The gospel singer seeking an audience outside of his fellowship has a dilemma. Does he claim the specifically Christian audience of gospel music, a fan base limited but more loyal than the public? Or does he court the public, a fickle but infinitely larger audience?
It is partly this dilemma that has led to pop artists claiming the ambiguous 'inspirational' genre. Ambiguous, because one could argue that all songs are inspirational. The lusty ones might inspire feverish couplings; the solemn ones might inspire tears; pop might inspire dancing. This ambiguity serves one purpose: it allows both saint and sinner to come together in one playlist.
Nigerian popstars have gone further: Within an album, songs can go from talking near-tantric sex to thanksgiving. 2face mentioned weed in his first album and thanked God as coda. Banky W runs through carnal encounters before a late chant of "have mercy Lord" on R&BW, his third album. The Nigerian pop act is encouraged to try on both a cassock and codpiece.
Somewhere within this is where R&B/pop act Funbi might be placed. He is not a gospel singer but has now released a single in the genre. His manner on the song 'Hallelujah'—which is being sold as a debut single even if a quick online search throws up at least one video of the man singing a half-decade ago—benefits from his semi-renowned crooner persona. It is not a love song; yet he sings about God’s goodness with about the same passion as he serenades a woman on 'Adore Her' alongside the rapper Poe. In the manner of R&B artists, Funbi fashions every syllable on ‘Hallelujah’ into a weapon of mass seduction.
No mention is made of Jesus, but this is a song with lines adopted from the Bible. “This ain’t lucky, no," he says. "Can’t you see the hands of heaven upon me yeah? This ain't lottery. This is 40 days and 40 nights, seek and ye shall find.” There is a structure to these lines, a foreshortened explication of how fidelity to God can bring about success. The song itself is carried on the wings of barely-there drums that retreat further in the verses.
‘Hallelujah’ already seems ready for use in praise and worship sessions in Nigerian churches. Funbi, though, seems to claim the inspirational genre. “My battles inspired this song … I hope it inspires you,” he said in a statement accompanying the song’s release.”
Even so, ‘Hallelujah’ represents a change for Funbi, who you will find on YouTube offering a version of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud’. You will also find him singing a version of Mr Eazi’s ‘Skin Tight’.
Although from different cultures, both songs are sung by Funbi in a way familiar to R&B fans. The songs are backed, in his rendition, by a spare sonic wall of mostly piano and strings, his crooning voice the focus. With ‘Hallelujah’ there is a bit of an about-turn in how he employs a familiar chant in the Yoruba language at the start of the chorus. He has perhaps come to the realisation that local languages and a recognisable if amorphous Nigerian manner are on the ascendancy. Successful non-singing singers like Davido and Wizkid have made lessons cribbed from American R&B acts needless and maybe useless on Nigerian radio.
Indeed, the gospel genre may be the only one in Nigeria in which actual singers still have currency. People learn to play the guitar in church and the genre even has an occasional rock act in Frank Edwards. The deployment of a Yoruba chant in music that appears influenced by Western acts suggests Funbi might have been taking lessons from outside of his fellowship.
Those secular lessons come up in the video. Our man seems to exist in the video as both subject and sex object, with shiny pectorals on show. The camera's eye roams the video’s waterfall and lush vegetation scenery but comes to rest on its beloved – the singer who is dancing in several snazzy outfits. It is a video for a gospel song but there is tacit acknowledgment of the commercial potential of sex appeal. You can almost hear the excuse for this corporeal coverage: it is the temple of God, it deserves its own exposure.
But of course, the song is the thing. Catchy, finely produced and well written with lyrics unabashedly name-dropping God as deliverer, ‘Hallelujah’ will find especial use by the faithful. Should anyone outside of the fellowship come to it—drawn by its sound, message or the singer’s chest—Funbi will count it all joy. Even when pop acts go gospel, they are wooing the world.