/ 24 March 2016

The gospel according to Rebecca Malope

Rebecca Malope: Still smiling after all these years as the gospel queen.
Rebecca Malope: Still smiling after all these years as the gospel queen.

In her 30th year in music, superstar Rebecca Malope is still the undefeated champion of South African gospel music.

With more than 36 albums under her belt she is an Easter, Christmas and everyday mainstay in people’s homes, churches and stages all around the world.

Known for her signature “Praise Gaaad” smile and disposition, Malope, whose real name is Batso-gile Malope, is more than just another gospel artist. She has outlived and outperformed not only her former peers Brenda Fassie, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Mercy Pakela, she also continues to outsell the best of the pop and rock genres in South Africa.

And the 47-year-old has honorary doctorates from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of California for her contribution to music.

Not bad for someone whose first album was rejected by a record label because music producers refused to gamble on her fresh gospel sound in 1986. Today she hosts the SABC2 TV show Gospel Time and is a judge on Mzansi Magic’s Sunday singing competition Clash of the Choirs.

It’s no secret that Malope’s early years were full of trauma, a personal history she says influences the type of songs she writes. Chief among those childhood traumas is the day her father threw her mother into a river full of crocodiles in Mpumalanga. After her mother disappeared and fleeing her father, the young Malope rummaged in dustbins for food.

As an 11-year-old, she picked leaves on a tobacco farm owned by an abusive man. She only learned to read at the age of 19, when her star was beginning to rise.

Her big break came after she won the title of best vocalist in the music talent search competition, Shell Road to Fame in 1986.

Malope’s music, like her imperfect life, has always been candid about struggle. This moves her fans, who relate to the hardship, to buy her work which has consistently teetered on platinum status.

In the 1990s, Malope habitually wore oversized dresses and her signature German haircut. Today she is elegant in a pink lace and satin suit with matching nude high heels and handbag.

On her way up the stairs to a restaurant in Kyalami, north of Johannesburg, where her interview with the Mail & Guardian is to take place, Malope is stopped by a fan.

Gospel singer Rebecca Malope. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

What did the lady down the stairs say to you?
The woman told me she is a fan. She said she has been listening to my music for years. I have fans like that who come up to me all the time – black and white – who say my music healed them.

I get stopped often. So when I go shopping I put on my cap and jeans and takkies and my husband’s big T-shirts, so that fans won’t spot me and I don’t talk in the shops because, if I speak, then people recognise my voice.

I love it when people impersonate me. It means they like my work. Some children even say to their mothers, “Look there is hallelujah, hallelujah.” When I overhear people saying Shayani Izandla I just look back and laugh.

Fans often share their problems with me and I sometimes give them advice. There was this one woman who said God sent her to me in order for me to change her into Mother Teresa. So I asked her, “How do I change you, Mama?”, and then she brought a big photo of a white nun who she called Mother Teresa. So I was expected to change this black Xhosa woman into a white woman and I didn’t know what to say to her, so I just told her I’d be back and then I ran away because I’m not God. But I think she was not mentally stable.

The craziest fan once accused me of abandoning a child. Two years ago a 37-year-old guy said he had been looking for me for a while as he is my child – the child I supposedly left in Polokwane with his granny, when I moved to Jo’burg. At first I thought he was joking, but he began stalking me and being rude over the phone, saying that I go around abandoning children – and that is crazy. He ended up saying he would talk to the police and would go to the SABC1 show Khumbul’ekhaya. Now, if this person’s claims have validity, it means I gave birth him when I was eight years old. I mean really. People are crazy, but you get used to it.

I was born two months premature. My mother was badly beaten by my father while she was pregnant with me. I was affected by the beating and the umbilical cord had a scar, which is why I ended up very ill with tetanus, which causes muscular spasms. I only started walking at the age of eight.

Twenty years ago, there were no gospel concerts. I was the only gospel artist and [my style of music] was mixed with all other genres; people loved me like that. I would get on stage with my gospel music and people would cry. After that Brenda Fassie would come back on stage and say “Brenda Fassie is going to take you higher.” It was beautiful.

Now it’s different. People don’t attend concerts that much anymore and maybe it’s because they’ve been disappointed by artists who lip sync their music. Why would I pay to watch you lip sync if I have the same CD at home?

Back in the day I was the only big gospel artist. I was the star. I was recognised all over. When people spoke of “the gospel singer” they were speaking of me. So the spotlight was on me. There was some pressure. Sometimes you feel like you are not yourself. Sometimes you feel restricted because you can’t go here or there, but that is part of being famous.

Gospel music is big all over the world. There is no genre that is bigger than gospel. If you go to Malawi or Congo, you’ll find another Rebecca Malope.

When I am on stage something takes over. I become that excited little girl again, who is happy to see people singing and jumping, saying “Oh, they love me,” and at least someone loves me. That child in me comes out and the stage for me is a very nice playground that heals my heart while praising God.

I haven’t fully pursued acting. People think I’m joking when I say I love acting. They don’t take me seriously. When I tell them I want to act they say “Wooo mam’Rebecca really?” They also think I should play the role of a pastor’s wife and I tell them, “No I can’t act like a mam’fundisi. I can act like that girl from ekasi as well – there is nothing wrong with that.” I love acting, but music is my first love.

Hamba Juba is one of my favourite music videos in which I performed because it is very intense.

I’m reading Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do! by Robert H Schuller.

I’m currently listening to the work of American gospel singer Shirley Caesar and KwaZulu-Natal singer Ntokozo Mbambo. I also listen to soul music and soft jazz.

I have kept the same hairstyle over the years. Nothing else suits me. This is the only hairstyle I feel better in. My hairstyle is very easy to maintain and I just want it to look as natural as possible.

I love shoes over handbags. I only recently started buying handbags because my daughter told me I couldn’t carry my belongings in my hand. I was embarrassing her.

I’m not a flashy person, even on social media. I’m not a fan of that kind of lifestyle where I have to show off my new bag or new suit on Instagram. How many people can afford those things? The same people that buy your music can’t afford what you are showing them. That is why people get angry and think we have lots of money and sometimes you find that people who are showing off these things don’t even have money. They live from hand to mouth. So don’t show off.

I don’t listen to hip-hop. I don’t understand it. I take it as though it’s music for younger people. I’m not a fan. But I don’t mind my daughter playing Cassper Nyovest, who lives in the same estate as me.

I’m a very good cook. I enjoy cooking mogodu, chicken feet and spinach and mopane worms – I don’t like fancy food. I watch TV. I enjoy watching comedy shows, and I like writing dramas. I’m currently writing my autobiography. A friend of mine taught me how to write so since then I never stopped writing.

The last people to text me were my daughter and son. I have three kids and two grandchildren. [Malope is raising her sister’s children.] I don’t have friends unfortunately. My friends are my family because I believe those are the safest friends. I never had friends when I was growing up. I was always a loner. I only have two friends who are all grown up now and who live in Nelspruit. We are still friends till today.

I don’t remember the last time I spent Easter at home with my family.

To me God is the word and the word is God. God is that voice you hear in your sleep.

I would say to an 11-year-old Rebecca that it was okay then to be angry and wild and still focused on pursuing this music career. Don’t ever regret that you worked on a tobacco farm because God saw you through.

What worries me now is the release of my book, which is coming out later this year. I don’t have a title for it yet.