By Joseph Laycock
2014 is shaping up to be the year of dubious new hip-hop religions. In January, a movement called “Yeezianity” that reveres Kanye West gained headlines. Now a movement called “Beyism” or “The Church of Bey” has arisen, which claims to worship pop-star Beyoncé as a living goddess. Celebrity worship is hardly new. A study at Duke University found that even monkeys will forgo juice for the opportunity to look at particularly popular monkeys. Gary Laderman notes that celebrities have long aroused “religious passions” as noted in the very language used to describe cults of celebrity. But are Yeezianity and Beyism religions in any meaningful sense? John Crow has argued that Yeezianity is not a religion and need not be regarded as data for religious studies. Instead, it is a case of “a web-savvy fan using social media to promote his love for an entertainer and get some notoriety while doing it.” This critique could be applied even more to Beyism. However, I would argue that even if these movements are not religions, they are an index of overall religiosity. Just as parody religions entail a debate over how religion is defined, these “celebrity-parody religions” signal a public conversation about where our religious impulses ought to be directed.
Yeezianity was started by aspiring rap star BMAN (née Brian David Liebman). His followers, known as Ye’ciples, post pictures of themselves holding a sign that reads “I believe in Jeezus.” In an interview with Vice, BMAN described multiple and conflicting motivations behind Yeezianity. On one level, Yeezianity is a sort of hoax intended to get attention. When asked if Yeezianity is “for real,” he answered:
I believe in what it is, and that’s real. But is there a real organized religion behind it? There is not. At first, I thought about putting on that it was—I thought that’d be more viral or whatever—but I’m not going to be able to uphold that.
On another level, Yeezianity is an outlet for a rather inchoate philosophy. BMAN was a philosophy major in college and some have compared Yeezianity to humanism. Yeezianity is a bit like Sheliaism, reflecting BMAN’s own attempt to make sense of competing religious claims. At times, Yeezianity resembles a sort of monism. Its creed states that not only is Kanye West God, but that everyone else is also. On the other hand, BMAN describes a kind of prescriptive Euhemerism in which Kanye’s most worthy qualities will be elevated by apotheosizing the pop-star as Yeezus. He explains:
Because Yeezus is when Kanye elevates to that God-level, which I feel like we all have the potential to do. That’s why if it takes off, in the future, people would forget Kanye and his antics, and instead focus on what the message is.
The dogma of Yeezianity also alludes to an oppositional other, based in Kanye’s public tirades against commercialism and “the forces of oppression.”
Lastly, like all celebrity cults, Yeezianity reflects a desire to have a personal connection to an extraordinary being. BMAN confessed:
But in a lot of ways, on a personal level, I want to attract Kanye to the point where I can meet him at some point. I’ll be honest, if I had to go with what the ultimate desire was, first and foremost, and what stimulated the inspiration, it was that. I don’t want to take the whole thing to a personal level, but there’s no one out there doing what Kanye is doing. And how do you get someone like that’s attention? I hope that’s not selfish.
The Church of Bey, founded in Atlanta by one Pauline John Andrews, is more “committed to the bit” than Yeezianity. A Tumblr site announced:
We are very disappointed in the failure of the public to recognize the existence of a divine Deity walking among them. Deity’s often walk the Earth in their flesh form. Beyonce will transcend back to the spirit once her work here on Mother Earth has been completed.
Where BMAN said he could “not uphold” the illusion that Yeezianity is an organized religion, The Church of Bey claims they have broken ground on a physical worship site and will soon be distributing printed “Beybles.” (No evidence of these claims has yet emerged). While BMAN states he believes in God, Beyism implies that all religions are ridiculous, challenging their audience to, “Consider what is more real; an invisible spirit on high, or a walking, talking, breathing Goddess who shows you her true form daily.”
With John Crow, I agree that it would be pointless to compare these movements to traditions like Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. Rather than religions, Yeezanity and Beyism are a way of talking about religion. As parodies, they interrogate religion through play. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson described play as a unique frame of communication in which signs mean something other than they normally would. As such, play allows the symbolic order to be taken part, re-ordered, and re-examined. Bateson also noted that some forms of play work by confusing these frames of communication. Instead of declaring “let’s play” cultural forms such as hazing rituals revolve around the question “Is this play?” It is within this type of “meta-play” that Yeezianity and, especially, Beyism can be located.
The unstated nature of the play is meant to generate outrage. BMAN explained, “I think in a lot of ways I want to create some controversy. I want people to be like, ‘This is absolutely ludicrous.’” Comments on articles about Beyism claim Bey-worshippers are mentally ill, cite Biblical verses about false prophets, and denounce Beyoncé as “the sister of Satan.” Several comments call on Beyoncé to publically distance herself from the cult. The satirical website NewsNerd (a possible accomplice) has added fuel to the fire with articles claiming the Church of Bey practices genital mutilation and human sacrifice.
Whether these movements intend it or not, this outrage pulls more people into the play and fuels a re-examination of the category of religion. To the extent that they question what religion is and what purposes it might be put to, parody religions parallel the work of religion scholars. They reflect a popular discussion occurring among millennial “nones” who, like BMAN, are not religious but have “spent a lot of time studying and meditating on various religions.”
In fact, religious studies may be partly to blame for Yeezianity and the Beyism. At Boston University David Eckel and Stephen Prothero developed an assignment where students create a hypothetical new religion. Prothero’s students developed a “Church of Jeezus” that preceded Yeezianity and (in Prothero’s view) was more interesting. As a teaching assistant at Boston University, I asked students to write an amicus brief concerning a hypothetical movement called “The Church of Gucchi Mane.” Much like Yeezianity and Beyism, the Church regarded Gucchi Mane as a moral paragon who must be imitated. The case concerned whether a church member, who was fired for tattooing an ice-cream cone on her face, could claim to be the victim of religious discrimination. Students had to create a definition of religion and apply it to the Church of Gucchi Mane. They were graded not on their legal position, but on whether they could apply their theory to the data consistently. Parody religions have taken these play/comparison exercises out of the classroom and onto the Internet. (Curiously, BMAN mentions living in Boston when he received the inspiration for Yeezianity.)
Certainly BMAN and Pauline John Andrews are interested in generating controversy online and garnering some celebrity for themselves. But we should acknowledge that behind these movements is an attempt to re-examine the category of religion and (at least for Yeezianity) to find an outlet for religious passions for those who no longer feel at home in a religion.
Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religion at Texas State University. His forthcoming book is entitled The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholicism (Oxford University Press).