By Leo Wolfson
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CODY — Kanye West’s Sunday Service at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West over the weekend drew spectators from far and wide for an event that was far from the area’s typical spiritual gathering.
“History brought me here,” Cody resident Dustin Harrell, 43, said. “This is going to be one of those (historically noteworthy) events.”
West, a 21-time Grammy award winning hip hop artist, held his spiritual event at the Robbie Powwow Garden outside the center, with crowds packing the entire grounds around the stage. Bruce Sauers, the center’s director of revenue, estimated 3,500 people attended the free event.
“We’re here for the spectacle,” said Melissa Voseky, Yellowstone National Park concessionaire.
West never spoke on the microphone or took the stage but he did take part in singing and performed a drum solo on the bongos. Wearing a yellow hooded sweatshirt with a white “Wyoming Sunday Service” T-shirt on top, he could be seen closing his eyes and singing along throughout the sermon.
The event drew people from at least as far away as Denver and Seattle.
“I just love Kanye as a person,” said Jackson Fisher, 22, who traveled with his father from the Mile High City to attend.
Jackson’s father Mark Fisher, 63, said West’s music “tapped in” to his son’s life.
“I’m not religious but I do agree with his spiritual side, which is loving everyone, forgiving everyone,” Jackson Fisher said.
As hymns and gospel rang through the air it was clear the service was of spirituality and faith, not a hip-hop concert as some in the youthful crowd may have suspected before going. Although young adults and teens seemed to be the average demographic on hand, there were toddlers as young as 18 months and senior citizens too.
Taking center stage was the Sunday Service Collective, an 80-member gospel choir from Los Angeles that flew into Cody the morning of the show.
The choir was orchestrated by Jason White who did most of the announcing during the sermon, giving shout-outs to local towns and referring to the area as “God’s country.”
“It was great,” White said, “I just loved smelling this fresh air.”
The choir played gospel-style renditions of West’s songs and those by other artists such as Nirvana and Blue Foundation. There was also a horn section and percussionists on hand who played the organ and drums.
“It was more than I even expected,” Cody High School student Nathan Power said. “It’s one of the top five things to happen in Cody. For this to happen to Cody is so cool.”
West already performed his Sunday Service routine in a number of U.S. cities this year such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dayton, Ohio, and at the Coachella Music Festival in California. His Cody show was the 38th consecutive week he has held the sermon.
“They’re just unique and I kind of wanted to see the spiritual side of him,” Riverton resident Heidi Olson, 54, said.
West has recently been connected to the purchase of Monster Lake Ranch, about 11 miles south of Cody. He has posted numerous photos and videos from the ranch in recent weeks, as has his wife Kim Kardashian West. The front entrance sign to the ranch has now been changed to read “West Lake.”
“I think Kanye will enjoy it here in Cody,” said Harrell, an 18-year resident.
Many celebrities have visited and even purchased property around Cody in the past but few if any have put themselves as prominently in the public view as West.
“It’s kind of like taking cookies to a new neighbor,” Brigham Young University student Kalli Roberts, 21, said of his Sunday Service.
Although his Sunday events are a recent project, West has applied spiritual and Christian influences to his music for his entire career. He said prior to the release of his 2004 hit single “Jesus Walks” he was repeatedly denied by record label executives who did not think the song would be marketable.
If a look at the tracklist is any clue, West’s new album “Jesus Is King,” which is scheduled to release Friday, will have religious influences intermixed throughout the entire project.
With crisp blue skies overhead and autumn hues reflecting in the background, the sun shone brightly on all who came to hear God glorified on Sunday. They heard earthy tones of the organ and trumpets blasting, reminiscent of a worship service.
“Diversity is a great thing for this community because we don’t have a lot of it,” George Simonton, 77, said.
Crowds wrapped around the block for hours before the gates opened. Many drove overnight to be in Cody, arriving and quickly lining up by 7 a.m.
Although the museum website only lists the Powwow Garden as having a 900-person capacity, it appeared that the roughly 3,500 people in attendance all had a direct view of the stage.
Cody Police performed extra traffic controls for the event and within an hour of the show’s completion most people had left the area.
Brandon Burger, 25, and his friends made the seven-hour trek from Logan, Utah to attend the service. Despite being scheduled to work his job on Sunday, Burger said he was convinced by his friends to take a vacation day for the rare event.
“I just want to see Kanye,” Burger admitted.
Roberts, who attends BYU in Provo, Utah, said she comes to Cody annually as her grandparents live here.
“I would’ve paid hundreds of dollars to see this,” Roberts said.
But instead, she and her friends didn’t have to pay a dime, besides gas and snacks for the eight-hour car ride. She said they slept in the Albertsons parking lot once arriving.
AJ Bryson, 19, and his group of Casper friends got a speeding ticket on their way up early Sunday morning.
“I haven’t been this excited for something in so long,” Bryson said.
The Center of West holds religious events like these at the Powwow Garden on a semi-regular basis and Sauers said the service was given the standard rate to rent. The Center of the West did not respond back by deadline with the cost of this figure.
“I think it’s a great plus for Cody to have something like this going on,” Simonton said, although admitting he doesn’t know much about West’s music. “It’s quite a contrast to see a modern musician playing where the ancient Indians played their music every year. It shows a lot of flexibility for our community to have that wide range of an event.”