By Joshua Chizoma
Everybody loves Esther Benyeogo. At least everyone who is currently hooked to The Voice Nigeria Season 3.
When she first appeared on our screens, clad in a red top, it was her voice that blew us away. She got three turns from the judges – four, if you take the fact that Yemi Alade’s hand was on her buzzer the whole time into consideration. It was easy to tell that she would be a formidable contender on the show. Over the past couple of weeks, cover after cover, she has confirmed what we knew from the start. Other things have become evident too: how unassuming and graceful she is, and perhaps more significantly, how she wears her faith like a badge of honour.
Esther is not the first believer to compete in a mainstream music talent show, and definitely not the only one competing in The Voice Nigeria at the moment. But Esther is the type who does not drop the Bible before climbing the stage. After every performance, she is quick, when asked, to attribute her success to the Holy Spirit. In some cases, she does not even wait to be asked. On Instagram, her bio reads, “simply devoted to Jesus” and accompanying each of her posts is a message about Christ. The carefully curated song choices – at the moment, tunes devoid of vulgar lyrics or sexual innuendos – as well as the deliberate gentle turning of the spotlight to God at all times, speaks of the deliberateness of one looking to further the gospel.
The novelty that Esther brings to a show of this nature is worthy of consideration. She is not just a young girl professing Christ on a stage where being vocal about religious inclinations is not exactly deemed “cool”, she is also a representation of possibilities. By her words and actions, she is showing that a person can be a powerful singer, an entertainer and a professing Christian at the same time, without one hindering the other. Generally, standards of expectation are not the same for the gospel singer and the average mainstream musician: beyond the fact that the public always expects more from the singing Christian, the requirement of the faith also means that they have to put a lot of thought into their words and actions. Gospel singers regard themselves not just as entertainers, but also as shepherds of souls, held to the lofty ideals of the hallowed vocation that is soul-winning.
When it comes to singing competitions, the balance seems to tilt against self-identifying Christians. For the (expressly identifying) Christian competing in such competitions, there is a paucity of options when it comes to song choices, outfits, and a generally stricter code of conduct. At the same time, the person has to still sing as powerfully as the other contestants, if not much better, to stand a fighting chance.
One way to work around this would be for gospel singers to participate in gospel-focused singing competitions. Coincidentally, Esther had won a gospel talent show competition organized by the Redeemed Christian Church of God in 2017 when she was just 19. However, these competitions are few and far between. Even the ones available do not enjoy sufficient publicity, and hold no tangible financial rewards either. Consider how Esther’s win at the God’s Children Great Talent competition was only amplified when she was on The Voice Nigeria stage, and not the other way around.
Even after winning these talent shows, singers who are particularly vocal about their religious inclinations find that the terms and expectations of their contracts could go against their core values. For instance, gospel singer Mercy Chinwo shot to fame after winning the second season of the Nigerian Idol competition. After the show, she went under the radar for a while, with many questioning the whereabouts of the star they’d come to love. A few years later, the singer revealed that she had received no recording contract from the organizers of the show and was navigating her music career all by herself. Could this “abandonment” have been occasioned by her reluctance to toe the mainstream path?
She would later go on to become a household name in the gospel music scene, even going as far as gracing the stage of the biggest gospel music concert in Africa, The Experience.
It is in recognition of how onerous the path to limelight is for the gospel singer that conservative Christians are usually kind to believers who go into secular music after starting out on a gospel platform, and even much more ecstatic when such singers return to gospel music.
After emerging as the winner at the third season of MTN Project Fame in 2010, Chidinma Ekile, who started out as a gospel singer, went secular. She released hits like 2011’s “Jankolikoko” and 2012’s “Kedike”, and got signed to IllBliss’ Goretti Company, but somehow her career failed to take off. In 2021, she announced her return to gospel with a soulful announcement on Instagram. She has also released faith-based songs like “This Love” and “Jehovah Overdo”.
Esther’s trajectory is refreshing to see. Hopefully, she sticks to her guns and doesn’t trade her core beliefs for mainstream success.