African Music in North American Churches

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


The most-watched video of the song “My God Is Good O,” by Joyous Celebration, features lead singer Uchechukwu Godstime Agu [Uche] taped before a live audience at the Mosaeik Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2009. It was officially released as a live YouTube post later that year, becoming one of the biggest African Christian praise hits to date with over ten million views. Many musicians and congregations have adopted it on the continent––but also beyond. Posting this piece on YouTube exposed the viewing public to the combination of its text, tune, timbre, movement, mood, and of course, instrumentation. The piece, a medley of songs and chants from different regions of Africa, sampled the various lingua francas of several regions, including Pidgin English from Nigeria (Anglophone West Africa), Lingala / Kingwana / Tsiluba from Congo (Central Africa), Kiswahili from Kenya (Eastern Africa), and French. The piece debuted in South Africa, certifying a pan-sub-Saharan-African identification and ownership.

. . . The praises are akin to songs associated with a rousing welcome of a celebrated king or dignitary (in the vein of the hosannas saluting Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem), performed with exuberant action, movement, and abandon. Worship songs were usually slower in tempo with more majestic and awestruck utterances. Events or services frequently began with the praise songs and then moved into worship. . . .

According to their website, Joyous Celebration was conceptualized in 1994 as a studio project to celebrate South Africa’s independence. The founders revived the music that was identified with South Africa’s Christian religious and political heritage but gave it a modern spin in style and tune––essentially revamping the music for a younger audience in tune with their global contemporaries. The performers were drawn from well-known church musicians in the country.

. . . The minimalist lyrics in the exuberant celebration were at the time controversial for some theologians, missionaries, and church leaders, given the propensity for African songs to employ simple text and chord progressions, the prominence of prosperity theology, and the engagement of “worship” or music pastors as a category of church employees responsible for organizing the music or arts for worship.

Uche’s performance, however, is but one medley that opened the door for worship leaders from continental Africa to gain entry onto a larger global music stage. . . .

Studies in Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity on the African continent and in new African-incepted churches around the world have added to the theological and musical interest already generated. Such studies are beginning to challenge the existing patterns of most of the last century, when African Christians imported theology, denominational doctrine and dogma, Bible commentaries, and interpretations of scripture, as well as mediated products associated with modern Christian missionary endeavors. Forced and voluntary movements from Africa into the global North and West in the last fifty years have provided a glimpse of the mosaic of Christian expressions from the African continent, which now has unprecedented accessibility through the Internet. These expressions, particularly musics, sediment Christian thought and behavior on the continent and provide an exegesis of Christian theologies born in African experiences.

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