kanye's “extended adolescence” and lyrical transformation to King Solomon. Solomon's God-granted wisdom gave him substantial wealth and power, which, naturally, no one man should have all of, and he ultimately lost sight of his original purpose.
“As a fan of music,” though, “you have to have an interest in what Kanye has done,” Waters said. And what Kanye has done is substantial, from a Christian point of view, in that he's managed to push religious discussion into mainstream pop culture. It's kind of the other side of what Waters is seeking to accomplish in his own ministry by meeting people on their own terms, acknowledging that “the lyrics of hip-hop have almost become as scripture for this generation.” Kanye, he explained, invites the public into religious dialogue more often than most artists.
Starting a conversation, though, seems pretty diplomatic for Kanye. He's always been demanding, which invites another theory.
300 (gods) like the Romans: Kanye as hero/god
“All my homies GD’s, but I am Lord/Rap god, Greek mythology” – Kanye West, “See Me Now”
“I am a god/So hurry up with my damn massage/In a French-ass restaurant/Hurry up with my damn croissants” – Kanye West, “I Am A God”
“Here's the great thing about polytheism: You can always add new gods,” Christopher Faraone, a professor in the Classics Department at the University of Chicago, told me. “New gods are constantly being discovered, usually because something was wrong and you can't figure out why it is.”
Sometimes, new gods started out as humans – healing god Ascelpius, for instance – although it was more common for really awesome people – Achilles, for instance – to get worshiped as heroes after their deaths instead (some, such as Heracles, were worshiped as divine in some places and as heroes in others). People would offer sacrifices to the heavens for gods and the underworld for heroes. But people didn't always choose to worship heroes. Sometimes the heroes demanded it.
“Heroes, in one way or another, demand worship because they're unhappy,” Faraone said.
Faraone told me about one Athenian general who was killed while laying siege to a city. His head was mounted on a spike, but it started scaring the locals when bees decided to make a nest in it. When the townspeople went to their local oracle (the rap equivalent of an oracle, I assume, is Funkmaster Flex, because no one would know the deli specials without him), they learned that the general demanded to be buried normally and to be worshiped. It was often like this: heroes, like ghosts, would return to haunt the site of their death. I'm not saying Kanye has a skull full of bees, but he does look unhappy, like, 90 percent of the time, so we may want to hurry up with his damn ménage if we don't want to unleash a plague or something. Or, you know, maybe we could be a less racist society: Perhaps that's Kanye's divine role.
“The question is,” Faraone told me, “What new need has arisen that we need Kanye?”
On the other hand, heroes were supposed to be dead before they started demanding stuff (one modern parallel might be Elvis, who only inspired shrines and lines about King Louie's “rock star bitch” calling him Elvis after death). Turning to the Romans, Faraone offered some examples of what might happen in the event of a prehumous divinity request. Roman emperors, as long as they didn't mess up too badly, became new gods after their death (their wives, too, so lock that shit down, Kim).
Emperors Caracalla, Caligula and Nero blew it, though, by claiming they were gods before they died. Ironically, these pretensions led to their own families rebelling and killing them – a telling sign that they were not, in fact, immortal, as gods are supposed to be. Nero, in particular, fed on the idea of being a famous musician (despite a reputed lack of talent), and he would travel the empire entering singing competitions to appease his ego. He always won, naturally, but, as anyone who's seen From Justin To Kelly can tell you, that's hardly equivalent to real divinity. Speaking of which …
Can we get much higher: Kanye as divine
“There the god go in his Murcielago” – Kanye West, “New God Flow”
“First-ranking, of enduring monuments,/Beneficent god, lord of joy,/Great of fear, rich in love,/Heir of Horus in his Two Lands,/Nursling of divine Isis" – Rock stela of King Nebtawyre Mentuhotep IV
One set of rulers that was basically divine while they were alive were the Egyptian pharaohs, who were, at the very least, the high priests of their society, tasked by divine right as watching over the country as a deputy of the god Horus. By some understandings, however, the pharaoh was actually a physical manifestation or conduit of Horus.
One inscription, for instance, noted that “His majesty is Horus, assuming his [Horus's] kingdom of myriads of years.” In an interview with the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Dr. Garry J. Shaw, a British Egyptologist and author of the book The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign, explained that most scholars see the pharaoh as someone who was understood to channel the ka, or divine spirit. Since he was limited by his physical form, people didn't expect the pharaoh to perform supernatural acts, and, when he died, “the eternal divine ka simply passed to another body.”
Kanye's claimed to channel the pharaohs' spirit to stay faithful in a room full of hoes, he's propositioned pharaonic sex, and he has a badass Horus chain, so he may see himself as the latest in a long, divine line (Ka-nye, if you will). If Kanye is divine, though, he'll need more going for him than his new god flow, Dr. William Simmons, a professor of anthropology at Brown University specializing in religion and mythology, told me.
“Just for there to be an idea of divinity, there also has to be, along with that, an idea of morality and human community,” he said. “And what a god provides is a sense of coherence to that community, and a sense that what they're doing is in fact what they should be doing. And [it] usually involves the sense that if they stop doing it, or if they do it imperfectly, that in some sense they'll be falling from grace.”
A true religious community should also give the believers a sense of something greater than themselves (i.e. the advancement of Egypt) and inspire them to go beyond what they could accomplish on their own, he said, which probably excludes both the people arguing on the KanyeToThe fan forums and even the most ardent RapGenius annotators. Then again, while the current benchmark for devotion to Kanye right now may be camping out for a week to buy a pair of Air Yeezys, there's no saying that couldn't change to something more meaningful. But we do tend to turn to celebrities to get the rush of a religious community without the annoying moral obligation.
“I see celebrity culture as a simulacrum,” Simmons told me. “It's a way of marketing something that resembles something real.”
Toast to the douchebags: Kanye as anti-god
“yet all his good prov'd ill in me,/And wrought but malice; lifted up so high/I [disdained] subjection,/and thought one step higher/Would set me highest” – Paradise Lost 4.48-51
“And my eyes more red than the devil is/And I'm about to take it to another level, bitch” – Kanye West, “Monster”
So far, we've been assuming Kanye is on the side of a proper moral order and any discussion of divinity stems from that. But Kanye's often the guy in opposition to what stands as societal order: Two of his most defining career moments continue to be his onscreen denunciation of George W. Bush during a Katrina telethon and his interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs.
His last three albums, particular, have all had a gleeful take on barging into high society uninvited (from “In the past if you picture events like a black tie/What's the last thing you expect to see?/Black guys” to “black dick all in your spouse again”). He's, in some sense, an anti-hero, an archetype that appears in many religions as well, Simmons told me.
“Very often when you find a god in mythology you'll find some kind of anti-god that is some sort of folkloric or mythological creature that defines itself by kind of getting in the way or interrupting things,” he said, suggesting an alternative model.
To many people, Kanye's public image is that of an interrupter, and he doesn't mind smashing his Range Rover into your Corolla to remind you of it. If he is a type of god, he may not be demanding worship so much as getting in the way of whatever else society is venerating. Although considering what he's placing himself in opposition to, you could argue that one president's anti-god is another person's hero. Or at least somebody's prophet.
Hurry up with my damn presage: Kanye as prophet
“Well if this take away from my spins/Which will probably take away from my ends/Then I hope it takes away from my sins/And brings the day that I'm dreaming about/Next time I'm in the club, everybody screaming out (Jesus walks)” – Kanye West, “Jesus Walks”
Another way that people can interact closely with the idea of divinity is by channeling it as a prophet, Simmons said. Rather than claiming to be a god, a prophet feels that he or she is speaking for a god and has been chosen to share some divine revelation.
“In that sense people can be gods, I guess, or can be godlike, or at least can be channels of this notion of sacredness and divinity,” Simmons said.
Kanye's been sharing messages about injustice since his College Dropout days, and he's been particularly insistent lately on spreading a definitive cultural outlook of good taste – the gospel of Corbusier lamps, if you will – to the masses. And, per his own words, “There's leaders, and there's followers/But I'd rather be a dick than a swallower,” which is to say that Kanye is not drinking anyone else's Kool Ace of Spades.
Two things that undermine a prophet, though, are narcissism and commercialism, both of which are pretty much implicit in being a celebrity. Even if you can convince lots of people to follow you, if there's no moral component to your message other than one based on how awesome you are, it doesn't mean much.
“If you're going to call that a god or a religion it's an extremely miniaturized version,” Simmons said.
Likewise, if you're in it to make money, well, that would make you a cult leader or Steve Jobs, who ultimately was just selling people phones. Kanye, despite his claims not to care about album sales or radio, is still doing stuff that makes a lot of money, and he's been accused of narcissism once or twice. He may have brought his whole hood with him, but his prophethood is another question entirely. If anyone's able to call out the prison industrial complex on “Saturday Night Live” or push high fashion on “Kardashians” fans, though, it's him.
So why does “I Am A God” get under peoples' skin so much? Believer, hero, ruler, god, anti-god, prophet: Like any god worth his scripture, Kanye can be many things to many people. Pick your creed. Personally, I like the idea of him as a hero, demanding our attention. We should probably pay homage, or it could be the cruelest summer yet.