In Zimbabwe, gospel music is composed and performed for many purposes, including aesthetic pleasure, religious or ceremonial purposes and as an entertainment product for the marketplace. While many view gospel music as an alternative way to spread the word of God, it has also been used as a commercial product by many music artists.
The period between 2000 and 2006 saw the rise of popular gospel music outside churches in Zimbabwe. This was mainly because some gospel artists had decided to move away from the lackadaisical and slow-paced church music to that which embraced a fast sungura beat since sungura had been popularised at the time by the likes of John Chibadura, Simon Chimbetu and Leonard Dembo.
Gospel artists who made this move began to fill concert venues just like the sungura guys. Ngaavongwe and Nguva Yakwana gospel concerts became the order of the day. They also became very popular and commercially successful annual events.
Early gospel singers such as Freedom Sengwayo, Mechanic Manyeruke, Brian Sibalo and Jonathan Wutawunashe became more marketable as recording companies such as Gramma Records and Zimbabwe Music Corporation began to make significant profits through sales of their records.
Then around the year 2000, the baton was handed over to Charles and Olivia Charamba, Fungisai Zvakavapano-Mashavave (pictured), Ivy Kombo, Mahendere Brothers, Vabati vaJehova, Jackie Madondo, Elias Musakwa, Lawrence Haisa, Pastor G, Gospel Train, Sam Munyai and Shingisai Suluma, who popularised the genre even more as they shared the stage with popular South African gospel artists such as Vuyo Mokoena, Rebecca Malope, Lundi and Sipho Makabane. Many churches began to buy band equipment for gospel music performances in their churches.
One church-going lady, Barbara Chidhume, would always say, "I cannot afford to miss church every Sunday as it provides free entertainment. This is one place where you can afford to dance in front of your parents just like we do in nightclubs and that's quite acceptable because you are in church."
In recent times, the industry has witnessed a crop of gospel musicians who have incorporated foreign styles and beats into our conventional styles. This kind, they call it contemporary gospel music. Some of these songs have a mix of genres like Zimdancehall, RnB, pop, sungura and ballads.
This new breed of artists include Carol Mujokoro, Charity Zisengwe, Janet Manyowa, Blessing Shumba, Mathius Mhere, Sebastian Magacha, Tatenda Mahachi and the Zim Praise Choir. However, they no longer sell as many records as the former gospel artists mentioned above did. They are no longer competing on an equal footing with mainstream secular musicians such as Jah Prayzah, Sulumani Chimbetu, Winky D, Killer T or Alick Macheso.
This finding made me conduct a thorough research into the commercialisation of gospel music in Zimbabwe and why the current breed of gospel musicians are struggling to break through into the mainstream music scene. Speaking to a few of the successful pioneers, I discovered these were people who had a sense of direction guided by industry technocrats who helped to shape their art and brands to commercial success. These industry experts knew what talents/gifts were when they came across one and in a short space of time, could turn raw talents into valuable assets. This is not to say that the current crop of gospel musicians is not talented but, the gospel music industry over the years has faced major challenges.
Before I get into that and how some of these predicaments can be rectified, let's begin with a ride through the genealogy of Zimbabwean gospel music.
It chiefly begun with people who were inspired by the great commission of Christ to evangelise through music. Such people included Manyeruke, Wutawunashe, the Charambas and Suluma who were all associated with church organisations. Then came Kombo, Zvakavapano-Mashavave, who translated the word of God into melodies attached with the fusion of great Zimbabwean rhythms such as sungura which was heavily laden with guitar and percussion beats. However, today's gospel music industry has been faced with challenges. Most of its artists have no management systems.
They are their own artist managers, brand managers, event managers, production managers, creative directors, publicists and what have you. They find it difficult to differentiate between business and ministry, as they call it. These artists have failed to hire the services of technocrats to handle the commercialisation of their art.
They cry outloud on radio stations and other platforms about sabotage, unfairness and discrimination, denying themselves of the fact that the biggest part of the problem exists internally. My question to all these contemporary gospel artists is, who will buy your product if no one knows it exists? Certainly not me. They spend all their investments on small venue concerts rather than promoting the songs to be heard around the world as a form of evangelism.
The other day, I met Pastor G at Second Street Shopping Centre. He was selling his own CDs and I was impressed by this move where the artists takes his own product to the people. But some gospel artists are too proud to be seen doing that kind of thing.
When Zvakavapano-Mashavave realised that the gospel coffers were drying up, she migrated to Zimdancehall where she teamed up with Killer T in the song Vanondibatirana. Despite the criticism she faced from some of her traditional gospel fans, she saw sense in doing what she did and she became relevant once more.
However, gone are the days of Ngaavongwe and Nguva Yakwana gospel concerts. Gospel music seems to have taken a dive as it now faces a precarious future.