Jason White — the former Music Director of the massive West Angeles Church, who now oversees the choir at Kanye West’s Sunday Service events — was nudged towards a career as musician when he was just four years old.
“Every day I would rush home to play on the piano, and it would sound like noise,” White recalls. “But early one morning, I got up, my grandmother was in the kitchen, I went to the sun porch, and I started picking out this song on the piano — a hymn called ‘At the Cross.’ My grandmother could hear the melody, and even in the kitchen, she could tell that something was happening. So she began to get the anointing oil and to pray over me on the sun porch. She called on God and said, ‘may his life be different, may you cultivate this gift that I see working inside of him.'”
White has gone on to win numerous awards for his work as a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, music director and choir director. But his latest venture, helping a secular star to embrace inspirational music, has brought new levels of mainstream exposure. Celebrities regularly attend West’s Sunday Services, and millions of listeners have now streamed White’s choir, which can be heard on West’s new album, Jesus Is King.
White spoke with Rolling Stone about the origins of the Sunday Service events, his initial doubt about West’s commitment to gospel, and the challenges of converting profane songs into inspirational ones.
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How did you transition from working in the church and in TV to working with Kanye?
I left West Angeles in 2016. I go back to my local church; my brother’s the pastor there now. West Angeles has 25,000 members, sits about 6,000 people. Now I’m serving in my local church, playing in the 8:30 service. I’m kind of like Moses on the back side of the mountain. God is preparing me for something, but I’m on the back side of the mountain, I’m tending to the sheep, using my gift in my brother’s small church.
This guy named Ray Romulus, a producer who works with Bruno Mars, he calls Phil, who is now our music director. Ray says, “‘Ye wants a choir — you know any choir guys?” Phil says, “you have to call Jason White. He does the Oscars, the Grammys, the Latin Grammys, he’s the guy.”
Phil texts me at 9 a.m., the first week of January — the top of the year. He says, “expect a call from Ray; ‘Ye is looking for a choir.” Ray calls in five minutes: “Would you be interested? 100 people by Friday, and put a band together, too.” I went and met Ray — we didn’t know anything. We didn’t have songs. We didn’t have anything. We called about 100 people, said it’s an A-list artist, can’t tell you who it is or what it is, meet us here. They knew who I was and believed in me. They all showed up.
Kanye was embroiled in several controversies last year — did you worry you would get pulled into those?
I ain’t gonna lie, I was a little scared. Mr. West, back then, everything surrounding him — there was a lot of stuff going on. But I met him that night in rehearsal, and I could see something different about this guy. We started singing songs, and then he would call me over: “I don’t want to say those words.”
“You don’t want to say what words?”
“We’re not gonna do any profanity, any cursing, I want you to re-write these songs. I don’t want to sing my songs like they’ve been.”
We had this girl I had hired to sing with me for the longest time, her name is Nikki Grier. I didn’t even know she’s a lyricist that worked with Dr. Dre, with so many different artists, Busta Rhymes. I was hiring her just to sing. I pulled her from the top of the choir stand, she went in with Mr. West and just started re-writing dope lyrics. So out of this collection of singers that I’m thinking is just a choir, it’s filled with everything that we need. I’m pulling out arrangers. I’m arranging and directing. Nikki is helping to re-write.
I so admired [West] — the stance he was taking. He wanted to do Godly music, Christian music. He wanted to change all of his songs. We started out re-writing “Ghost Town,” then “Lift Yourself,” other songs from his records. That was the beginning of Sunday Service.
When you first met Kanye, had he already undergone his conversion?
The beginning of it. He had confessed, he wanted to be saved. He will tell you today he wasn’t fully converted. But he could sense God upon him. And God gave him the idea of wanting to do different music. God doesn’t always give you the full plan. I don’t think God completely gave Kanye what you see today. But it starts out in a small stage, and He feeds you more of the purpose.
I’m thinking that we’re gonna do this two or three weeks. First week of January, 2019, Kanye’s gonna do this a week or two, he’ll get sick of it and move on. Week after week, Monday or Tuesday, Ray would call: “This week we’re gonna sing blah blah blah.” Mr. West would have different directions for us every week. After the fifth week, we’re adding horns, adding drummers, and I’m like, what is this turning into? Then Mrs. West calls it Sunday Service, and it took on a whole ‘nother spin. What I’m thinking is gonna be a week or two, now I’ve been in the company of Kanye West for the last 10 months. I’ve spent every Sunday riding with him.
I did it, and I’m doing it, because I see God. I see a conversion. I see [West] wanting to change his life, to be different. I see his speech change. I see his desire change. I got committed to the God that is inside him — not necessarily Kanye West, but I could see God doing something inside of his life. If God could choose Kanye West to do something through him, to do something spectacular through him, who am I to judge? Who is anybody else to judge? So I just align myself with him.
Week after week, even the choir members — we were all suspicious. I ain’t gonna lie. What is going on here? But we listened to him talk. I would feed the choir what he would say. I could tell that something different was happening.
I was doing stuff with Whitney before she died. I was doing stuff with Diddy. So I didn’t worry about backlash from the church. I knew that I was called to something different. I knew God had linked me to the world, not necessarily just his church. God had called me to be a light. People believed in the God in me, knew I wasn’t gonna do nothing salacious or crazy.
What was the work breakdown when you were preparing for each Sunday Service?
Ray and I would be driving, but Kanye always had the vision. He saw it. He’s always talking about what he sees, what he’s gonna do, what we’re gonna do. Before Coachella even happened, he was talking Coachella. “It’s gonna be the first time that gospel music and inspirational music has ever been done in the years of Coachella.” He would just speak it.
He wanted to grow the choir bigger, so I grew it to about 85 people at this point. I would rehearse the band, rehearse the choir weekly. Before Coachella we spent a week in the desert rehearsing, coming up with the songs. That circle that we’re in? That’s all ‘Ye. He can think real fast on the spot. We were having a problem with the risers — I’m like, “Mr. West, we gotta do something about these.” He’s like, “take ’em out and put the choir all the way around the mountain.”
“If they’re all around the mountain, how are they gonna see the director? How they gonna see me?”
“I’m gonna put you in the center and I’m gonna elevate you.” Everything you see today is all him. But it’s not like he saw it months ago. He would just create it on the spot. With most visionaries, people can’t see it. But the visionary can see it.
He would have these ideas and some of us would be like, that ain’t gonna work, that’s wack. Next thing you know, everybody’s loving it. And you start loving it. We really started re-writing songs, R&B songs, and turning them into Christian music. That’s where the flips would come from. Nikki Grier is amazing, man. We pulled in some other arrangers, and we would meet with Ray, he was like our music supervisor. Why don’t we try some Mary J. [Blige]? “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman?
How fast did listeners get on board?
The community, musicians, actors, they just started coming. Then we would see L.A. Reid just show up. Then this white guy with this long beard and flip-flops and a white t-shirt — Rick Rubin, yo! We were just doing what we do, and we didn’t know that these people would be in there.
We would encourage people to lift your hands, clap your hands. You’re free, there are no rules here. Be free to express yourself to your God, your love, your savior. Refresh for the week, get some joy for the week. We would start engaging the audience. All these people started showing up, walking, traveling. It would turn into service.
Were there any challenges adapting hip-hop or R&B songs into a gospel setting?
A bit in the beginning stages. Some of these flips, I was like, there’s no way that’s gonna work. “As We Lay” by Shirley Murdock — that song is about adultery. “So Anxious” by Ginuwine? No way. But we worked it out, and it was glorious. So instead of Shirley saying, “it’s morning and we slept the night away,” we said, “you’re holy, Lamb of God, we give you praise.” We flipped Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thing” into “Savior.” We flipped Ginuwine into “Soul’s Anchored.” They would be biblically sound, scripturally sound. Mr. West was big on that — these had to be biblically sound songs with strong lyrics.
What is your goal — what are you working towards with the Sunday Services?
To share the love of Christ throughout the nation, throughout the world, that others would believe in Jesus. We’re a singing collective. We have implemented the Word. Every now and then, a pastor will come in and speak. Warryn Campbell came one Sunday and spoke. John Gray came one Sunday and spoke. That was the week that [A$AP] Rocky came home — he came straight to Sunday Service, and we prayed with him. The word is coming forth. Our goal is to win souls for Christ.
We spoke with Donald Lawrence recently, and he believes the Sunday Services have the potential to revive interest in choirs.
He would take those clips [from the Sunday Services] and post them, and that would give us so much encouragement. He’d say, “I’m loving this, Jason, keep going.” Gospel music has moved to praise and worship, six to nine singers on Sunday. Choirs have taken a back seat. I’m glad that God was able to use me to bring that back. The encouragement from Donald, from Ricky Dillard, those two have the big choirs in African American gospel music. I call them the choir masters. When they reached out, it felt great. They came, imparted that encouragement to the singers: “Don’t allow anybody to squash you down, condemn you for what you are doing. What you’re doing is record breaking. It’s original. Keep going.”
Did you work on the Jesus Is King album as well?
Absolutely. I worked heavily on the album vocally. We did “Every Hour.” We did the “hallelujah’s” on “Selah.” We did some vocals on “Everything We Need.” I was heavily involved, and I still am. Even though that one’s out, we’re still recording.
Kanye said another album is already on the way.
Another album is on the way. And you know ‘Ye — who knows? He may put another two or three songs on this record. As the young people say, he’s in his bag. He’s lit up. He comes up with these samples, calls like, “I want the girls to do the leads on this, Jason do what you do, put the vocals up there, have this playing in the background.” At this point, we know what he wants to hear and how he wants to hear it, and we make it happen. Then he gives us changes or notes.
You’ve worked with a lot of stars in gospel and you have your own gospel hits — what do you think is interesting about the way West fuses gospel and hip-hop?
Most secular people, when they come to do gospel music, you don’t really hear them in the gospel music. This is still ‘Ye. It’s still got the autotune, him singing like back on 808s & Heartbreak. The beats are still out of this world. The samples — I don’t know where he’s finding these. Even back to “Jesus Walks,” I had to break that down and go to the original and look at those harmonies. We haven’t lost ‘Ye. That’s what’s unique. His fans can still hear him.