Ghana-based Benjamin Lebrave speaks fluent French and English, and can schmooze in Spanish and Portuguese. He’ll report on new African music every other week. This week, its the Kenyan gospel artist Robbie.
If you've spent a lot of time practically anywhere in Africa, you may have noticed a music genre that has been entirely absent from my posts: gospel music. Without getting into a debate that might get more personal than I wish for on here, I'll stick to one simple reason: I've mostly been exposed to gospel music in Ghana and for the most part, it sucks. I do enjoy the more traditional ceremonial music, some of it dubbed gospel, coming from the Volta region or played by Ga bands, but the synth-heavy, vapid highlife flavored gospel music I hear over and over—I simply cannot deal with it.
Not only is the music mediocre, it monopolizes a lot of the talent. It is no mystery that churches in Ghana are big business. Big enough to afford live bands, rehearsal rooms, brand new instruments and sound systems. So if you are a guitarist, you may not be able to make a living unless you play for your church. Although I believe some of the finest music in this world is spiritual, often religious music, I have yet to be convinced that Ghanaian churches are a productive setting for enabling artists to create quality music.
It's quite obvious, and I admit it: I have a strong bias against gospel. It took something very original to stir me in a different direction. I am quite thankful that a young Kenyan artist by the name of Robbie reached out to me a few months ago to share one of his first official song releases with me, "Took It All Away."
Download: Robbie, "Took It All Away"
As I've mentioned in previous posts, I'm fascinated with the range and modernity of Kenyan music. Robbie fits into my fantasy of a futuristic Kenya, with a beat that is unlike any kind of spiritual music I've ever heard. (Granted, I know absolutely nothing about American gospel and Christian music, which is certainly way more diverse, and hopefully interesting, than I imagine it to be.) Robbie mentioned some artists to me who inspired him and I found myself completely dumbfounded: Marvin Sapp, Andy Mineo… I had no idea they existed, despite their millions of views on youtube.
Robbie tells me that gospel is probably the leading genre in Kenya, despite the fact that it is virtually unknown internationally. "That's probably because the music is in Swahili and Sheng [Nairobi's Swahili slang]. It's made for locals." Robbie also says most Kenyan gospel is music to dance to, a lot of it kapuka. But Robbie is not interested in making music to dance to, he wants to make music to worship, or more broadly music to inspire, or meditate to.
Like many artists I've spoken to, Robbie started singing in church at a very young age. But he quit singing for quite some time, and only came back to it as a young adult. When he did, he had been listening to a lot of R&B and hip-hop, which shows in his music. "Now I listen to some non-gospel music to understand where the industry is at. Gospel is competing with other genres. It targets the same people, so we must try to stay ahead creatively."
Surely, his beat is ahead of the curve in Kenya. Robbie doesn't just sing, he also produced the music for the song featured here. In his own words: "Since I am a Christian, I am not of this world, so for the Christians out there, I wanted to bring something from home, so people can relate. I call it cosmic music." Well, Christian or not, I think many can still relate! The beat definitely takes me on a journey, maybe not quite as spiritual as it is intended to be, but it is definitely relaxing and inspiring. What do you think?