In the Nigerian Christian hip-hop scene, a number of rap artists have come to identify themselves with a new sound, a different kind of music that is way different from hip-hop, this genre they call Afro Gospel.
The ‘Afro Gospel’ sound originated from Afrobeat(s) which is a mix of the African sound and this a lot of time is credited to iconic musician/activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. After his demise, new age artists have gone ahead in remaking the sound to blend to their style hence we have Afrobeats.
Afro Gospel sounds so very good as many Christan artists have started tapping into it. The sound puts you in a groovy mood while at the same time puts you in a place of gratitude and worship to God. It has given many Christian hip-hop acts the chance to express themselves in alternative ways other than the usual rap style.
A main pioneer of the Afro Gospel movement is a 25-year-old artist and music producer known as Gil Joe, known for coining the phrase after which many other acts later tapped into it.
Gil Joe started as a rapper after which he got on Rocktown Records, (a record label owned by one of the finest gospel artists in Africa, Frank Edwards) in 2013, at that time, Rocktown Records also had a talented singer Nkay in its label. Gil Joe and Nkay bonded so well, featured on different tracks, made great collaborations some of which are still big songs to date.
At his Lagos home, I sat with the Afro Gospel trendsetter Gil Joe as he shared his musical journey and how Afro Gospel came to be.
How has the journey been so far as an urban artist?
I would say the journey has been nothing short of glorious, God has been faithful to his word, his promises, his prophecies over the years and I feel like the whole world is beginning to see exactly what God told me years ago about the urban industry in Africa and literally how I have always envisioned it to be shaped. We’re still in the progress of building the whole movement but definitely it’s been a victorious one.
You started under Rocktown Records, how was it under the label, and are you still there?
Right now, I’m no longer in business with Rocktown Records. We had a great time but I’ve been out of business for like 3-4 years right now with Rocktown but yes we’re still family. Rocktown has contributed a whole lot to the urban industry and they should be definitely given that credit for being one of the sponsors.
You’ve been referred to as on the pioneer of Afro Gospel, how did that start?
To be very honest I would say that the term pioneer doesn’t always revolve around one person, (pioneers: like a person among so many others that started something), so I wouldn’t say like I started the Afro Gospel as a sound, I would say I met it in the industry. There were many amazing God gifted artists that have been playing that sound and reaching out. A few of them are: Henrisoul, Frank Edward, and Rooftop MCs. I grew up listening to Rooftop MCs. They did an amazing job with the urban Gospel, just a fusion of the Afrobeats because obviously we are Africans. I would say that those people contributed massively to the growth of the sound generally.
But when I came into the industry, I saw the way the African industry especially the churches have patterned Gospel music and the priorities has been given to the traditional sound which is just like the day to day worship songs which is beautiful. I mean that is mostly what we get when we go to church. But I will also say that the church has ignored for so long the potential of Afro Gospel or urban African music which is what we (the urban guys) have majored in. When I came in, I had got so much advice saying I shouldn’t stick to this sound alone because of the way the industry is built, that I should think of diversifying my sound and playing the traditional worship songs.
I love worship songs, it’s amazing but one of the things I love is when worship is played in a very unique way that appeals to me not just the way they asked you to do it because that is the way people want to hear it. Those types of sounds you would find in my first album, but later on, I discovered my passion for Afro Gospel. Some of my fans would remember my first major songs when I came into the industry, (the Thanksgiving and Superstar remix) but later on I started playing different sounds because I do love to explore all within my creative ability. But yes, I would say that so far being able to stick to that Afro Gospel sound, we’ve seen the growth so much even despite the talks and criticism that came at the early stages of what we were doing and also the fact that there was no means of cash flow because it was totally ignored. People were enjoying the music but were not ready to pay until the western world (Europe, America) doors started opening.
For instance, I got the opportunity at that time to put the songs on iTunes, Spotify and those songs started reaching a newer audience and at no cost, the songs were going on its own. Unlike here in Nigeria where you have to take several financial inputs to get the attention of the media to even promote it and we were sort of placed in the middle because the church felt the sound was too urban or too funky to minister to someone. Ignoring the message on the sound and the secular world felt like Jesus’ content would not work for their audience so we were sort of placed in the middle without any form of support from any sides. So, I would say that so far Afro Gospel has been built on the day to day listeners, people who literally just love the music and genuinely care for that sound and they have been the hope we literally built it on.
We have DMs reaching us saying like, ‘Your music especially blesses me’. Those were more of the only thing we got at that time and those were the reason we kept doing it up until today that the major attention is beginning to drift to our side, so I would say so far that has been the journey for Afro Gospel.
Anyone who has been following Gil Joe for long would know you started as a rapper. So why did Gil Joe switch from being a rapper to a full singer?
I would say I started as a rapper even though I always wanted to sing and loved to sing, but I never had that confidence. I got that confidence on the journey because I tried my first singing and the audience totally loved it. In fact, I got way more response than the rap and at that time there were so many rap artists in the music industry doing beautiful music, they were doing their thing. But it also occurred to me that we are Africans and rap is not necessarily our sound; it’s not like they originated sound. I mean rap is a very beautiful thing/art but I felt like personally, the Afro Gospel came easier for me even,and also it was gaining attention over the rap at that time. So I think that was the beginning of it for me noticing that this actually can work, the Afro Gospel/Afrobeats. That was why I just paid attention to it and we started growing it.
How do you feel seeing many other rap artists doing Afro Gospel music?
I think it’s the most beautiful thing, along the line while I was growing and playing my sound and it was getting the international attention, people were asking me (friends) if I don’t want to put someone on or sign someone up. I’ve always had it in my mind that right now I don’t think I’m in a position to own a record label because I believe a record label is a big deal and it demands a major system. If one is going to do it, one has to do it professionally and I felt all I just had was the platform.
I also thought that if we can push or grow the genre enough to gain massive attention, then we can literally replicate that same audience to newer talents which is what is beginning to happen because people come out and listen to Gil Joe music and want to listen to more. That way they tend to look at all who has featured Gil Joe or who plays a similar sound in their unique way and that is what we literally started seeing because the moment the guys started doing the sound and putting their efforts individually, the thing started catching.
The same audience just loves the song so they follow mostly all of us and that is why most of us have the same audience literally and that has been the system for which I have always thought of. I want every artist to be independent and grow within, to know that all you have to do is to go into the studio, make good music, and put it out there. Then get the people’s attention and grow from it and maybe in the future, we can start thinking of every established artist in this role and can start putting all the people on and grow to the point of having a strong system that anybody can ride on and stuffs like that can actually work. But yes, I have always envisioned the industry to be an independently thriving industry.
What makes/moves you to create your music?
First, I would say to people that I’m the number one fan of my music after Christ. This is because I believe that the music comes from my spirit, so I have to feel it and it is the reason for which I don’t need an outer force or validation to do what I do, I hear it from God and I act upon the world that I hear.
Secondly, I feel like I know that there are so many people like me who daily are converted into Christianity and for me when I came into church and got born again, I always crave some sound that had gospel/pure/divinity messages but not far from the sound I love when I wasn’t born again.
I felt there were so many people who wanted it and that was like a void I felt needed to be filled in the industry which is like young people who wanna listen to Afrobeats, who wants to listen to urban sound but obviously with the Jesus content on it and that was the major drive to be honest. I wasn’t surprised when we started getting the attention of these people because I knew they were there, people like me who love it. When I came into the industry I started listening to the Urban guys. I love worship a whole lot no doubt, those are like the major, but I’m saying in like my day to day activities, I wanna go out, go to work, those are like the songs that got me going every single day.
Do you see yourself still doing rap music?
For sure, I feel like I would have a fusion of rap in what I do, even when I was a rapper I always like the type of rap that excites, that gets emotional, that just hit a spot different from me just trying to speak a rhyme. I think that was just the whole act for me, the creativity part for me is people being able to enjoy what I do, not just because I wanted to rap, like when I came out with the song “El Shaddai,” people loved it and most of the rap content. For sure I think I would still do rap stuff like that but yeah it’s the whole package that matters for sure.
Link up with Gil Joe on twitter (@_giljoe)