Ask Me About God: On Ye West


Arts & Culture

Screenshots from “Donda Studio Session for Hurricane (2021).”

After a nearly scandal-less summer of 2023, in the caustic August light, Ye West was spotted on a small boat in Venice, Italy, with his ass half out. His new wife had been giving him a blowjob in public. There were other patrons on the boat—it might have been a water taxi helping them from one place to the next. The couple appeared to be performatively oblivious to their surroundings. The boat became their black backstage, a transparent curtain between performance and private life, and it put me in the mind of Ye’s 2021 live performances leading up to the release of his tenth studio album, Donda. For at least one week, he lived beneath the Atlanta stadium where he was hosting the first two public listening parties to debut the album, which was still unfinished. The third performance, in Chicago, Ye’s hometown, also featured the installation of a replica of his childhood home, which he set on fire on stage, leveraging his Promethean dream against the serenity of fantasy. The album itself is not just an elegy for his mother, his martyr; it’s also one for him. He enacts his ego death by it, asks for forgiveness in advance, and retreats, “Off the Grid.” He’s ready to exercise his right to disappear into the next myth even as the old myth is not quite finished with him, not yet obsolete. In the Chicago version of this live listening show, he remarries Kim Kardashian and they walk offstage while the make-believe house keeps burning. Everything, even his family, is a prop on this set. This myth will not stop burning. And while Donda seems to genuflect and repent the loss of the maternal figure, the loss of the womb itself, the lack of access to that primal source of solace, there’s one line on the album that stands out to me as its deeper vendetta: “a single black woman you know that she petty.” Here, he denigrates the same power he uplifts. This is the same mother he laments; he’s hashing out lingering resentments. He’s just unsentimental enough to make a masterpiece that vacillates between grief and backlash. My favorite music begins and ends with this tortured erotic ambivalence; the most effective art is greedy about it, righteous and wicked at the same time, humble and opulent, minimal and spectacular, optimistic and despairing, unrepentant and begging for mercy.

Beneath the spectacle of the first Donda shows, there was a twin bed in a small prison-style rectangular space, with a digital clock and a flat-screen television on the wall. One ex machina–esque fluorescent light beamed from the ceiling. The floor was carpeted in bureaucratic gray, and on it the contents of one small suitcase were neatly arrayed like they might be in a college dormitory. There were also some free weights, which made it all look lonelier and more honest. A gray wardrobe held a few hanging garments. Ye was filmed in that room leading up to the second performance, doing push-ups, huddled with his collaborators and affiliates listening to and editing songs for the album, and yelling militant rehearsal commands as the show approached, a look of messianic drive and casual terror in his eyes.

“Make me new again, make me new again,” a section of the album entreats in a rap-gospel howl, a humble bridge between lyrics that land like mourning benches in a ruin. When showtime comes, Ye wears bright red on stage as if covered in blood, as if he wants to signify the lamb luring the wolf, yearning to be hunted, while his face is shrouded in a ski mask to feign anonymity. He doesn’t want to flash a Dizzy Gillespie grin, or a Louis Armstrong supergrin, or a Miles Davis minor scowl, or an Ellingtonian mélange of chagrin and glamor. Part of Ye’s regenerative capacity is this recovered stoicism after intermittent bouts of what some call mania and others assume is megalomania and others still dismiss as just another half-militant half-capitalist nigga shining in every direction at once. Maybe he hears the spirit of John Coltrane, who announces, “I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once.” He finds a static identity and the idolization it attracts oppressive, and maybe sometimes he self-sabotages or risks everything to escape this. In this album-long apology to his mother, he seems to repent to the audience too, and then to retract it all and go back to his secretive and ritualistic mourning.

Screenshot from “Donda Studio Session for Hurricane (2021).”

He deploys supernatural momentum throughout his cycle of sabotage and comeback that defies Coltrane’s omnidirectional grammar, to find statements that feel more linear and pillared. Just when you suspect he has delivered a final self-abnegating blow, or experienced a debilitating crisis, he gathers what elements of his soul he can access and retaliates and bests himself. If he can’t exceed his past selves, he cancels himself, goes dark, and finds miraculous renewal in the debris and ruins. He uses a personal grammar of interruptions to move between glory and disgrace with playful elegance. It’s easy to remember and hard to forget, as if he’s sharing his traumatic amnesia with us while emerging from under its wounding, coming out swinging.

Lashing out at himself first to test his weapons, he takes the stage at the 2022 BET Awards, held in the middle of summer, in black leather and denim complete with gloves and another black mask, dark sunglasses over his eyes. “Ima sweat before you catch me looking regular,” he quips later on Instagram with satisfied candor. This hubris doesn’t hurt to watch, it feels like justice for the black aesthetic vernacular, for every hood-rich kid in a winter outfit in July. Ye stands on television and says: this is our deliberate armor, our fatigues, this is how tired of your style we are—and we are not weary. Then he mocks the Universal record exec who asked him if he was hot before his speech, saying, “You work at Universal.”

Ye’s logic is brutal and self-possessed. He does not care about what the mainstream might consider deranged or irregular. He’s already risen from the dead, he asserts, so what if you’re offended by his resurrection antics. In fact, please take offense so he knows they are making an impression. His fame assails him and he exacts vengeance with the blunt irreverence of a dissatisfied child who is too smart to be controlled by so-called authority figures. He is not afraid to show it when it takes effort to sustain; he chooses transparency over surveillance. Nice work if you can get it, he insinuates, another jazz-standard lyric he lures toward rap bravado. Suddenly his every utterance is a work song and he’s starting in the middle of the field or the cosmos, entangled with other star patterns and being dragged along in the sun, or the spotlight. Fame, which he pursued, which now haunts him, which now precludes his ever appearing regular, which now demands that he use excess and not manual labor to sweat some days—fame is his undoing and ours. What we desire of him is both his sweat and his silence behind the mask—we need him to perform our idea of him, which we collectively fixate into reality, and then to never slip outside the margins of this contrived persona. He seems happiest being regular, but that option is unavailable to him now. Even in ignominy. He defaults to performing himself, and then that self-parody becomes irreconcilable with his material objectives and he buckles. This is as close as he can get to intimacy with his public, this transactional shaming and rehabilitation enacted upon him and then, with himself as accomplice, upon his fans and fanatics. He has no true friends.

He went through a phase in late 2021, shortly after the release of Donda, when his divorce from Kim Kardashian and their ensuing effort to coparent amicably became the subject of public conflict, during which he would instruct his adversaries to “find God,” casting them out of his universe and into a drift from which even he could not rescue them. His piety was important to him during that span, and he was holding his Sunday Service in Downtown Los Angeles almost every weekend. Sunday Service is Ye’s church, with its own immaculate choir and dress code and code of Christian ethics. Some accuse it of being cultlike. Everyone wants an invite. One of those weekends, after service, he came to a venue I help run for an event we were doing in celebration of Alice Coltrane. He pulled up smiling a Ye West supersmile, unabashed. We discussed Buckminster Fuller and geodesic domes while members of the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers chanted and invoked the spirit of Ganesh. In person he felt smaller and more vulnerable but also alarmingly sincere and alert. He didn’t seem at all compromised by the versions of himself that existed to be exalted in the realm of myth; he seemed motivated to get down to earth and dismantle that lore. We took photos in front of the venue, which he made sure to art-direct, and he took some photos with the grandson of John and Alice Coltrane. He suggested we meet at his office to continue our discussion and the next time I saw him in the news he was in Miami with his son at a football game. Then his calls on others to find God escalated into calls on the recording and high-fashion industries to let go of their egos along with him. Roll calls, name calling. This all backfired—he made statements he couldn’t retract and was effectively blacklisted, quieted, nudged nearer to Christ in that he would have to die and come back again in this life. That period, which feels timeless and undone, scandalized him into the obscurity we now glimpse on that boat in Venice, in that August lust. God disappeared from his iconography.

Ye as we knew him went missing. I kept hearing Prince’s response to a question a journalist asked him during a postconcert press conference in Paris: “Is there a question that you want to be asked?” the reporter wondered. “Ask me about God,” Prince implored. Find God. Stop looking for him in me. These routes that famously controversial men have to take to undeification, so that they can retrieve themselves, are arduous and impossible. They’re not coming back. We’ve abandoned them and they abandon us in return. Their retaliations are natural, inevitable. We observe in real time as if they are abstract. They don’t want redemption, they want out. They already know about God, and God is the light in them threatening to die of the light shining from without, from fans and psychopaths who see their obsession with sound as a commitment to the chaos inflicted upon them.


Ye’s vicissitudes trouble me in particular because I had a father once. He was brave and chaotic too. Awful and beautiful too. A workaholic full of ennui too. A man who went on and off lithium and made music all day in our living room and had so many obsessions he was Afro-blue neon with trouble too. Searching for God too. What did he do, to be so black and blue too? Was it hubris, or misplaced altruism? Or the myth of the dedicated working-class black man who gets some money and becomes chronically paranoid about descending back into poverty. His shame proceeds him and is disguised as pride. His love saves him and is threatened by fanaticism. My dad died and I started looking for alibis and Ye Wests and new Gods. Was it him or me who was consumed by a quiet survivor’s guilt? Did their success shatter too many myths for their own minds? Did my inheritance amount to an endless search for God that does not want to be found, only embodied? When my father died, it felt like the discrepancies between civilian life, domestic life, and the music industry had chased him away and made him a stranger to himself, unfit to endure the contradictions he had formerly chased for us. It felt like somebody besides him should get in trouble for this estrangement, but also like he was the arbiter of it, the will behind his own trouble, which he exchanged for our comfort and survival. The only people like him whom I’d encountered seemed similarly tormented by their own tyranny. Ye, as an updated version of an archetype whose heart I carried within my own, seemed like he might avenge the cycle, and I’d hoped so, until he couldn’t find God, and I couldn’t find my father, and we couldn’t find Ye either, and there was nothing profound about it, it’s just that they were all missing and not very missed. Case dismissed into the anticlimactic afterlife of black entertainment.

In a video of his forty-sixth birthday party in 2023, which Ye held at a warehouse in LA where they served sushi off the naked bodies of women, in the tradition, his nine-year-old daughter North is filming him in a close-up fish-eye style while he stoops and shadowboxes with her camera in a performance of the Donda track “Off the Grid.” The song is a celebratory manifesto about making it out, the real American dream of privacy retrieved after notoriety or windfall. North tends to her father’s performance in an austere formation that is part father-daughter play but with a hint of appeasement, and the need to make sure he’s okay. It’s like she’s the one watching over him, the way she holds the camera and moves when he moves, while he hovers low to meet the lens until she’s taller than he is. Their duet is the shattered domestic life reimagined as public life, theatricalized into something tangible beyond the pulp mythos, a song about getting out entrenched in a Hollywood occasion, a sad star-studded birthday party for a falling star who will rise again whether he likes it or not, by way of a boat or a new album or both.

This is how fathers like mine and like Ye hang out with their daughters, their heirs. We’re terrorized and terrified and fearless together. We are to join the band, to make ourselves useful, to run the family business, to be enthralled, while also performing enough carefree innocence to make all their hard labor, their sweat and inability to look regular ever again, worth what it costs them. It costs them everything, and they go off and do not return. They lose touch with the voice of God. Then they even lose interest in it. We don’t ask them about it ever again. Instead, we ghostwrite their apologies and suicide love notes and become their vicarious revenge. The stakes are very high, we cannot go off course, we are their final chance at home, which is burning, which is shipwrecked, which is escaping to Europe for new dereliction in a tragic effort to reimagine the dead era when Europe would embrace disgraced black stars. We crop out the rest of the scene for them while taking in everything ourselves, so we can remember what to rescue one another from. A song about exile, a song about deregulated black sound becoming the self as it’s disappearing. Rescue us from these sad songs and from the pathos of hope for rescue.

I keep a small sacred altar of their mistakes and their miracles side by side. Some days I glance at it and demand, Ask me about God.


Harmony Holiday is a writer, dancer, archivist, filmmaker and the author of 5 collections of poetry including Hollywood Forever and Maafa (2022). She curates a standing archive space for griot poetics and a related performance and events series at Los Angeles’s music and archive venue 2220arts. She’s a staff writer for LA Times’ Image and 4Columns. She’s currently working on a collection of essays for Duke University Press, a biography of Abbey Lincoln, and an exhibition on backstage and performance culture for The Kitchen in New York.