Kanye West’s Sunday Service draws thousands to Detroit riverfront

Brian McCollum, Detroit Free PressPublished 10:51 a.m. ET Sept. 27, 2019 | Updated 5:56 p.m. ET Sept. 27, 2019

His kids danced onstage, his famous wife looked on, and Kanye West threw a jubilant gospel-hip-hop revival Friday afternoon for a flock of about 6,000 fans and singers at Detroit’s Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre, scene of the rapper’s latest Sunday Service concert.

It made for a powerful, often compelling 90 minutes, where traditional gospel mingled with church-ified Kanye hits and a Mariah Carey cover, courtesy of 150 singers onstage and a sea of them in the audience.

For his part, the rapper was a grinning but relatively low-key presence, mostly taking in the music around him like a happy fan blessed to be onstage. He didn’t speak during the event, which drew a crowd that appeared to be a mix of younger Yeezy fans and older members of Detroit’s gospel community.

West arrived with wife, Kim Kardashian, and their children after 1 p.m., rolling up backstage in a black Chevy Tahoe to commence the proceedings — the latest in a series of Sunday Services launched by the hip-hop star at his L.A. home in January.

Kardashian perched by an onstage organ as a stirring swell of gospel voices filled the venue on a gorgeous autumn afternoon on Detroit’s riverfront. Three buses’ worth of choir singers from West’s hometown of Chicago worked the stage, while about 2,000 Detroit singers, enlisted earlier this week, were situated throughout the amphitheater seats to bolster the impact.

The hoodie-topped West was in the thick of the onstage festivities as the choir served up gospel numbers (“Hallelujah, Salvation and Glory,” “Our Lord, How Excellent”) and West’s own “Ultralight Beam.” Drawing a roar, the rapper stepped out front to drop a verse on a rendition of his 2016 song “Father Stretch My Hands.”

Those bars were his lone rapping contribution on the day — though West did man a set of turntables at one point to mix a bit of Chicago house music, spinning Cajmere’s “Brighter Days.”

Six-year-old daughter North West was a bundle of energy throughout, scampering across the stage, dancing and even singing along as the choir performed the Clark Sisters’ “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” It was one of three nods to the pioneering Detroit gospel group — including a closing “You Brought the Sunshine” — as J. Drew Sheard, son of the group’s Karen Clark Sheard, looked on from the front row.

Kanye West, with daughter North West, pictured at his hip-hop revival on Detroit's Riverfront on Friday, Sept. 27.

Kanye West, with daughter North West, pictured at his hip-hop revival on Detroit’s Riverfront on Friday, Sept. 27. (Photo: Brian McCollum)

Choir director Jason White paid tribute to Detroit’s deep gospel tradition, citing artists such as Aretha Franklin, the Winans, the Clark Sisters and Commissioned.

“The reason we’re so glad to be here is there’s so much rich history in Detroit,” he said. “I mean, just Hitsville alone — Motown alone.”

The event, initially timed to accompany the release of West’s album “Jesus Is King,” came together quickly: Free tickets for the show were grabbed up in minutes Thursday, days after West’s team registered a contingent of Detroit choir singers to join him for the gospel-style show.

Outside the Aretha, fans had arrived as early as 5:30 a.m., including people who had come from San Francisco, Canada and Chicago. 

The concert was scheduled to get underway at noon, but ultimately kicked off at about 1:40 p.m.

Venue manager Shahida Mausi, who got her first call from Kanye’s team Monday evening, described a hectic week of preparing for the event. The amphitheater was already closed for the season, which prompted a quick scramble to reboot the facility — staffing, security, production gear — in a matter of days.

Much of her team was already headed to North Carolina to produce this weekend’s Art of Cool Festival.

Fortunately, she said, “we have a deep bench.”

Just 13 months ago, the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre — the riverside venue then known as Chene Park — was host to another high-profile, quickly arranged event with global interest: a tribute concert on the eve of Franklin’s funeral.

Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or bmccollum@freepress.com.


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