I will only touch on this subject from where I’m sitting, and according to my experience as an African-Christian-cultured artist in South Africa. I will also not separate music artists according to genre because they all have faith in something or someone.
In the 80’s, the church I came from was western inclined, and that became our culture. We sang American white and black Christian/gospel music. We went to music shows that featured acts from America, and even our acts performed American music. The programs we had were based on the American literature, and even the vernacular writings were translated from the western texts. I would like to think that this was more prevalent in the cities, and not too much in the rural areas. This was also mirroring the rest of apartheid South Africa, where all that was west was golden. There were churches that were predominantly rooted in Africanism (there is not even this word in this computer’s dictionary, mmhh!), but those were not seen as elite. These African churches did not even have big church building that symbolized power and wealth. For their services, they would gather under the trees in open public yards, or in their members’/pastor’s house. This was looked down upon by those who were becoming more educated and elite in society. This was before 1994.
One day I was in church, and happened to have lunch at someone else’s house in the location, and I met a warm hearted gentleman who was a singer and guitarist, and he had his guitar with him. This gentlemen was not from our church, but came from an African rooted Christian denomination. We spoke and connected in a very good way, and we were going to go back to church for an after lunch program, and I invited him to come and maybe play if an opportunity availed itself. To cut the long story short, we were back in church and the program started, people were called to sing and that was good. They then asked my new friend to give a musical item, and he went to the stage to perform. He took his guitar with him and went to the front. He started performing a beautiful song that had an indigenous feel to it, and I was amazed all the way. What was disturbing was that the people were laughing as he was singing, and it was as if he came from a foreign land where clowns were bred. I’m not about to bash those who were laughing at him, let alone that the church had a duty to win that person, by not belittling him, as our church is a proselytizing Christian church. I felt bad because I invited the guy, genuinely loving what he was doing, having connected with him even philosophically, and he was also sitting next to me before and after he was laughed at. I suppose that life is like that, in a foreign country you become a joke because of poor vocabulary, and so my friend suffered as a result of that fact of humanity, a lack in cultural vocabulary. He gave them culture shock, while at the same time I was already matured in that direction, and the man was so genuine and confident of who he was by not even trying to convert me. He was a good man. This happened when we were already free as a country, and deep into the 2000s.
From 1994, the whole country began to be conscientised about Africanism, and that included churches. In the church, we, youngsters, started making our own songs and not doing covers of the western musical groups. We started believing in ourselves as Africans. We began to hear sermons about who we were in the eyes of God as black people. I would assume that in the churches that gathered under the trees and houses, there was no need for these sermons, because they already knew who they were, and were already running their show, but it will be good to hear from them as to how they really felt about their state of mind as African rooted denominations. I started writing music in 1993, influenced by the SDASA Chorale, a Johannesburg based church music male group, who were big brothers to us, and who were already writing African rooted church music. I wrote my English and isiZulu songs. The difficult part was that, in order to write an African rhythm type of music, one had to have been cultured in that manner, in denominations that gathered under the trees, the ones that were looked down upon by the elite in our black society, where my friend who was laughed at while performing in my church, might have come from. One had to be educated in that music and culture in order to be able to articulate it the right way. Colonialism created barriers even in religion. Those who never converted to Christianity were looked down upon (a friend whom his grandfather was affected directly, told me this), and even those that were converted were never allowed to worship in the way they knew how, because their ways of worship were seen as reminding them of where they came from, where the “devil” ruled totally. Their societal rituals that were part in raising children, starting new families, and so on, were detached from them as a result of the new church order. Even the respect of their superiors, symbols, systems, kings, and chiefs, was affected. The drums, the loud singing, the cries, and the clapping of hands were seen as ungodly. Instead of accepting only the Jesus philosophy (not wanting to say Christian Philosophy), they were forced to also accept the western ways of doing things. What would one expect? This was also war against the Africans, and their ways of doing things. This, of course, did not happen over night, but for at least about two centuries. It became even difficult to trace the beginnings of this acculturation of the black person towards whiteness, because of the many years it took for it to simmer towards maturity. We still never became perfectly western, but only made it to just a poor copy of it, a “bat syndrome”, not a bird and not a mouse. All the money that an African worker made was now plunged into the western economy, where the white man ruled. If you wanted to have a white wedding, you had to buy a white dress from a white person, because they alone knew how it was made so that it is perfectly western, and that was the new elite. In this way all the money that was made by a black person went to a white person through colonial goods and services. I’m not going to speak more about how we became western, but want to throw some information on how the black religion, music, and people were, or might have been affected by the west up until today.
Coming back to music, if you wanted to perform a good song, now a western type, you had to have a piano, or a guitar, otherwise your music was not good enough in this new western culture. It could only be the rich, who could afford these musical instruments, and so most of the black people could not afford to be elite, and if they still did western music, they could only do a poor copy of it, trying hard to use what they had in order to please the new order, of themselves converted. One would argue if it was really a poor copy of it, or their new face, a new race altogether. I battled with writing “African” music because I was never cultured in that manner, and so were most of my township peers. African to us, was whatever we knew. Religion played a big role in making us who we are, and to try and articulate some freedom culturally, if it was freedom at all, one had to sweat blood, trying in real time, to change who he is.
We are still caught up in not being able to learn what is African from those who were never fully colonized when it came to their religions, whether African Christian church or indigenous traditional religions. The best acculturation happens when you are in a train or a bus, when people begin to sing and pray while on their way to work and back. Again, psychologically, you can dismiss it as junk, not elite, and not learn a thing from the music that is sung during that time. Another thing is that, as soon as you try to reach out to people of other religious affiliations, they begin to proselytize, which is scary. When you begin to reach out in order to learn about what is African, and you are struck by the need for you to change to whatever their religion is in order to benefit, that is scary. This is similar to what the colonialists did when they came to South Africa, converting everyone who wanted to be sort of white as a result of the related benefits. What I’m trying to say is that, one need to accept who they are in real time, while respecting what other people do, because it is sweating blood to try and change who you are. This reminds me of DJ Black Coffee, who was recently asked by Usher, a United States artist, to do an African sound with him, and who refused based on his principle. That was interesting.
Those who come from the African rooted denominations and are converted to western rooted Christianity, have a duty to help those who are not cultured in that manner to learn what African worship and music is, and without having any effect on their chosen philosophy. The originally western church also has a duty to separate itself from its western headquarters, but keep the humane philosophy, so that whatever it decides to do going forward, is African in a true sense. Maybe again, whatever we all are now is African in a new way, and one must try to find soulfulness in it, and not try to be somebody else.
I might not have done good justice in what I said here, but I’m sure there is a fair amount of truth and facts in it that are enough to spark a discussion. Currently I compose as I see fit. If I feel something African, I consider it a gift and I then write it down. I still use the western musical instruments in whatever song comes to mind because that is what I know, and for now I will consider that African, as it comes from an African, and from a well meaning heart.