My overall highlight of Coachella last year was Sunday Service with Kanye West on Easter Sunday during the second weekend of the festival. Usually the biggest festival moments happen during Weekend One of the festival but that was not the case last year. We all knew about a week before the festival started that Kanye was bringing his Sunday Service to Indio. He had started the Sunday Service around January 2019 for family and friends. Kanye was originally supposed to be a festival headliner but that all fell apart when they couldn’t agree on his crazy ideas for a performance setup at the main stage. The service was set to start at 9 am on Sunday morning but it was hard for me to believe that people up all night at a festival would make it to church. I was proven very wrong.
Up to this point Kanye had been pretty secretive about what happened at the Sunday Services in Calabasas and only a few Kardashian photos had leaked so there was a lot of anticipation for the event. On Saturday, Ryan Pavlov (my longtime photo editor) and I took a pedicab out to the area of the campground where the event would take place to scope out the situation. I was honestly still trying to see if there was a way to photograph it. Before Coachella last year I had very few usable photos of Kanye West since Essence Festival 2011 where we got to shoot part of one song in the photo pit and it wasn’t great. Since then he has been in a mask, behind a curtain of white light, in a flaming clear box, and on a platform in the dark as we have attempted to take his picture. I was happy to be able to see him in daylight conditions. We talked to security and were quickly told there would be two layers of security with metal detectors to get into the event and that even credentialed media could not bring professional cameras because Kanye had said no photos at church.
We proceeded to the media area to start the day on Saturday and in the afternoon, we heard that Kanye might make a guest appearance with Kid Cudi, who he has produced and collaborated with in the past, at his midnight set. Rumors of guests are common at any festival and there is about a 50/50 chance of them being true. I was skeptical especially since he was supposed to perform early in the morning on Sunday. It was a tough decision on whether to stay for a midnight set. Covering music festivals with photos is tough and Coachella is the toughest conditions. There is extreme heat all day, lots of walking and then dust. I love it but by Weekend Two it is hard. I made the call to stay for Kid Cudi. I do like him and have covered him for years at his native Cleveland shows so worst case I would get some new Cudi shots. This turned out to be the best decision of the year most likely because as Kid Cudi walked out of the tunnel I saw someone right behind him. It was Kanye coming out song 1 of the performance. Only 3 press photographers had stayed around for the show and we were rewarded. I shot so many photos so fast. I assumed he would leave after a minute or one song but no he stayed out for 7 songs. We were allowed to shoot the whole time he was there without any obstacles other than a restricted movement in the pit. It was amazing. After he was nice enough to give us a photo opportunity I decided not to try to photograph his Sunday Service against his wishes. Ryan and I even debated on not even coming early for the service since we had a long final day of the festival to cover.
By 7:30 AM my friend Chris was texting us to come to the service. I made a last-minute decision to hurry and get ready and go to the show. We didn’t take any cameras in because we already saw people walking back to their cars to put theirs away after being denied entry. It was a long walk to the campground on the back of the site. Upon arrival there was two extra security checks and lines were starting to be very long at 8:30 AM. People were coming. Ryan and I made it inside and saw there was a huge mound that had been built in the middle and so we went around the back and saw a VIP area where we entered to sit on a hill and have a clean view of the top of the mound. We were close to the Kardashian crew so we assumed it was good spot. Other artists started to appear as well to watch including Lizzo, Travis Scott and Donald Glover to name a few.
More and more people streamed in and filled in around the front of the mound. There was a booth with merchandise selling “Church Clothes” which were really Yeezy sweat suits, t-shirts and socks for hundred of dollars. Many people waited in line for the clothes during the whole show and missed the performance. They were probably disappointed to see them for sale on his website an hour later.
Around 10 AM a full orchestra assembled on top of the mound and started playing gospel songs. Eventually over 100 members of a gospel choir led by Jason White filed in and sang. It was so amazing to hear. The hair stood up on my arms. It was surreal. Several songs were performed. Kanye finally entered the event about 30 minutes into the choir performance. I was pleasantly surprised that he really did not make the performance all about himself. For most of the show he stayed buried in the crowd of instrumentalists on the piano.
In the background loomed the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains, as the choir were singing versions of the gospel numbers “How Excellent”, “Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down,” “This Is the Day,” and “Water.” Dancers emerged during the set that had been sitting among us in the crowd in the matching purple yeezy outfits and added to the spectacle.
Chance the Rapper and Kid Cudi made surprise appearances and sang with the group. Chance makes his faith no secret and often incorporates it into his songs and dynamic solo performances. Midshow, the singer Teyana Taylor emerged for a version of “Never Would Have Made It.” After her song the group marched around the mound and into the VIP section dancing and singing praises. West joined in the group with his hair dyed a mottled purple, matching his outfit. He rapped just twice during the show parts of “All Falls Down” and, at the conclusion, “Jesus Walks,” the early hit that served as a foundational element of the performance.
Toward the end of the event DMX led a prayer and story of sorts. At the end the choir, dancers and West exited and the orchestra played as the 100,000 attendees left the grounds. Some may call the event sacrilegious but I thought it was really wonderful and may have brought the touch of the gospel to many in this crowd for the first time. By the end I was relaxed, so happy I had not missed it and found myself wanting all the church clothes.
Note: Photo was taken with IPhone