Kanye West’s Sunday Service, held Easter morning on a makeshift mountaintop just outside the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, stirred up a lot of feelings on a lot of different levels. And much of it had to do with the $70 T-shirts and $225 crew-neck sweatshirts on offer in a merchandise tent emblazoned with the words “Church Clothes.”
Less than an hour after sunrise — and a good 2½ hours before the event began — the line to check out the merchandise stretched across the field several hundred people long. By comparison, the line for coffee in the pre-7 a.m. hour was barely a dozen people deep. Fans who had been seen sprinting toward the tent could later be seen walking away, arms loaded with multiple sweatshirts, T-shirts, ponchos and pairs of sweatpants. (For details on the service itself — what it was, who was there and what it symbolized musically — see a comprehensive review by The Times’ Gerrick Kennedy.)
The “church merch” was the kind of simple, straightforward pieces you’d expect to commemorate a concert (albeit with a religious bent). There were T-shirts with the words “Trust God” arcing across the front and “Sunday Service at the Mountain” in a circle on the back ($70), a message that was repeated on the back of a long-sleeve tee that bore the words “Holy Spirit” embellished with red and yellow flames ($100); and a crew-neck sweatshirt (white and sans flames, $165, or a version dyed a splotchy ox-blood color for $225).
Sweatpants with “Sunday” printed down one leg and “Service” down the other were served up in bone white ($135) and oxen ($195); and a biblical-looking poncho could be yours for $75. (For those who weren’t there but still wish to pray at the altar of Yeezy merchandise, the collection has since been made available on West’s website, with shipping in four to five weeks.)
The one piece of merchandise that really seemed to touch a nerve on social media was the two-pack of cotton-blend socks being offered for $50. One pair was white and bore the words “church socks” in black; the other was black with the words “Jesus walks” in white lettering. Responses on Twitter ranged from “marketing genius!” and “Right, like for 50 bucks I could throw out all my socks and refill my sock drawer” to the full-on quoting of scripture (John 2:16: “… make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise.”)
The prices of West’s church clothes collection didn’t deter those on-site in the least. They donned the T-shirts with great enthusiasm. (It was a bit warm for the thick cotton sweatshirts once the desert heat kicked in on Sunday.) And they proudly displayed their purchases for everyone and anyone who asked. In reality, the prices weren’t that out of line with the merchandise found at countless kiosks and boutiques throughout Coachella just a few steps away.
So what’s behind the social-media hand-wringing, then? Part of it probably had to do with West, who seems to be a lightning rod for criticism no matter what. However, a lot more of it probably had to do with trying to turn a dime on Easter morning.
For those who made the conscious choice to gather in that field, West’s Sunday Service felt like a communal gathering that should be commemorated, with the merchandise as physical evidence to brandish as proof they’d actually been there. For those watching from afar on livestream or following on social media, the Church Clothes tent may have come off as something less celebratory and more opportunistic — almost as if someone had the marketing savvy to set up a kiosk outside of Jesus’ tomb itself to hawk “He Has Risen” T-shirts to those gathering to observe the Easter miracle. As someone with dusty sneakers on the ground that morning, the Sunday Service was much more the former than the latter.
The whole experience — again, music aside — was certainly thought-provoking and easily the most spiritual and communal moment of the two weekends of this year’s Coachella festival. It could be felt in the swaying hands raised in praise throughout (in this context, the whole “Hallelujah hands” thing makes sense) and in the way bottles of water were passed back through the crowd, quickly and efficiently, to those needing hydration on a beastly hot day.
On the way out of Sunday Service, one of the camera operators, helping to beam the event to the world on YouTube, asked how we’d liked the service. After answering that we had enjoyed it very much, he explained his question. “A lot of people were expecting a certain thing,” he said, most likely referring to the amount of West actually featured, front-and-center anyway, in the Easter event organized by the artist and rap star. (It turns out the choir and band took center stage, with West being more seen than heard throughout.)