“Sing to the Lord a new song” – Psalms 149:1
Gospel is one of the biggest genres of music in any African community on any continent. This is because after centuries of oppression and persecution, Africans have developed a special kind of relationship with God. This has resulted in different forms of praise and worship that have spawned genres likes Blues, Gospel, Rock, Jazz, Soul and R’n’B. In Zimbabwe, one artist making a name for herself primarily through Gospel is Bulawayo Arts Award (BAA) winning singer Vuyo Brown.
Vuyo Brown was born Nokufeza Vuyolethu Ngwenya to parents who were both academics and music lovers. Her father would play the more live band inspired music of Lovemore Majaivana and Freddie Gwala, while her mother enjoyed the vocal performances of singers like Rebecca Malope and Vuyo Mokoena. However, it wasn’t until Vuyo’s mother took her to several student performances at the school where she taught, that Vuyo’s desire to sing surfaced. Soon after, like many Gospel artists before her, Vuyo joined her church choir at the tender age of 14. In addition she also joined several groups that included Destiny Praise, JPM, One Voice, and Creme Voices. In my opinion, Vuyo’s early exposure to the more immediate and emotional music of the Gwalas, groups and choirs is probably why she is one of the best live acts in Zimbabwe today. Since her breakthrough single “NdiJesu” in 2016, Vuyo has shared the stage with Berita, Hope Masike, Vusa Mkhaya, Bekezela, and Msiz’kay. And she has performed at the “UN at 75″ Online Concert, “Old Mutual’s International Women’s Day celebration”, “Music in Africa Live” and “The PiChani”, just to name a few. But it’s not just on stage that Vuyo has made a name for herself, she is also a pop chart favorite.
In 2018 she released her début album “Grace Fulfilled” and the hit song “Thula Wazi” (Be Still and Know) the following year. “Thula Wazi” was in the the top 10 on ZiFM’s pop chart, and number #1 on the Skyz Metro FM and Khulumani Gospel Chart for 5 weeks, at the time of it’s release. Her crossover appeal led to collaborations with South African Kwaito and R&B singer Speedy (of Bongo Maffin), as well as Eswatini Afro-house artist, Sifiso M. However, for me the real accomplishment of her début was her nomination for Best Jazz at the Zimbabwe Music Awards (ZIMA). Vuyo has always refused to be categorized as just a Gospel artist and how she managed to transcend genres (so fluently), made me curious about where she plans to take Christian themes in the future.
AG: You often describe yourself as a Contemporary Christian artist. What exactly does that mean compared to lets say, a traditional Gospel artist?
VB: I have never had to describe the difference but I think it’s all about the style of singing and and the sound. The sound of the music is more new age and urban. For me, these two things are the main things that separate traditional Gospel from Contemporary Christian music. That’s why I’m intentional about saying my music is contemporary Christian music. I feel I have to prepare the listener for what they’re going to hear because I know it’s going to be different from what some expect.
AG: From the beginning your music has always been different – and you keep evolving. For example, your earliest hit “NdiJesu” included the more tradition Mbira sound. Recently you moved to Amapiano in “I Need You” and dance-electro in “Love Me Now”. However, taking you back to “NdiJesu” – do you think there is a space for traditional instruments like the Mbira, the Bow or Marimba in contemporary music?
VB: Yes! There’s definitely a space for traditional instruments in mainstream music as long as the instruments are still being made and played. Music, most times, is experimental. The sounds that one can create are endless and we are still discovering them. You know what, I know I have referred to myself as Contemporary Christian artist but I’m actually a multi-genre artist. I’m not really tied down to any sound, so I don’t feel like I moved from a traditional Mbira to an Amapiano sound. That’s just how I wanted to sound at the time. I’m a singer / songwriter and vocalist. I sing on songs, I write some songs and I feature on songs. It’s really just about creativity and how you incorporated certain sounds into your expression.
JP: Talking about features. You’ve worked with different artists like Speedy, Hwabaraty and Fish Ndaramu. But one name has remained constant – Just Percy. Would you say establishing a good working relationship with another artist (like you have with the producer Just Percy) has helped you perfect your craft?
VB: It depends on how you look at things. The artists you mentioned are musicians and I featured on ‘their’ songs. However, Just Percy is a producer. He creates what you have in your mind and fuses it with what he has in his mind. At the end of the day he helps elevate the vision we both have in mind. He is brilliant at helping me achieve my sound. And he has taught me a lot! I can definitely say he has inspired, propelled and actuated my craft (laughs), if that’s a thing. But just to add, I have met many people like Just who have helped me along my journey. So yes – a “good working relationship” is about relating to each other but to take it further – for me it’s about connecting. The people that have helped me create or bring anything to life, are people I connect with. It takes more that just relating to keep me coming back.
AG: Your connection with God is something that has remained consistent despite the multiple genres you’ve explored. Most people only remember or turn to God during tough times. Do you think this is the reason why Gospel is so popular in Zimbabwe?
VB: Umm, not really. Zimbabwe is a Christian country. It’s still actually grounded in Christian values and beliefs. Moreover, Zimbabwean people, like most Africans, are rooted in worship of something higher. And, in recent years the Pentecostal movement has seen a rise in popularity. People are flocking to the church in numbers. Especially in Mashonaland! Let me stop there because I feel like I can write an essay on this topic. At the end of the day all I’m saying is Zimbabwe has a high percentage of Christians. That is the reason for the popularity of Gospel. It has a large and faithful audience.
AG: People are definitely flocking to the churches leading to some interesting debates about the praise and worship segments. Mainly that church-goers come for the music / band and miss the message. As a singer who started out singing for the congregation and then for concerts goers – what’s the difference?
VB: (laughs) If you’re asking what the difference is between a church service audience and a concert audience, then let me explain. Firstly, the job of the worship team is to lead people into a space of praising and worshiping God. To create a fellowship, to prepare people for His message or word for that day. This is done in submission to the overall vision or doctrine of that church and the leader of that church – what she / he wants, says or will be preaching about and so forth. On the other side – at a concert, it’s each to his own. The musician determines everything according to themselves – their preferences, mood, vibe and more. Everything is enhanced and professional. To sum it up it’s an act put together basically to entertain, amuse and engage people. The mandate is the artist’s, there’s no obligation, no governing body – except to God – for me that is, I can’t speak for every person who takes the stage. Wait, I thought about, it’s the same! The audience is the same. However, whilst the expectations are similar, the environment is different.
JP: On that subject of church debates. These days it seems like you can’t go a month without reading about some Pastor taking advantage of women in his congregation. Ironically, most women still prefer male pastors over women. Why?
VB: (laughs) Umm, no! I’m not studying to be a pastor. I’ve been a pastor my whole career. When I released my first single, I was already an ordained pastor.
JP: Wow! Congratulations! A late congratulations but well done just the same. Anyway, you not just a pastor and a musician you’re also an entrepreneur. You used the “Pay What You Want” model for your singles “Mayeh” and “Imvana”. What lessons did you learn from that approach?
VB: Like I said before, music is experimental and you have to be creative not just in your sound but how you market and distribute your work. The pay “What You Want” model was a less traditional approach to sales. It allowed to me bypass some of the streaming sites who only pay out after you’ve reached a certain number of streams and connect directly with my loyal fans. On top of that in this download age, it also to helped promote a culture of buying or paying for music. As artists we sacrifice a lot to make music so it was also great to see what value people place on your work out there. That for me was the real lesson or success of the “Pay What You Want” approach.
AG: One of your other successful singles is “Thula Wazi”. I read somewhere that you attributed the success of that song to “its message”. The older generation often cite the lack of “a message” in contemporary music as the reason why they don’t like it. How far true do you think this is?
VB: Personally I have never heard this. In my opinion, “contemporary” means the sound and style change to suit the times but the message stays the same. Especially in Christian music because the message comes from God and God is the Alpha and the Omega.JP: Unfortunately we have come to the end. But before we go. I heard that you love baked goods. Do you have someone special who brings tasty treats? If not, what kind of pastries should someone get you to win your heart?
VB: (Laughs) I love baked stuff, I love baking too. I love everything pastry, everything! But, unfortunately getting me these wouldn’t win my heart. A solid friendship is founded on good pastries (laughs). However, introducing me to new and more of them would be a sign you’ve got good taste (laughs).