It is about midday at the UkhoziFM Gospel Music Festival in Ellis Park and already thousands of couples and families have filed in. The field is about halfway full and so are the bleachers to the immediate left and right of the stage. In full control is a buxom woman with a straight, shoulder-length weave and a flowing peach-coloured dress, belting out rather than singing "uJehova wavuliminyango" (Jehovah opened all the doors).
It is an upbeat, ecstatic rendition that has some in the crowd waving in unison. A lone keyboard player ramps up the pace and the melody sprints to Little Richard-style dementia for a few bars before he cuts it off dancehall-style. People go nuts, as if it is a charismatic church service. And maybe it is.
With plummeting CD sales pushing some in the gospel industry back to the streets, this is how many people spend their Saturdays in South Africa, forking out anywhere between R100 and R300 to fill nondescript bleachers and grassy parks across the country. On offer is usually a succession of sartorially audacious artists performing worship routines for Jesus.
Today's line-up features somewhere in the region of 20 artists, split between the industry's heavy hitters. Scanning the line-up for familiar names, I home in on Lundi, the reigning enfant terrible of the genre.
Lundi Tyamara is a Bobby Brown bad-boy figure with seemingly numerous lives and an effortless ability to boost tabloid sales. He is on a comeback trail after releasing two consecutive duds that failed to register noticeable sales.
Ndim Lo, his 12th album since 1998, reunites him with producer Tshepo Nzimande.
Nzimande signed the artist to his record label Zuzmuzi Music, which he formed after extricating himself from Bula Music. A waif in skinny black jeans and a floral shirt, Lundi is one of the few artists who has the backing of a full band on this show, in a genre where vocalists tend to outnumber the keyboard players. The use of three-note chords and the overreliance on keyboards and simple drum programming (probably to mimic the music's missionary choral roots) are the bedrock upon which so-called traditional gospel is built.
Belting out a number in the 1-4-5 beat (a reference to degrees of the major scale) that the queen of gospel, Rebecca, and a host of others favour, Lundi is in lockstep groove. He toyi-toyis across the stage and midway through his second number cranks up the melodrama. He falls on his knees and leans back until he is practically lying down. He gets up to sing a hook; a seven-person team dressed in flowing white robes assists him. As the song tapers he follows suit with a bit of requisite sermonising.
"I love God. God is great and I saw that with my own eyes," he says, pacing the stage. "Fix your business with Jesus right now."
Lundi is decidedly camp as he switches from singer to counsellor, hand on hip as he references the Bible.
A few minutes later in the artists' room at the suite behind the bleachers just to the left the stage, he rides out the adrenaline from his performance and various entourages shuffle in and out. Camera crews ready themselves for interviews.
Toward the centre of the room, a crew of effeminate men in monochrome outfits – black jeans and matching waistcoats, braids, extensions and man bags – hang around, waiting for him. Some are the men in robes from his stage set. They wait aimlessly, with a "let's blow this joint" look. With his man-child appearance despite being in his mid-30s, Lundi takes on the air of their underage pimp.
Herein lies this man's allure. Forget the larger-than-life voice and theatrics, Lundi lies at the nexus of gospel's moral dilemma, in which Christianity-premised religious ideals meet its human deficiencies. His off-stage calamities (drugs, alcohol, sexual ambivalence) have seen him grace countless township coffee tables every Sunday, but none have diminished his star power. Instead, they have proffered him a glint of invincibility, a performative reading of scripture that anoints him as the ultimate symbol of God's grace.
Nzimande, who doubled as Lundi's publicist at Bula, said their preemptive approach had helped Lundi to survive his media scandals.
God's redemptive power
"It's different if you get caught doing something than if you admit to it," said Nzimande.
And yet, having risen time and time again from the abyss to proclaim God's redemptive power from the stage, guilt and shame still haunt him. He winces during interviews, hoping the gay issue does not come up. He says the obligatory stuff, such as confessing to be upbeat about yet another album, and swears his tabloid days are behind him. He sometimes hints at early retirement, of going back home to Worcester to pursue interests unrelated to music.
Lundi has had a fairly good run since 1998, clocking up a total of about 500 000 units for his first five albums and never slipping below 80 000 units for each of his next five albums with Nzimande.
"The fans still have their trust in me," he said. "Fans can be loyal and they've told me not to give up."
EMI Music South Africa's Tony da Silva says, even though music sales have fallen across the board, gospel remains a stable investment for EMI as a label: successful artists routinely sell 40 000 copies, giving them platinum status. But I am sure even he would agree with Nzimande's claim that it remains a market-driven industry in which there is little innovation because an audience unwavering in its wants – church hymns repurposed for the CD player – holds the producer to ransom.
The industry is littered with characters of insane drive and singular vision occupying all levels of its production value chain. However, they routinely find themselves in the tabloids – whether it is Nzimande bitch-slapping Rebecca for hogging the stage, Ncandweni Christ Ambassadors in tatters over a messy divorce, or speculation on the source of Rebecca's hyperactive personality as the host of the wildly popular Gospel Time.
Ambassadors of Christian values falling short of their own yardstick are easy after-church gossip.
'God's gifts are without repentance," said Thokozani Nkosi, chief executive of Eclipse TV, gospel's television powerhouse.
"Whether or not you are upstanding, God will use your voice. The music will not have less of an effect because of that. Don't worry about what the artist does. Worry about what God does through him."
Nkosi should know. He is like a busy intersection on gospel's highway to heaven. His company's flagship show, Gospel Time, which Rebecca has been hosting since its inception in 2004, has run for eight uninterrupted seasons on SABC2. I Want to Sing Gospel, a talent show based on the Idols model, also broadcast on SABC2, is fast-tracking upstarts to become household names.
"So that was Romans 11, verse 29."
"The verse I just quoted to you."
Throughout our interview at Eclipse's plush offices in a spacious converted house in Randburg, Nkosi, who is in his late thirties, says many noteworthy things about the monetary worth and character of the industry.
"A lot of it is not even recorded," he said from behind a chair in his office. "People are selling their own CDs at Bree Street taxi rank. If you go set up your own performance at the rank, you sell about 300 CDs. Multiply that by 26 weeks and you're looking at a decent number. People are still selling CDs from the boots of their cars, on the road. When the artist gets home that boot is empty. And the reason people do that is because the retailers are not taking the product, so the guy becomes his own retailer. In a sense, kwaito was like that when it started. But, of course, now piracy takes a huge chunk."
A Panasonic flatscreen TV, on which Nkosi will cue Top Gospel, the Top TV channel he supplies with content, takes up most of the wall space in front of him. The cabinet and wall to his right support gold and platinum plaques from various recording artists. There is Hlengiwe Mhlaba's plump face beaming from 150 000 units away on the cover of uJesu Uyalalela. Keke's Revival proclaims gold sales, as does pastor Solly Mahlangu's gold plaque for the album Obrigado.
The thank-you tokens, including one from elder statesman pastor Benjamin Dube, reveal how significant his contribution to the genre is. Gospel Time is an indispensable pillar in an industry that falling record sales and rising piracy have crippled.
"God wants me in it for a reason," Nkosi said, remote control in hand. The progeny of ministers, he started out as a performing artist in church. After studying dramatic arts at the University of the Witwatersrand, he got a gig as trainee producer for Christian TV show Crux before becoming a presenter and then a producer.
Chatroom, a Sunday chat show Eclipse produces, espouses Christian values and morals "without being preachy". For Nkosi, concepts are replicable and the spin-offs endless. His show Big Up, which is about young community builders, bagged two South African Film and Television awards and I Want to Sing Gospel has fostered the growth of a music recording, marketing and distribution arm to the umbrella company Tox Media, of which Eclipse TV is a subsidiary.
Tox Media splits royalties with the SABC for the sale of material related to I Want to Sing Gospel, such as the Top Ten Duets DVD and CDs of breakout stars. Already in music video production and through-the-line advertising, Nkosi says he wants to produce gospel comedy, where comedians will make jokes about "biblical stuff".
The plaques on Nkosi's wall invariably lead me to producer, artist and mogul Sipho Makhabane, the founder of the gospel recording company Big Fish. But for a face-to-face interview with Makhabane I have to travel to Nelspruit, where he is throwing a concert at the Nelspruit showgrounds.
Money may bestow others with bloated arrogance, but Makhabane's aura is that of pensive humility, even as he breezes into the venue in a white Mercedes E500.
Casually dressed in an embroidered linen shirt, sandals and a red Coca-Cola cap (the only sponsor of his Nelspruit show), Makhabane is the proverbial fisher of men rather than the bully in a small pond.
His parents named him Mhlupheki ("the poor one"), but his grandmother – who raised him – took him to church and christened him "Sipho sakwa Makhabane" (the Makhabanes' gift). "But now I see that it means Siphosesizwe (the nation's gift)," he later said.
At about 3pm, with about 2 000 people through the door so far, Makhabane is in his element and I have to corner him for the interview. Even then, he can hardly finish a sentence without having to answer his phone, humbly accept good tidings or attend to an emergency such as an artist nearly fainting on stage.
Even when looking you dead in the eye, Makhabane connects to a different dimension, as though he is searching for your soul. His body language occasionally involves physical contact, as if to disarm or transfix.
Makhabane started out as a recording artist. Partly as a response to closed doors, he started Amanxusa Music Productions, which he later changed to Big Fish.
"I think 80% of the artists in the gospel industry are from these hands," he said, turning his palms up. Hailing from Swaziland, Nelspruit represents the core of his fan base. Many of the artists he has produced and popularised come from Swaziland too, such as Shongwe and Khuphuka Saved Group, and Ncandweni Christ Ambassadors.
"I thank God that he raised me with my standard three education," he said, pondering his company's purpose.
"God has a purpose. It's always been my wish to travel. When we started the tours it was because of the demand from the people … The main thing is to revive ubuntu. We have freedom but we are not free. Women are afraid to walk alone at night, unembeza awusekho [the conscience has disappeared]."
Makhabane, who has multi-platinum plaques of his own, says "technology" has crippled the industry and likens piracy to breaking windows in the house of God. His response has been to set up an events management wing, sending his road-dog instincts into overdrive.
Since March last year, he has organised shows at Bhisho Stadium, Brakpan's Carnival City and in Mpumalanga with gospel franchise Joyous Celebration in front of 20 000 people, an attendance record for Big Fish. Recently, he has put on shows in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and again in Mpumalanga. But as he says: "We still owe KZN [KwaZulu-Natal]."
Makhabane lists only six major concerts over the past 18 months, which probably shows the difficulties of making a profit from stage shows without sponsorship. During our interview, he appeals for sponsors, pointing to a swelling crowd of couples, grandparents, children and, surprisingly for me, teenagers.
"Gospel unites the nation," he said.
Big Fish's roster has five artists – Tshepiso Motaung, Mhlaba, Pastor Ncanda, Thobekile and Makhabane himself – but his influence stretches beyond that. He handles production duties for various people and, because the artists are almost completely dependent on shows to survive, he always invites those signed to other labels or former affiliates to feature in his concerts.
"We bring preachers to pray for our country. We pray for peace, we pray against poverty," he said, trying to give me his undivided attention.
"God ordained us to do this, to motivate people who need renewal. God can help you. But you must help others after you. I want people with a standard five [education] to say: 'Sipho is doing wonders with a standard three.' A lot of people are uneducated, but you can still make it in life."
His label's high turnover probably reflects his keeping of the publishing rights, but it may also reflect something of a brazen punk spirit that permeates gospel, a genre in which artists routinely become label owners. In some cases, though, artists remain artists, beholden to producers.
Leading gospel's charge towards mainstream credentials is Zanele Mbokazi, whose annual Crown Gospel music awards draw the presence of the country's first citizen, Jacob Zuma, political power brokers and a range of other celebrities.
Mbokazi's involvement in the industry dates back to her days as an Ukhozi FM jock in the 1990s. That morphed into TV presenting, then industry conferences and an all-out one-woman industry that has seen her style herself as a televangelist, author and marriage counsellor.
With the requisite drive, entrepreneurial instinct and the dovetailing of several platforms, Mbokazi has emerged as one of the only female power brokers in the industry.
At a steakhouse in Sandton, Mbokazi is charismatic and a tad self-congratulatory as she recounts the pageantry of the Crown Gospel awards – how artists and scenesters fuss for months over peacock outfits, how the president clears his diary and how it has given the "Christian community" something to look forward to.
As with others immersed in the industry, God, Jesus, capitalist ambition, street smarts and a dash of scandal combine to create self-motivated characters who would put soap-opera writers to shame.
Earlier this year, a newspaper published reports of an alleged affair with a married man. This dented her image as a prissy marriage adviser, but she forged ahead and recently married Mpendulo Nkambule, her partner in the Word of God Ministry, a new church they launched in Durban.
The awards also generate the requisite spin-offs – CDs and DVDs – and come with sponsorship from CellC, the SABC, the KwaZulu-Natal province and the eThekwini municipality.
I ask her whether this is self-enrichment in the name of God.
"In business, business principles apply," she said. "Our God owns silver and gold. We want our artists and industry to be successful and make money."
Vanity creeps in as Mbokazi refuses pictures, pointing me to her office for publicity photos. Sensing that she has me soaked in her charms, she invites me to Durban to witness the spectacle first-hand in November.
"The gospel industry has taken central stage," she said, upbeat. "It's no longer a by-the-way thing. Every paper wants to write about it and every radio station wants to be involved. The stone that the builders refused is now the head cornerstone."