Formal musical training is a distant dream for the marginalised youth in South Africa. They grow up in disadvantaged communities without hope and opportunity. From the gang-infested streets of the Cape Flats to the distant, rural farmlands of Limpopo, millions of South Africans hold little chance of escaping the clutches of poverty let alone forging a career in music. But a beam of light shines in the darkness. It’s a glimmer of hope, and it’s coming from the community churches that are situated in the hearts of these forgotten areas. It is not God. It is something entirely different.
Miriam Makeba is the shining star of South African music. She has graced stages around the world, and shared her musical gift with millions of people. But her musical journey had humble beginnings. She was raised by a single mother in Johannesburg, and battled the harsh inequality and injustices of apartheid. As a little girl, she first began singing in her church choir. Every Sunday, the church community would come together and raise their voices in glorious unison. But Makeba’s melodies soared high above the ceilings of the church. Her heavenly voice touched the souls of people around the world, and she left her mark in history.
Music is the only medium of communication that transcends boundaries of class, race, education and wealth. But in South Africa, only a privileged few are able to learn this language. The education system is dire, and the number of recognised arts facilities where musical talent can be nurtured are few and far between. Subjects like art, drama, dance and music do not feature in our national education curriculum. This gap causes an abundance of rich and diverse talent in South Africa to slip through the cracks — undiscovered and unencouraged. The underprivileged do not have the opportunity to explore the arts. They are locked out of heaven.
For these people, church is the only gateway to music. They are introduced to the world of music through church choirs and worship bands. The church has a longstanding legacy as a nursery and a hotbed of musical talent. Johan Sebastian Bach started as an apprentice under the wing of the successful church organists of his era. Beyoncé discovered her talent by singing in the gospel choirs of Houston, Texas. These virtuosos, and countless others, were introduced to music through weekly church services. Thousands of modern musicians have the same humble beginnings.
“Just one instrument keeps a child off the streets,” says Cape Flats trombonist Shakier Roberts.
Miriam Makeba’s story is universal. It is paralleled by international superstars like Usher, Whitney Houston, Katy Perry, Marvin Gaye and many, many more. These global pop and R&B icons all share the same origins: they were introduced to music behind the pulpit, and honed their skills by singing their hearts out in gospel choirs and worship bands.
Churches are taking the place of musical conservatories. In fact, the secular music scene has for a long time been dominated by the disciples of gospel music. Perhaps this is due to the thousands of hours of experience that they gain singing in weekly services. Or perhaps it is their faith that ignites a spark to their music, something mystical that just cannot be explained.
“Maybe you don’t learn to read music in the church… but the church teaches you how to play what you feel. When you put that feeling into the music, it makes something special.” says rising jazz musician from Delft, Brendan Hendriks.
The sound of gospel music has even worked its way into pop culture. The concept of “soul” has become an important aspect in songwriting. “Soul music” is music that is honest, uplifting and purposeful. The resurrection of this genre is happening right now. After two decades of glitzy sugar-pop, the world’s music taste is experiencing a tectonic shift. The common people are searching for something with more artistic value. Artists like Kendrick Lamar, James Blake and Frank Ocean are leading the exodus, encouraging listeners to consume music that offers more than a fleeting moment of pleasure — they endorse music with a spiritual message.
The language of music is offering our youth renewed focus and purpose. It gives them a passion and meaning in life, and this is something that should not be underestimated. Many church musicians make the crossover to become professional performers. These young musicians are gigging regularly and earning an income through their art. The rise and success of these church musicians is a modern miracle. Praise to the powers that be.