An interview with the musical director of Kanye West’s Sunday Service
On the weekend Jesus is King was supposed to drop, Kanye spread the gospel in Detroit, Chicago and NYC. The Face caught some time with organ player Philip Cornish in the Motor City.
Over the last three years, Kanye West has been generating more headlines than ever before. Among his various controversies, he’s proudly established an affiliation with Donald Trump, has publicly worn a MAGA hat and described slavery as a “choice” on live television. But Kanye’s social media activity and political commentary has been mostly halted since January of this year. Instead, he’s focused on dedicating his life to Christianity, and he has reportedly claimed that he’ll no longer make secular music.
This year West has been popping up in different American cities every Sunday to put on an event he calls Sunday Service. It’s an immersive musical and spiritual experience, complete with a full live band and a gospel choir of over a hundred singers. The performances have included material from Kanye West’s back catalogue plus cover versions of songs from the likes of Nirvana and Travis Scott (with the lyrics adapted to be church-friendly) and the media has noticed celebrities such as Brad Pitt, David Letterman and Katy Perry in attendance.
On Friday afternoon (27th September), West broke the tradition of playing every Sunday, and brought his mega-church experience to Detroit’s Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre. The show was announced last minute, causing thousands of fans to flock to the 5,000 seat venue, with only a fraction of the crowd making it through the gates.
At 2pm – two hours after the scheduled starting time – bright organ music flooded the amphitheatre and the chorus erupted in a divine version of Ultralight Beam. The entire crowd was singing back, making it feel like we were part of West’s own “church.” The music was broken up by a fifteen minute sermon conducted by a pastor from West’s home church. Where the sermon might have had the more secular fans snoozing, even the most atheist fans couldn’t help raising their arms and singing “alleluia” when the music started up again.
Considering he is known for his huge ego (“I am a god,” he once famously declared), it was surprising that he was barely visible throughout the service. Aside from a short verse in one of the worship songs, West was almost unnoticeable throughout the entire service, walking around the stage with his daughter, North. His wife, Kim Kardashian, was seen on the side of the stage with their other kids, singing along and taking videos.
The huge surprise came right after the service, when West announced the preview of Jesus is King: A Kanye West Experience at Detroit’s Fox Theatre later that night. Entry was free and phones would be taken off audience members for duration of the event.
Kanye’s day in Detroit was supposed to mark the release of the album Jesus is King, but the album didn’t materialise. Kardashian then confirmed that the awaited album would be available Sunday 29th September, but at the time of writing, the fans are still waiting for it to be released. A Jesus is King film has been announced for a late October release.
Regardless of when the Jesus is King album is made available to the public, it’s safe to say that West’s intentions are crystal clear: he wants to use his huge platform to spread the Christian message across the world. After the afternoon performance in Detroit, The Face talked to the man behind the organ, Philip Cornish, who is the music director for Sunday Service, to gain a little insight into a creative curveball from one of the biggest musicians on the planet.
How did you first get involved with Sunday Service and what was appealing to you about the project?
I had a friend of mine who had worked with Kanye before, so he called me to the studio session towards the end of last year. They reached back out to me when they got ready to start Sunday Service, so I’ve been there from the beginning, late last year. With an artist like Mr. West, anytime there’s an opportunity to work with him in any capacity, you have to jump at the opportunity, because you just never know what can come of it. Even if it’s just a one time thing.
What have you learned from Kayne since you two started working together?
He’s someone who, when he puts his mind to something, he doesn’t waste his time thinking about doing it, he just does it. If it works it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I was always taught we gotta go through the “noes” to get to the “yeses” and he’s someone who’s fearless about powering through the noes. That’s the biggest draw I take from him – just seeing how he operates.
Was the music for Sunday Service a collaborative effort?
It’s definitely collaborative, it was a group of us. He does a good job of surrounding himself with people to help bring the vision alive. A few of us came together and it evolved on its own. It started as one thing and turned into something else.
You have a background in gospel music, correct?
Yes, I grew up playing in church in more of a conservative background, I grew up Seventh Day Adventist, so it was a lot of just hymns. I started playing in Baptist churches around my early teens, so from there it just kinda served as my foundation of my class outside of taking piano lessons. My mom had me in all kinds of things meant to just really bolster my interest in music, so it definitely, definitely helped. It kinda came full circle with this opportunity, because you go from playing in church, then you go to school and study jazz, then the private parties thing, and clubs and corporate events and weddings, then you get to go on tour with other artists. This was really a merging of the two worlds.
The whole performance is so spiritual and full of energy – is that something you connect with personally when you perform the piece?
Definitely. It’s kind of that feeling when you go somewhere and you feel the presence or you feel whole. It’s been like this since day one, not knowing what it was going to be like when we came together, but knowing that we just wanted to do music about love and just have a good, positive, and pure atmosphere. You just feel the purity of it right away. It’s refreshing to be in a situation like that, because not all situations in the music industry are like that. You just felt the peacefulness and purity of it since day one.
Do you think that the services have maintained the same energy that they had when you first started in January?
Oh yeah. I think that because people didn’t really know what it was or what to say about it, everyone who’d come would literally have the same reaction. First they’d have their hands folded, not really knowing what’s going on, then by the second song they’d be pulled in, when they see it’s nothing other than just a free and open space to be uplifted.
Kanye takes way more of a background role in the services than audiences would expect – do you know the intentionality behind that?
Not necessarily. I think it’s just, you know, wanting to allow the energy or the spirit to come in and to be ministered to just like anyone else. It can’t be about one person or about anything other than the agenda of spreading the gospel. I think, you know, he recognised that from day one and doesn’t want to get in the way of that. It’s just like anyone who goes to church, they just want to go and be there, they don’t want to do anything but be ministered to. It can easily turn to something else or be misconstrued or misinterpreted – I think the best way to avoid that is to just allow the spirit to come in and let it take over.
Is there a connection between the Sunday Services and the Jesus is King project?
[Shakes head to imply no]