Nothing beats a song with a clear message

Most gospel singers today start with video performances in mind, forgetting that faith comes by hearing, not by seeing

Shari Martin during a live performance.

The first time I heard Shari Martin’s song, Nimekutambua Shetani, in the early 1990s, I developed a strong desire to meet him. The Kenya Broadcasting Corporation used to play the song several times in a week and I was captivated by its lyrics, Martin’s sweet and smooth voice and message.

Back then, songs were recorded in compact audio cassette and played in the radio cassette recorder. Phonograph record, also known as a gramophone record, were rare in Kenya and so were video compact disc (VCD) – created in 1993 by Sony, Philips, Matsushita and JVC – and digital versatile disc (DVD), developed in 1995. Back then, a song’s message was what really mattered.

In early 2015, I finally met Shari Martin at a Nairobi restaurant and I asked him what made his songs a hit and his take on the gospel industry today.

“Those days, the focus was purely the message. To compose a song, I had to spend days in prayer and daily Scripture meditation. The thought of producing moving visual images to accompany a song was not in my mind,” he told me.

Now, he said, things have changed. “Most gospel singers are in the video craze and the impact of the message is lost,” he said.

While there is nothing wrong with modern video technology, I took Martin’s point seriously.In January last year, gospel singer Kevin Bahati left his fans confused with his new song titled, Nyota, featuring him and a woman who wears a body-hugging baby pink coloured dress that has a thigh-high slit at the front.In the song, Bahati narrates how he has been looking for his star and proceeds to sing about how he is forever indebted to Jesus who died on the cross for him.

But the video is what angered most of his fans who questioned why he needed a “video vixen” – as they are calling the lady – to feature in a song supposedly sung to praise God.They wondered if the “Nyota” he is singing about is the girl or God.

Others claimed the song was more secular than gospel.After watching the video, I concurred with most of the concerns raised. It is total confusion. The heat generated by the song offers a vital lesson to all gospel singers when it comes to video performances.

It doesn’t make sense for a singer with a song on prayer to go to Mombasa and start gyrating his or her almost half-naked body on the shores of the Indian Ocean under the guise of passing a gospel message. 

In December 2018, I met a singer who pleaded with me to buy her new CD to help her raise enough cash for a video shoot. “You see, nowadays even if your song is good nobody will buy it if it is not in a video form. People prefer watching to listening,” she told me.

That shocked me, but I bought the CD anyway. As I listened to the songs, I kept wondering what message she wanted to pass across.

Studies have shown the connection between hearing and seeing. A recent study published in Scientific Reports looked at the effect of gaze direction on hearing with some interesting results. It found that the brain needs to work harder to hear when we are looking away from what we are listening to. 

This happened when participants were put in a dark room and asked to either direct their gaze at a speaker in front of them or look away. When they looked away, the researchers found that the participants’ reaction times were slower and their brain was more active (working harder to listen for the sound). 

However, the difference between seeing and hearing is big when it comes to faith matters. Romans 10:17 says: “Faith comes by hearing – not seeing – (the emphasis is mine) and hearing by the Word of God.”A true gospel singer ensures the message in a song is clear before thinking of the type of dance, the attire, the make-ups and the environment to shoot video. 

The question is: Are most modern gospel singers ministering or entertaining people? A minister attends to the spiritual needs of the people but an entertainer provides amusement or enjoyment. 

The truth is we cannot rewind the clock backwards to three decades ago. We should embrace the benefits of technology, but also being careful not to be carried off the right path.