Kanye West’s profound allusion to “Amazing Grace” on “Selah”

Kanye’s Jesus Is King is out and that means it’s time to dissect every living element in the album. As I was reading into the track second song in the record, “Selah” (“Every Hour” is the prologue), I was intrigued by Kanye’s following lyric:

“He saved a wretch like me”

Sound familiar? This line is an allusion to the most beloved hymn on earth: “Amazing Grace” by John Newton published in 1779. Rap music by nature is one of the most allusive art-forms, but this allusion is particularly fascinating because of the parallels between Kanye and Newton. Before we examine the profundity of this specific line within the track “Selah” and Kanye’s life, lets first take a brief look into the history of John Newton and his creation of “Amazing Grace.”

Newton was a slave-ship captain and slave trader during the Trans-Atlantic slave-trade. He was known for his debauchery and crude, profane poem-writing. Newton had lived a secular, irreligious life up until after miraculously surviving a torrential storm overseas in 1748 during which he prayed to God. Subsequently, Newton penned the first verse for “Amazing Grace” which contains the famous “wretch” line. Despite God’s divine intervention in John’s life, he did not radically change his secular ways at once; his spiritual awakening was very gradual:

“I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”

Upon his return home in Liverpool, Newton began exploring faith and reflecting on his past sins as a slave trader. As he became more serious, Newton started hosting Bible studies in his home and organizing weekly Thursday evening prayer services. Newton was so moved and inspired by God’s grace that he was eventually ordained as a priest in the Church of England in 1764. He also collaborated with the poet William Cowper on a volume of their collected hymns which was published in 1779.

Thirty-four years after leaving his soul-crushing occupation, John denounced the entire profession of slavery. He even went as far by publishing an assertive pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” The pamphlet described the horrific conditions on slave ships. Later, Newton apologized for his complicity in the dehumanizing business of slave-trading:

“It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

In his journey to repentance, Newton later joined and had a tremendous influence on William Wilberforce in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade in the West. In February 1807, when the act to abolish the Slave Trade finally became law, John Newton, nearly blind and near death, “rejoiced to hear the wonderful news.”

Newton also wrote the pom “In Evil I long Took Delight” which described the horrors he witnessed during his time as a slave trader:

“I saw One hanging on a tree,
In agony and blood,
Who fixed His languid eyes on me,
As near His cross I stood.”

Of course the “one” in this poem is an African slave and the mention of “cross” alludes to Jesus and his unjust crucifixion on the cross.

Okay, back to music. We won’t analyze all of “Amazing Grace,” due to the length of this post but in the first verse, Newton poetizes the following:

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.”

Newton is poetically describing the life-changing role God has played in his life. He acknowledges his past sins—-when he was “blind” and “lost” as a slave trader—and labels himself a “wretch” a for it. Kanye West interpolates the second line of this hymn as the following (as I mentioned previously):

“He saved a wretch like me”

Why is this profound? What does this line signify about Jesus is King as a whole? On a literary and compositional level, this allusion is profound because of intertextuality—the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text. In literature, authors often directly allude to other texts. This forces the reader to consider the text at hand in context of its intertextual relationship with the text the author is alluding to. While we won’t be doing a line-by-line analysis of the song “Selah” in this post (that will be a future article), in summary, it is about reflecting on the past and the present. This is a fitting topic because “Selah” is a biblical term which means to pause and reflect (the word is technically ambiguous but “Selah” is widely believed to denote a pause or “reflection” since it typically appears at the end of verses). In this joint, Kanye reflects on his goals and spiritual ambitions while outlining the major themes of this record such as family values, ‘mental imprisonment,’ unity, rebirth, sacrifice and betrayal. Because of the outlining of the album’s major themes on “Selah,” it makes sense to interpret it as the exposition of JESUS IS KING.

Regardless, in context of this song’s intertextual connection to “Amazing Grace,” the allusion to “That saved a wretch like me” accentuates the theme of repentance and self-realization in “Selah.” We know why Newton exposed himself as a “wretch” and in “Selah” this line demonstrates Kanye’s humility before God. This self-deprecation creates a unique juxtaposition with Kanye’s lyrics of confidence expressed earlier:

“When I get to Heaven’s gates
I ain’t gotta peak over”

Kanye further promotes optimism in himself and society in the following lines:

“Everything old shall now become new
The leaves’ll be green, bearing the fruit”

The latter line refers to the wilting olive tree in the Bible and also foreshadows the exploration of the ‘rebirth’ motif in the middle portion of Jesus is King on joints like “Water,” and “Everything We Need.” Anyhow, these optimistic, confident and self-assured lines in contrast with Kanye’s reflection of himself in the past as a “wretch” connote Kanye’s embracing of life—his acceptance of the past, his thankfulness for the present, and his hope for the future. According to the bible, recognizing one’s sins and repenting is the first step to receiving God’s grace and living a spiritual life. Furthermore, knowing Kanye’s previous hubristic persona (traces of it are still visible) and God-complex on his 2013 record Yeezus and extreme hubris, this line is especially refreshing.

Beyond Kanye’s composition, this profound allusion also forces listeners to compare Kanye to Newton. We’ve discussed Newton individually, but in comparison to Kanye, there are several parallels. For example, Newton was an extremely immoral and sinful man before his spiritual conversion. Kanye never brutally exploited others for profit, but he was a self-proclaimed douchebag and asshole. He used to be a pornography-addicted, money-lusting hedonist chasing after the illusions of fame, grandeur and affluence. The most astounding parallel is how both poets converted to Christianity. Newton woke up to God’s grace after surviving a torrential storm overseas and after exploring his faith for a number of years, Newton converted to Christianity. This is when he started spreading the gospel to those around him in weekly Thursday prayer services and collaborating with poet William Cowper to craft powerful hymns. The catalyst for Kanye’s conversion to Christianity is a bit ambiguous. Several factors could have played a role; surely, mental health was one of them.

On November 21, 2016 he was admitted to the UCLA Medical Center with hallucinations and paranoia. West’s mental state was abnormal enough for his 21 cancelled concerts to be covered by his insurance policy; he was reportedly paranoid and depressed throughout the hospitalization. Also, In early 2019, Kanye stated he had bipolar disorder in his interview with David Letterman. However, Kanye seemed to turn over a leaf early in 2019. On January 6, 2019, West started his weekly “Sunday Service” orchestration across America. Since then, testimonies from multiple individuals close to West indicate Kanye has undergone a radical transformation. Kanye’s pastor Adam Tyson recalled Kanye saying “I was being convicted that I was running away from God…and I knew I needed to make things right, so I came to Christ” during his interview with Pure Flix podcast. Whatever caused this change, Kanye now feels he’s been “radically saved.” West’s wife Kim Kardashian described West’s new birth experience in 2019: “Kanye started this to really heal himself and it was a really personal thing, and it was just friends and family…He has had an amazing evolution of being born again and being saved by Christ.” Most recently, James Corden asked Kanye West “when” his desire to pursue a spiritual path sprung about during their insane ‘airpool karaoke.’ Kanye replied with the following:

“When I went to the hospital a few years ago, I wrote ‘start a church in Calabasas.’…It was something I had a feeling I needed to do that God put on my heart. Now, he keeps on taking me to new levels and taking us to new levels that we didn’t imagine before.”

There is also an interesting parallel between Newton’s participation in the abolitionist movement in Britain and Kanye’s advocacy to end ‘mental slavery’—the idea of empowering the individual to form opinions based on ideas and not skin color and the ‘herd mentality.’ Kanye has been adamant about his stance on this issue and has never once back-tracked or revoked his statements. His ambitions to “free” America from ‘mental slavery’ is also implicitly mentioned in his following biblical reference in “Selah:”

“Won’t be in bondage to any man
John 8:33
We the descendants of Abraham
Ye should be made free
John 8:36
To whom the son set free is free indeed”

In this section of the Bible, Jesus visited the Pharisees and expressed his desire to “free” them from sin but they pushed back by arguing they had never been enslaved to anyone so there is nothing they could be set free from (“We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”). Jesus riposted with the following:

“Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

John 8:33-36

Kanye’s expression to “free” America from ‘mental slavery’ is viewed by many with skepticism, derision and condemnation. But so was Newton and Wilberforce’s advocacy to abolish slavery, initially. Their calls to end a lucrative system that was profitable and beneficial for Britain (a notion debunked by capitalist Adam Smith) was at first seen as absurd and radical. Of course it would be foolish to equate the abstract concept of ‘mental imprisonment’ with literal enslavement of Black people in Europe and Africa, but new ideas have a way of evoking immediate denunciation and repellence. Kanye was of course decried and demonized for rejecting the monopoly of mainstream culture and holding an unpopular opinion, but he has remained adamant in his cause. You may disagree with him, but you should respect his right to have an opinion.

Art has the power of catharsis. “Amazing Grace” is a transcendent work of literature that sees a repentant man meditating on his past sins and celebrating the Lord’s divine inspiration in his life. “Selah” also sees a repentant man meditating on his past sins—but in his case—ambitiously envisioning a future where we live in God’s grace and break free from the shackles of group-thinking and the herd mentality.


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The Thousand-Year View

Time-tested ideas for modern times

Eric Linus Kaplan

I'm a writer for Warner Bros. Television. Currently writing for Young Sheldon. I'm known for "The Big Bang Theory", Futurama, Flight of the Conchords, and Malcom in the Middle. I published a book of philosophy called "Does Santa Exist: A Philosophical Investigation".  I am investigating comedy and philosophy, and sometimes doing some comedy, and some fantasy.

Professor David Faris

Roosevelt University

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