Music from the African Continent to the World and Back

Jean Ngoya Kidula

Jean Ngoya Kidula

This posting from the May 2018 issue of Liturgy dealing with “Pentecostal Worship,” guest-edited by Tanya Riches and L. Edward Phillips, examines the influence of African music in the worship of North American congregations. The following is from Jean Ngoya Kidula’s essay describing the lively musical interchange between continents and theological perspectives. –– Melinda Quivik


Since the late 1950s, Christian immigrants from Africa to the North and West have participated in the church life of their host countries in a variety of ways. Their music, however, has usually been relegated to the fringes rather than being adopted into the mainstream repertoire of public congregational services. For example, when I first arrived in the United States in the early 1980s, there were hardly any African pieces used in congregational worship except for a few songs included in denominational hymnals. I was usually asked to teach African songs to children, relegating the songs to an exotic curiosity for children, with little textual, musical, or theological depth. Unless they were translated into English, they made little sense to the audiences. By that time, beyond the fare of gospel songs and hymns in Africa, recordings by groups such as the Maranatha singers legitimized a simple song with few lyrics as part of the worship package of the charismatic and Jesus movements that gained international traction during the late 1960s. Such repertoire, together with spirit songs with an African urban flavor in African languages, were the standard fare of African Independent church movements that were born in these renewal efforts. By the mid-1980s, African musicians covered both Western and African songs to ignite a Christian music industry on the continent. As the industry expanded, recording artists and worship leaders were invited to perform overseas by their compatriots living in the diaspora. By the end of the 1980s, these national musicians had made international footprints, but mainly with their countrymen.

From the 1990s, growing numbers of immigrant Africans attended mainstream American churches, but also met for fellowship, prayer meetings, services, or social events hosted by visiting African pastors. Living in Los Angeles at that time, I was often asked to help lead the musical portions of these gatherings, or “mission Sundays,” at mainstream American churches with African congregants. Usually the makeup of the participants at gatherings was nationally or ethnically based (e.g., Kenyan, Yoruba, etc.) Some fellowships were attached to churches, while others were independent groups outside the regular mainstream church services. The musics at African gatherings ascribed to both what occurred on the continent as well as practices in the United States.

Before the World Wide Web gained momentum, churches on the continent looked to Africans in the diaspora to keep them abreast with global theological as well as musical preferences and innovations. Such gatekeeping impacted the rate and type of response on both sides of the dialogue. By the turn of the century, the Internet had enabled such a fast exchange that congregants on the continent not only accessed Western ideas almost in real time, there was also immediate feedback. . . .

Today, the Internet continues to provide unprecedented visibility for African Christian music, its performers (congregations and recording artists), and its leaders (song and worship leaders, church ministers, industrial innovators). These musics and musicians complement, enhance, and differ from historical and contemporary Western mission repertoire. What has now emerged is an incorporation of this repertoire into the worshiping and business life of non–African-led churches outside the continent.

Kidula’s full essay in Liturgy 33, no. 3 is available by personal subscription and through many libraries.

Jean Ngoya Kidula is professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Georgia, Athens, and author of Music in Kenyan Christianity (Indiana Univ. Press, 2013).

Jean Ngoya Kidula, “A Slice of Home: African Music in North American Churches,” Liturgy 33, no. 3 (2018): 46-53

David Turnbloom