Simply Chrysolite: Going gospel gold
Gospel is by far the most popular music genre in the country – from young stars on the rise to pioneering legends, what makes gospel such a hit?
Just two years ago, Thabzo Mkhwanazi was a township girl who loved hip-hop. Today the sparkly 23-year-old is the lead singer of the internationally acclaimed gospel group Simply Chrysolite.
When she auditioned for the band, she – like the other members, Mabongi Shinga, Pretty Nguse, Dolce Bophela, Phumzile Ngcobo and Thabiso Mkhize – had no training or experience, but plenty of talent.
Thabzo had no aspirations of a singing career, but she says Simply Chrysolite is a great fit for her personality and abilities.
‘I’ve always loved music,’ she says. ‘And gospel has so many genre variations that I don’t have to lose my character and pretend I don’t like hip-hop.’
Describing the group’s sound as a ‘banquet of music’, Thabzo says because it comprises six different people, their songs reflect varied tastes.
With its broad influences of jazz, Afro-gospel and R&B, Simply Chrysolite has also attracted wide audiences.
This diverse sound has enabled them to cross geographical and musical borders.
In addition to winning Best Engineered Album at the 2010 Crown Gospel Music Awards in Durban, Simply Chrysolite has achieved international victory too.
In the past year they won Music Video of the Year for ‘Lord I Love You’ at the Gospel Music Awards in Italy and Best Gospel Group/Choir of the Year at the African Gospel Music Awards in London.
They’ve also garnered praise from the secular world and their collection of trophies includes Best International Act at the London-hosted 2011 Black Entertainment Fashion Film Television Arts Awards.
Following a successful performance at the Fun in the Son gospel festival in Jamaica earlier this year, they’ve been invited to the Miami event in July this year.
These accomplishments are remarkable for a rookie group. With such promising beginnings, Simply Chrysolite may be on their way to the level of global gospel fame achieved by platinum-selling artist Rebecca Malope and the two-time Grammy Award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir.
Known locally as the Queen of Gospel, Rebecca Malope has attained the level of success that youngsters like Simply Chrysolite aspire to.
Having released 32 albums in 27 years, she’s one of the best-known faces in South African gospel music.
Rebecca has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal for her contribution to music.
In addition to her tally of local awards, she was also winner of the 2003 Kora All Africa Music Award for Best Gospel singer.
Rebecca believes her success is not merely because of her voice.
‘Gospel music is good news,’ she says.
‘It brings hope. When you listen to it, it lifts your burdens and heals the broken heart.’
It’s the comfort, encouragement and inspiration embedded in the lyrics that make people appreciate gospel music, she believes, adding that it’s not only churchgoers who listen to it.
‘I’ve seen people outside a nightclub or shebeen playing gospel music.’
But a love for uplifting music – and a ready audience – doesn’t mean gospel musicians are guaranteed a successful career.
Rebecca has strong words of caution for singers who may want to focus on the genre because it seems lucrative. ‘You must know why you are doing it, because gospel is different to other genres.
It requires discipline – you need to mean and live what you sing. Even though we all make mistakes, you must be truthful even about those.’
One of the industry’s most notorious singers is Lundi Tyamara, who is reportedly addicted to alcohol and drugs, and has faced charges for alleged theft.
Despite all this, Lundi’s albums have gone double platinum, even exceeding one million unit sales.
Rebecca has also faced negative publicity, including allegations that she takes performance-enhancing drugs to give her energy on stage.
Rebecca believes it’s the character of a person that helps ensure their longevity as a gospel singer.
‘Listening to or singing gospel music doesn’t make you perfect,’ she says simply.
‘You have to acknowledge your mistakes, correct them and be an example by not going back.’
While continuing to release albums, Rebecca also hosts SABC 2’s popular It’s Gospel Time.
Thokozani Nkosi, owner of EclipseTV that produces the show, says Rebecca was the first person he thought of when considering a presenter.
‘It felt like a natural fit,’ he says.
‘And it was, because she’s formed the DNA of the show, and has even helped it trend on Twitter some evenings.’
Although he produces a variety of TV programmes, Thokozani says his early decision to specialise in gospel was intuitive.
‘Gospel wasn’t big at the time, but it spoke to me and I knew more about it than about anything else,’ says the businessman, whose parents were pastors.
It turned out to be a rewarding choice, because the genre has become wildly popular.
The South African Music Awards has two categories for gospel music, while rock, kwaito, jazz and pop have only one category each. MetroFM also has a Best Urban Gospel category in its annual MetroFM Music Awards.
Further growth of the gospel industry is evident in the many categories of the SABC Crown Gospel Music Awards.
They have subdivisions of the genre, such as rap, gospel poetry, R&B and a cappella. And the industry continues to expand.
Taking a cue from the popularity of reality singing competitions, in 2008 Thokozani produced I Want to Sing Gospel.
The show went on to a second season last year and was one of SABC2’s top three most-watched TV shows.
For singers breaking into the industry, openness to the right partnerships and savvy use of technology can be a helpful tool.
Fledgling gospel group We Will Worship won Best Gospel Newcomer at this year’s Crown Gospel Awards. They use Twitter and YouTube for publicity and to interact with fans.
One of their videos, ‘Malibongwe’, has reached over 26 000 views on YouTube.
One of the contestants from season 1 of I Want to Sing Gospel, Kgotso Makgalema, went on to release an album and live DVD titled New Dawn, plus host a gospel music programme on e.tv.
New Dawn achieved gold-disc status for selling more than 20 000 copies. This is a notable achievement, given that one of the country’s best-known gospel groups, Joyous Celebration, sold just over 100 000 units for their latest release, Joyous Celebration 16.
Set to record their next album at Rhema Church this month, Joyous Celebration was founded by gospel music icons Jabu Hlongwane, Lindelani Mkhize and Mthunzi Namba over 20 years ago.
The 2012 Idols winner, Khaya Mthethwa, is a former member of the celebrated band.
Having received 1.8 million votes in the competition, he is the most popular winner of the local reality show in its history.
Khaya’s success cannot be put down purely to talent: his huge gospel fan base definitely helped him to get the votes he needed to emerge the winner.
He’s further proof that gospel isn’t just a short-lived trending topic on Twitter. It’s here to stay.
Pick of DVDs
Joyous Celebration, Rewind: Recorded in Johannesburg’s Teatro Theatre in 2011, this nostalgic collection of audience favourites includes ‘Centre of My Joy’ and ‘Siliwelile’.
William Sejake, Live: From ‘Alpha & Omega’ to ‘O Mohau’ and ‘Holy Spirit’, William showcases his many years experience as a lead singer. Guest performers include Ayanda Mthimkulu and Lebo Sekgobela.
Loyiso Bala, Love Complete: Former Drakensberg Boys Choir member Loyiso Bala has returned to his spiritual roots with songs like ‘Mercy’ and ‘Grace’. Neville D, We Will Worship and Pushie Watson feature on the recording.
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- Nokwazi Mngoma, iMag