One of the verses used to encourage Christians to hold on to their faith and eschew the ways of the world is in the gospel of Matthew.
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it,” says the 13th verse of the 7th chapter of the book.
“But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it,” the next verse says.
In the music industry, gospel artistes are expected to be users of the narrow route. Theirs is a speciality that demands a display of piety, not only in their songs, but also in their lives.
While their peers party with abandon, fall in and out of relationships as they please, engage in headline-grabbing brawls with little consequence and get away with the most toe-curling of lyrics, gospel artistes are generally required to be the opposite of these.
They have to tread carefully about every song they work on because it is not uncommon to hear a new release being mocked for not being “gospel” enough.
A number of artistes who began in the “narrow” route have since switched to the broader one by turning into secular artistes. They have many reasons for the transformation, but an overriding one is that they got fed up with the standards set for them.
So, how is life on the other side for them?
He has served gospel fans with such hits as Sitolia, Tam Tam, Lala Salama and Kitanzi. But the artiste whose real name is Wilson Abubakar Radido did not stay too long in the gospel industry before controversies started stalking him.
Every so often, a scandal would pop up about him, involving socialites, his relationships, to name but a few. Or he would release a song that many thought was not “there” in terms of spirituality.
Eleven years later, Willy Paul is no longer singing just gospel. Much as he insists that he did not abandon gospel entirely, he is clearly carving a niche away from it.
In a number of interviews he has done since making the switch, Willy Paul says he was fed up with the censorship and patronage in the gospel industry.
“Every time I released a song, they would not play it. They would tell me to go I-don’t-know-where and speak to God. And I often wondered: Are they there when I speak to my God?” he told blogger Xtian Dela in a YouTube chat last year, referring to a group of “prefects” in the gospel industry.
On the secular side, he said, he is freer to express himself and to associate with whomever. After the switch, he recorded a theme song for William Lawson whiskey, and even became a brand ambassador for them. He has also been working with more “secular” artistes like Jamaica’s Alaine, Tanzania’s Nandy and local sensation Miss P.
“My rules, my life. I can do anything I want,” he said. “I’m an artiste. Today I can wake up feeling like doing a worship song and I’ll do it. Tomorrow, I’ll wake up in the mood for a love song, and I’ll do just that.”
Since his switch, Willy Paul has also been freer to perform and upload funny skits unrelated to music. Watching them, one gets a feeling that he had been retraining himself before.
He has modified his name to “Willy Paul Thee Pozze” and he has nicknamed himself “Bwana Mkunaji” among other monikers.
He once did a song asking God to remind him if he starts changing from the Bahati of yesterday. That was Nikumbushe that he did with Tanzania’s Rayvanny, released in early 2017.
But that reference to God and to Bible verses in his songs has taken the back burner as he gravitates towards love songs. And just like Willy Paul, Bahati (Kelvin Kioko), insists he did not dump gospel.
“I have Christ in my heart, and I believe in God, and God is the reason I am at the top. So, I cannot leave Christ. That’s the most important,” he told MC Jessy in a YouTube conversation last year.
Bahati also loathes the local gospel industry, calling it “rotten”.
“I was fought a lot in the gospel industry and I knew I was not doing the gospel for the people. So, when I’m doing a gospel song, I’ll do it for God, not for the industry. I just separated myself from the gospel industry for a while; but I’m in Christ and the Lord is my personal saviour,” he said.
The crossover means that Bahati has been more expressive about love, with one of his recent songs featuring his wife Diana. The mournful, kowtowing Bahati of yesteryears has given way to a more salacious artiste who can dance with female models in his videos and sing about love in ways the gospel genre could not have let him.
“Even a pastor needs to dedicate a song to his wife; and if I don’t do it, he’ll dedicate a Diamond song quietly,” he said recently, justifying his specialisation in love songs.
“Ukitafuta Bwana hakuna kung’ang’ana.” That was a 2016 hit by L-Jay Maasai, telling listeners that there is no struggling while in Christ.
However, the artiste who was born James Lekishon ole Kamwaro, faced struggles in the gospel industry that pushed him to the wider road. And he blames gatekeepers.
“My faith hasn’t changed. I’m still a staunch Christian. But in the gospel industry, I’ve hit the end; I’m tired. I got tired of persevering. I saw life was difficult here,” he told Switch TV in March.
Among the things that wore out his patience, he said, are the questions he used to receive from people about his music.
“You could go to a show and someone would ask you, ‘What are you singing? Your music is too new school.’ They want you to sing the slow songs for it to be gospel,” he said.
In his opinion, the “censors” in the industry force artistes to steer content towards a certain direction.
“We have to impress certain people, not God, for us to be relevant,” he said.
Known for bouncy hits like Laleiyo, the artiste has changed his name to El Shapa, and he says that in a few months he will gauge whether the other side is more lucrative.
“I’ll tell that in a few months. I know music doesn’t pay in one day. It will take a few months or weeks for me to be able to tell which side is working better,” he said.
What does their switching mean?
Other artistes who switched from gospel to secular include DNG (Davidson Ngibuini) and Kimdanny.
The lives such artistes lead after branching out have many interpretations. Veteran singer Rufftone said recently that the exodus from gospel to secular is a manifestation of the chaff leaving the wheat.
“We can now tell who came into the gospel music industry for money and fame and those who initially had a calling,” Rufftone said without mentioning names.
Radio personality Anthony Ndiema views it as a departure from the demands of the industry.
“There are a lot of talented musicians who get into the gospel sector because of their gift, not their calling,” Ndiema told Lifestyle. “No matter how you slice it, gospel artistes are held to a higher standard and most young people didn’t know what they were signing up for when they got in.”
Ndiema explains that even people who don’t necessarily go to church or ascribe to Christian values still demand a strict moral code from gospel artistes. These expectations, he says, vary from genuine biblical standards to manufactured commandments of what people think a gospel artiste should do.
He advises young artistes to be clear from the get-go about how they want to use their gifts. If they just want to entertain and make some money, he says, it is advisable that they join the secular side where they can do so freely.
Lifestyle also sought the opinion of two prominent gospel artistes on the matter.
Mercy Masika, she of the Mwema fame, says mentorship for gospel artistes is key.
“There are a lot of young people who are scared of becoming gospel artistes because of the scrutiny it attracts. I am training people who are as far as Djibouti and there is a genuine concern that the gospel fraternity is under attack,” Masika says.
“Though we admit there are a few bad apples, we feel that it’s not fair to judge the entire industry based on the actions of a few.”
As for mellow-voiced Evelyn Wanjiru, there are many challenges that young artistes face.
“The grace of God has kept me strong, same as the passion He placed in me to minister the gospel to all people through music,” she says when asked why she has stayed put in the gospel industry for years.