Repackaging Gospel for the Mainstream

Indeed it seems that the music scene in Uganda is strangled by poor imitations of Dancehall and Reggae. But if we understand the history, the challenges and most importantly the gospel, there emerges soul-filled clarity.

By: Elsie Nampera

The domination of Dancehall and Reggae in Uganda was recently observed by a judge of the Club Video Music Awards in The Huffington Post, who says, “It seemed that 99% of all music videos submitted, seemed to come straight from Jamaica, such is the passion of Ugandans brought up on dancehall music. With full patois accents and dancehall dance moves, it was like judging a Caribbean set of acts, as opposed to African”. -J. Dotiwal

Indeed it seems that the music scene in Uganda is strangled by poor imitations of Dancehall and Reggae. But if we understand the history, the challenges and most importantly the gospel, there emerges soul-filled clarity.

The History

In the 1990s there was a young group of men who presented something fresh to the young and urban music industry in Uganda. This group was Limit-X. Their sound is what I will refer to as “hip” gospel music. It is a kind of music that makes one want to get up and dance, contrary to what had previously drowned the genre in the tranquility of sombre worship.

After Limit-X faded from the airwaves, a gap was left waiting to be filled. They were quickly replaced by the likes of: Pastor Okudi, Fiona Mukasa, Pastor Bugembe, Julie Mutesasira and Judith Babirye. Their music is a strand of gospel targeted towards an already defined market. They concretised a perforative vernacular and paired it with monotonous afro-instrumentation.

In the last three to five years there has emerged a new breed of young and urban gospel musicians in Uganda who are attempting to break the mould and are reviving what Limit-X ignited earlier.

Some of the artists involved in this movement are Ruyonga, Coopy Bly and Exodus. They appeal to the young and hip audience that one will find at particular evangelical churches. Their sound is a mix of gospel with the recognisable influences of Hip Hop and Dancehall that are visible throughout Ugandan music as a whole.

A Shift

A rising artist has joined this new crop of gospel musicians–the vocally talented Richy Kaweesa–who in June 2013 released a worthwhile debut album aptly titled “My Words”.

Richy’s songs are written by the artist himself. The ‘words’ debuted through the production of Trophimus Odie of Kish Records, Allan Wasswa of Kono & Ddyo and Michael of Fenon Records.

Richy begins the album with a laid back introduction. With a dissonant guitar, Richy tells the story of how the album came to be. He notes the challenging journey he has endured to bring this album to fruition; including key influences, some of whom are individuals known for either R&B or Jazz. When he mentions that these are his words—hence the album title — the feeling of settling down and waiting to hear what he has to offer on the rest of the album sets in.

No sooner than we have become familiar with Richy’s R&B influences are we force-fed two uncannily Reggae-induced songs. Because of the first two tracks “True Love” and “Mama”, one gets the feeling “My Words” is a Reggae album. The course of the album’s thirteen tracks including “You Are” and “Loving One” makes its genre classification unclear. Richy rather confuses the listener when he switches from Reggae to R&B and back again.

“You Are”, the fourth track on the album, is the first glimpse of Richy performing a soulful R&B number. The guitar, piano and drums–complement his soulful vocals—to make one want to listen to the song over and over. The Afro-styled track, “Ebiro Byaffe” (Our Nights) sang entirely in Luganda, will induce a dance while offering food for thought. “My Song” is another dance track in which Richy explores Afro-House, a new genre of urban dance music. Thereafter, he makes a nice switch back to R&B on “Beauty of Life”. Compared to many contemporary singers on the market today, Richy sounds flawless and this is most apparent on the acoustic track “I Promise”. Stripped down to voice and guitar, where one really hear the young musician’s vocal ability, and enhanced by the dazzling accompaniment of jazz guitarist Myko Ouma.

The Breakthrough

Many a singer today — looking towards the mainstream — will choose a genre that they feel comfortable in, or one they think will create a breakthrough. One wonders what ‘mainstream’ actually means. In Uganda, the mainstream has been characterised by Reggae and Dancehall. Sometimes this sound has been referred to as Kidandali: a Luganda word that refers to the steel pans of Caribbean music.

Many musicians looking for the attainment of mass appeal will attempt to prioritise songs that fit this characteristic; more as a marketing strategy than anything else. Gospel music on an international level, today, is not immune to this phenomenon either. The majority of it falls into these same traps in which gospel is only an alternative copy of commercially successful genres. The gospel audience is nurtured to demonise secular music which adds to the problem.

For any young gospel musician who exudes versatility and who is looking for mainstream success, it would be in their best interest to explore more unique sounding genres that can make them stand out from what has become the monotonous norm. Stand-out genres that could fit this mould could be R&B, Afro-fusion or even a good mix of R&B/Reggae, but not purely Reggae or Dancehall alone.

The Blend

Feeling at home, Richy takes us to church in “Belongs to One”, the kind of deeply spiritual song one could hear performed by a praise and worship team. Despite the Reggae skills of such a young talent, the R&B/Afro-fusion, in effect, creates his own formula to go even further, just as Limit-X and Maurice Kirya did before him.

“My Words” is an album that is full of surprises taking on a range of styles and approaches. Because the singer’s work is at such a commendable standard, if he did more tracks with Luganda he would no doubt make a lasting impact on the local scene.

As a debut, this album encourages forward looking to more music from Kaweesa. The quality of writing, performance and other artists’ contribution makes it worth owning a copy. With such quality, Richy also has the potential to export our kind of music to the global market and thus furthering Uganda’s music industry.

Elsie Nampera is a music enthusiast based in Kampala.

1 thought on “Repackaging Gospel for the Mainstream

  1. You forget to mention First Love, Martin Seku, Hum Kay and all the other gospel artists that came up after the Limit X period. Mid to Late 90s. I also thought you would mention that Maurice Kirya initially started out as a gospel/ inspirational music artist. It might be interested to the readers to find out what happened along the way.

Comments are closed.