February 25th 2018

Entertainment / Music

Harvest season for Kenya’s gospel music is nigh

Traditional gospel music is usually in formal language; its artistes tend to be punctilious and pay attention to the strict observance of the scriptures. Artistes in this field include: Jemimah Thiong'o, Ben Githae, Janet Otieno, Pastor Kiande and others.

By Lemmy Bramwellbramwel@kenyafreepress.comFriday, 20 May 2016 14:07 EAT

Musician Lady Bee in action. (Photo: Courtesy/Facebook page)

Kenya is going through the high noon of gospel music production. Even keen watchers of the local music scene find it hard keeping up with the number and identities of gospel musicians, let alone their albums. Twenty, fifteen or even ten years ago, only a handful of artistes graced the local gospel music industry. Now they are in the dozens.

Music being medicine to the soul, the industry tracks a people’s economic trends. In the same way the United States is an economic and musical superpower, the liberalization of the Kenya’s media sector and economic resurgence of the last two decades have inspired the flourishing of music, precipitating the rise of new genres but also reviving traditional ones in ways no one could have foreseen.

There are two recognised kinds of gospel music in Kenya – traditional and contemporary. The first broadly describes old church music, produced by musicians whose primary occupation is to advance evangelization. Traditional gospel music is usually in formal language; its artistes tend to be punctilious and pay attention to the strict observance of the scriptures. Their songs are in most cases derived from the Bible. Artistes in this field include: Jemimah Thiong'o, Ben Githae, Janet Otieno, Pastor Kiande and others.

One criticism of the traditional genre was its conservatism in adopting evolving tunes and dance styles. At the same time, recording a gospel album was a ticket to comfort zone in church, production houses or other earthly honours, which had the unintended consequence of limiting the artistes’ musical success. Kenyan artistes lagged behind their peers from, say, Tanzania, whose production were always more rhythmic and fresh. As the Kenyans languished in relative obscurity, the Tanzania-based Arusha Church Choir, for example, produced records that took Kenya by storm.

Unlike the traditional genre, the contemporary forms base their message on what is happening in today’s society, although every so often artistes reach for analogies from the Holy Book. As this music identifies with the young people who find pleasure in listening to music for music's sake, the artistes tend to have more liberal lifestyles.

The genre’s typically informal lyrics blend a number of languages, including 'sheng'. Among Kenya’s notable contemporary gospel musicians such as Willy Paul, Bahati, Juliani, Size 8, Ringtone, Eunice Njeri, Mercy Masika, and Dee have opened a new chapter in the genre whereby singers are regular people struggling with their own pressures.

With a fan base that recognizes them as artistes rather than preachers or counsellors, the artistes feel no compulsion to embody the norms of traditional Christian life. Some have divorced, others are struggling with financial pressures. Yet others have been scorned by friends and relatives.

Ringtone did hip hop and soul before venturing into gospel genre, after a salvation of sorts. But in recent months he backslid and, unknown to his audience, lost a lot of his confidantes. Speaking to Citizen TV’s Lillian Muli last month, Ringtone confessed to facing such deep personal pressure that nearly broke him down. “I felt like my own folk was abandoning me.”

But he was lucky enough to be picked up by Christine Shusho, the Tanzanian gospel princess whose vocals are so powerful they leave the audience beaming in awe and shaking their heads wherever she performs. Ringtone and Shusho produced a powerful album, Tenda Mema, which has risen to the top charts in Kenya. While Ringtone is energised, many are the ones still mired in what in years gone by would have brought them outright rejection. A case in point was when Willy Paul was alleged to have been caught in an uncompromising situation with the socialite Pendo at the KICC basement during a gospel awards ceremony.

The incident made news only in passing and, with a fan base that is more tolerant of singers’ fragile navigation of celebrity life, Willy Paul’s music is still enjoyed as much as it ever was. The young fan base votes for artistes in many ways, going as far as emulating their way of dressing or even walking.

While the artistes still tread a thin line between evangelism and music as a career, the boundaries are increasingly blurred, and it is mainly up to the singers to decide which cause they advance – biblical or business. Mercy Masika, who has produced two sensational hits in the past year, told NTV’s celebrity programme ‘The Trend’ recently that her ministry comes first, then business. She said music is a powerful medium to reach people and she would like it to encourage and uplift those who listen to her songs.

The rising number of artistes is paralleled by infinite improvements in the quality of videos and audios, public enjoyment, air play from the local media and even the remuneration and public profile of the singers. The industry has benefitted from key players including the government, whose enforcement of copyright protection ensures that artistes make reasonable income from their production. The government is increasingly tough on piracy which hobbled the industry for so long.

There are also more ghost writers, who create musical lyrics for artistes although they may never be involved in the actual singing or rapping. Many more producers have sprung up, and to mitigate competition each strive to supervise their artistes better to ensure good results in imagery and sound.

With more investment in facilities, Tanzanians are beginning to record in Kenya. As the industry grows, music gets much more support from promoters and the numerous media channels, which once were welded to the patently flawed notion that gospel music was unpopular with secular audiences.

Artistes themselves have joined together to fight for their interests. The creation of the Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) has seen musicians remunerated remarkably well. The artiste’s increased earnings have made music into a livable career even if public attitude is still yet to catch up with this development.

The subtle secularization of gospel music has seen the genre benefit from increased exposure in music competitions, which never used to enter gospel songs. Masika was nominated for two categories in Groove Awards – song of the year and female artist of the year. This exposure for gospel artistes has given more visibility for artistes, some of whom have used their profiles to promote charitable causes. DJ Mo is currently mobilizing funds to help rebuild homes for poor residents of Ongata Rongai who were affected by recent floods. Bahati has also established the Bahati Tena Foundation, through which she is engaged in community work in Mathare slums.

But despite all its achievements the industry still faces obstacles. Music production, like starting a business, is still an individual effort. There are no programmes that identify and nurture talent. Achieng Abura, the Daystar University music trainer, recently launched a talent development project which is still in the  incubation stage.

There are also very few ghost writers, leaving musicians to their own creativity, which, while allowing them to bend tunes at any stage depending on their own emotions, means they can only have short spells of productivity. Singers feel aggrieved by some music vendors, notably Liberty Africa, creators of the popular Skiza Tunes ringtones on the Safaricom mobile network. Eunice Njeri, whose popular song ‘Bwana Yesu’ trended on Skiza for years, claims that Liberty Africa made KSh24 million from her tunes but paid her only Sh1 million.

The jury is out about how much the singers can salvage from the company since, in their public spats, they scarcely delve into the fine print of their contracts. However, taking a long term view, these are mere teething problems. The harvest season for Kenya’s gospel music is nigh.

The writer is a student at University of Kabianga currently on internship at the Kenya Free Press.

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