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Gospel, Good As Gold

Lindelani Mkhize’s career in the music industry started in the church pews; was pursued secretly at university and now it’s gathering him gold disks.

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As the founder, creative director and on-stage conductor of super gospel group Joyous Celebration, Lindelani Mkhize is as synonymous with the music industry as the microphone itself. The group is the biggest and longest surviving music entity in South Africa. Each year it creates a bidding war with giant corporate sponsors, sells out seven thousand-seater arenas in South Africa and it has a footprint across the continent.

“The idea to create Joyous Celebration came to me after the first South African democratic election in 1994. I felt like we needed a music entity that was going to celebrate all the good and positive things we were going through as a country. I also wanted to create a musical entity that would help train and nurture young gospel artists while making gospel music contemporary,” says Mkhize.

His passion for gospel music, and all things church-based, started early in life. Mkhize tells a story of accompanying his staunchly Christian mother to church choir practice and beating out the choir’s melodies on the pews.

“After a while of going with my mother to her choir practices, some members noticed me and decided I had a musicality in me and that the choir should give me a spot, so they did.”

Growing up in the choir, Mkhize knew that music was what he wanted to do with his life, but his family was not supportive of him pursuing it as a viable career option.

“I found myself at a Technikon in KwaZulu-Natal after matric, enrolled in a national diploma in Chemical Engineering. Needless to say, I was very unhappy. I came to a point where I decided to change the course I was studying, and decided to keep this fact from the family. The shock on my mother’s face when she found out at my graduation that I had changed courses was priceless to say the least!”

“Because I had always been really good at Mathematics as well, I got a job as a music and maths teacher at one of the local high schools in Umlazi. I got very involved in the local township music scene, and I ended up organizing music groups and putting musical acts together,” says Mkhize.

Enter famed music producer Chicco Twala.

“I got introduced to Chicco through my efforts within the township music scene. To date, I can safely declare that he is the one who taught me all the finer details of the music industry. The next step I took was to leave the school where I was teaching and work with Chicco to set up his own record label, where I was to spend the next three years,” he says.

It was not long before record company PolyGram spotted and poached him from under Twala’s wing.

“I did everything from marketing, talent scouting, producing to sales and promotions. This is when the Kwaito music genre started really emerging, and I discovered and worked with the biggest names in that genre. Acts such as Oskido, M’du Masilela and Joe Nina were all under my leadership, and together we created this youth music culture that literally swept the country off its feet,” says Mkhize.

Because Kwaito had raised PolyGram’s market share considerably, Sony International started engaging Mkhize in talks to start the entertainment giant’s domestic operations.

“It was in the mid-1990s that I joined Sony as a general manager, with the purpose of heading up a brand new South African division. I felt that I had set trends within the youth music culture and that it was now time to bite into a new challenge,” he says.

At that point, Jazz music had been written off as an extremely niche market with slim to no chance of ever selling record-worthy numbers. Mkhize came in to considerably change this.

“I immediately took it upon myself to start what I call the ‘Jazz Revival’. I signed Sibongile Khumalo and Hugh Masekela. And both these artists sold in excess of 300,000 copies each, with Masekela’s first album, after having returned from exile, going platinum six times—a feat that had never been heard of in these parts before.”

AfroPop was next on Mkhize’s sights. Here, he was to discover crack bands such as Mafikizolo, Bongo Maffin and Malaika—music groups that were to also surpass the 300,000 sales mark—to usher in another youth cultural movement. Soon Mkhize felt that he had achieved all he had hoped to, and the need to return to his gospel roots nagged him.

“Sony had grown from 0 to about 23% of the local music market share. I needed new challenges, so I focused my energy into growing Joyous Celebration, as well [as] starting my Lindelani Mkhize Entertainment (LME) company, which specializes in using music as a marketing tool for big brands and corporates.

“Through LME we have married big brands with musicians, brought big name international artists to the country—gospel singers such as CeCe and BeBe Winans and Yolanda Adams to name but a few. LME has also hosted large-scale events such as the Durban Jazz Festival, as well as the SABC’s South African Traditional Music Awards (SATMA) which President Jacob Zuma graces each year,” says Mkhize.

Once again, a top record company wanted to lure Mkhize into discussions. This time it was 2010 and PolyGram, now trading as Universal Music Group, wanted him to join their team as group executive director in charge of artists and repertoire (A&R).

“In all honesty, one of the main reasons I agreed to come back from doing my own thing, was that I had noticed for a while that a lot of artists had lost faith in big record companies. Many musicians were signed to their own smaller entities, because of a fear that they would be nothing but a catalogue number at a big record label; I decided my next challenge would be to restore musicians’ faith in major music establishments. Right now, two years back at Universal Music, I can safely say that my team and I have managed to make Universal Music the record company of choice for any artist,” he says.

With three lifetime achievement award nods from every notable awards body in the South African music and entertainment industry, at the age of 46, Mkhize’s hunger for the next big win, and passion for music, has cemented him as a music pioneer.

Mkhize is currently in studio producing Grammy-award winning Soweto Gospel Choir’s upcoming album. His colleague, managing director of Universal Music, Randall Abrahams describes Mkhize’s way with music as “awe-inspiring”. The next thing Mkhize hopes to get right, is the juggling act between all the professional hats he wears and his family of a wife and four kids.

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