Two cities. Two worship concerts. One night. One theme: Africa Let’s worship.
At the 18,000 seater Winners Chapel in Nairobi, worshippers gathered on Friday 26th September for the annual AFLEWO concert. On a parallel stage in Lagos, the City of David Parish of RCCG held the 4th edition of the Alabanza concert. Themed Sounds of Africa, it featured South Africa’s Loyiso Bala, Ghana’s Joe Mettle and Chioma Jesus as well as a host of Nigerian gospel leaders. The only East African act was Emmy Kosgey and chances are high that her inclusion at the concert was that she also resides in Lagos.
AFLEWO, started in 1996 as a simple event in Daystar University has grown over the years to become a must-attend on the Christian calendar for many enthusiasts. Timothy Kaberia who started the movement is recognized in Kenya’s Christian circles as a respected worship leader and has shared the stage locally and abroad with several high profile singers.
It is the decade in which African worship reigns but does Kenya have the exposure it needs to share the stage with other worship leaders within the continent?
Emmy readily acknowledges that does not know many Kenyan gospel artistes who have visited Nigeria for performances since she moved to the country.
“We’ve invited Eunice Njeri and Lucy Kitonga as guest ministers to our church but I am not aware of other musicians from home performing in Lagos,” she says.
At the Alabanza concert, it was easy to see how seriously Nigeria takes worship. There’s a distinct aura around the event that was far from hype; it was hands raised in the air, almost perfect coordination on stage and an audience that came to do business with God. Although it poured heavily all night with sections of the overflow outside dripping, the sounds from the stage were crisp and clear with a band, which evidently put in hours at work, accompanying the musicians beautifully.
Solly Mahlangu’s Wahamba Nathi arguably takes the crown for the most decorated worship song. Rated as the most viewed gospel video on YouTube, the song has received airplay on Christian stations and is sang in worship services almost every week. Joyous Celebration’s Tambira Jehovah follows in popularity as does Uche Agu’s My God is good O’.
Grace Mandela, a lawyer and worship leader at the Green Pastures Tabernacle in Nairobi believes that the African worship genre has come of age, which is why many churches are now borrowing heavily from the continent.
“For the longest time we haven’t had indigenous and relevant worship music. We were influenced by Integrity music then Hillsong music. Why we now gravitate towards African music is because that music has come of age. It’s no longer choruses or repetition of a single sentence. It’s worship music born from a history of devotion by African worshippers,” she says.
Grace believes that the continents songwriters have mastered the craft and art of worship and are ready to take music in the church to the next level.
She is right. In the last two months Kenya has invited notable acts like Nathaniel Bassey better known for his songs Imela, Casting Crowns and Elohim. Sonny Badu and his Midnight Band quickly followed spending the week at a convention organized by the Jubilee Christian Church. Badu is a well-known Ghanaian worship minister whose popular songs include Baba O’ and Covenant Keeping God.
Sinach who has sang I know who God says I am and Way Maker emerged the best West African artist of the year at the Groove Awards ceremony held in June this year. Indeed, a campaign was held on Facebook requesting her to follow with a performance in the country but organizers are unclear whether the event publicized for November, then cancelled, will still hold.
Many African songs that find their way on our pulpits have their origins in South Africa, Nigeria and Rwanda. Many of the acoustic tunes are without a doubt originally from DR Congo.
Kosgey recalls a moment when she was recording with the group Joyous Celebration and the leader played a tune that he qualified as East African. “I listened to it and told him this was not a Kenyan tune, this was lingala. He then asked me what constitutes the East African tune? In truth, we do not have that identity yet,” she adds.
Why haven’t Kenyan worship leaders made inroads into the continent while they have the same gifting and passion as the rest? The ‘balance of trade’ between ours and other nations is wanting.
On Friday evening, it was pleasantly surprising to listen to the audience join in a Swahili song at the tail end of Kosgey’s performance. It is rare, however to find a Kenyan song on the airwaves in Nigeria let alone a gospel one in churches.
If we take AFLEWO alone, which filled Winners Chapel to capacity, this is massive influence. Pete Odera, Kenya’s godfather of worship holds concerts that are well attended, as does Jack & Joyce Odongo.
Mwanga, a local worship group has performed in several churches locally and was in the US for concerts a while back. Reuben Kigame who has dabbled in politics and is now a radio entrepreneur has composed timeless songs, which are performed all over the country.
Rwanda’s Ambassadors of Christ choir enjoys massive following with more than one million hits, as do Tanzania’s artistes like Christina Shusho.
In 2013 Nairobi Chapel’s Pastor Nikko Ochieng led a live recording session of the album ‘Call to Worship’ with more than 1000 people in attendance. The album’s initial sales have been good within the country and across the churches they have visited.
“We’ve sold most of the DvDs we carried to Germany, Australia and the United States where we have performed over five times,” he mentions. His team is lucky to have a buy-in from the churches’ senior Pastor. They travel overseas at least once a year for concerts in the areas where the ministers are preaching.
“When you watch One Gospel, you realize a lot of the music showing is from worship concerts not necessarily solo gospel acts. It takes a huge investment in Kenya to get this kind of buy-in from churches because the worship leaders cannot pull off recordings of this magnitude without funds.”
However, Nikko believes the gift is there and Kenyan worship acts are ready for export, given the right support from home and beyond.
“We’ve done our own songs in Swahili in each of the churches we were invited to, and they linger on with the congregation for many months,” emphasizes Nikko. “But this is a small market because for our music to go global, it has to be played on radio in all these countries. That is where we pull off audiences, and that is why all these acts can come to Kenya easily and influence us, because we heard them first on the airwaves,” he concludes.
Emmy Kosgey believes there is also the place of appreciating our local language when it comes to delivery of the music. “Wherever I sing in churches in Nigeria people love it because it is different,” she states. We must embrace our own creative style of worship different from that of the West we have copied for so long.
In July this year, legendary gospel artist Don Moen concluded recording with Nigerian act Frank Edwards on their first work together titled Grace. Moen sings in Edwards’ Igbo language in one of the songs, a telling example of the growing influence of the use of local languages in the music space today.
The United States Navy Band’s rendition of the song Baba Yetu recorded at their memorial in 2015 is a great pointer that our music is well loved and can influence beyond the continent. Incidentally, it has also been performed by British born Alex Boye who has a huge following in the West.
One other thing needed to grow the industry is time allocated to artistes. “In Kenya you are invited to minister and given five to ten minutes on the pulpit which is hardly enough to make an impact,” says Emmy. “It is different here because you get about 30 minutes for worship – not just to entertain or hype the audience.”
It is this hype that Grace Mandela says worshippers need to be wary of. “Would I be wrong to say that we still thrive on the hype and pay little attention to the heart of the Father?” she asks.