LONG READ: Nathaniel Bassey is saying something with the #HallelujahChallenge, and we should all be listening

by Wilfred Okiche

Before June 2017, Nathaniel Bassey was a household name, but one mostly mentioned in Christian homes and gospel music circles. As a gospel singer and minister, Nathaniel Bassey is one of the biggest names in the business. He is a regular, influential presence in the church space, especially in the Pentecostal block where he ministers at power packed Sunday services, as well as every major music concert. The Experience, The Invasion, The Redeemed Christian Church of God’s Joshuaville Night of Worship, name it and Bassey has played it.

As a gospel music recording artiste, Nathaniel Bassey has released four studio albums to varying levels of success and contributed some of the most recognisable choruses to Nigerian gospel music canon.

The classic Nathaniel Bassey tune has the huge, anthemic chorus going for it; written simply, instantly recognisable and endlessly replayable. Bassey’s discography is littered with them but it was with last year’s Onise Iyanu featuring American gospel act Micah Stampley and the Glorious Fountain Choir that Bassey perfected his act.

A six-minute tour de force of glorious worship, it is almost impossible whatever your religious inclination, to listen to Onise Iyanu and remain unswayed. Yoruba speak for God of awesome wonders, the song was recorded live in Warri, Delta state at one of Bassey’s ministering engagements.

Onise Iyanu’s lyrics speak clearly and directly to man’s need to recognise a higher power. It builds to a powerful crescendo about four minutes in where Bassey refrains the title continuously like a man possessed, with Stampley and the backing choir racing to catch up with him.

Released on his 2016 album This God is Too Good, Onise Iyanu grew organically and spread like wildfire, outlasting even the biggest pop songs of the year. There is no official video to promote the single but it has defied logic, easily becoming the biggest song of Bassey’s career. A lyric video posted by Songs of Solomon ministries on Youtube has been viewed over a million times.

Hallelujah Day

In 2017, Bassey may have put out his fourth studio album, Revival Flames containing similarly crafted praise and worship songs, including the stadium arena chant of single Hallelujah Eh but his name is on everyone’s lips for a different kind of Hallelujah.

Nathaniel Bassey had this bright idea of uniting fellows in worship. Simple, intimate, yet possessing the capacity to reach out to multitudes, it is a wonder it hasn’t been done before. Beginning on the first of June, he took to social media to unveil the #OneHourMidnightHallelujahChallenge, an online fellowship that has swept the entire country, even unspooling across distant foreign territories. It is a modest concept what Bassey has come up with, yet ingenious in its ability to connect with the zeitgeist.

Building from the muted success of his previous online campaign, #OneHourTongueChallenge, created in April to inspire Christians into speaking in tongues more regularly, Bassey conceived of a one-hour online praise and worship challenge session starting at midnight every day and projected to run for the entire month.

Inspired by the Biblical story of Paul and Silas, apostles who sang their way to freedom from chains, the challenge begins live on Instagram, and on Facebook too, with Bassey praying and ministering. Participants from around the world and across various denominations join in as they post their contributions, usually but not always as a follow up to Bassey’s lead.

Because the marker for social media success is the analytics, the numbers are the first place to look out for when investigating the true impact of a phenomenon of this nature. Starting auspiciously, the numbers began to pile up as more and more people joined in as the days went by. Word of mouth intensified and like a bomb, the resultant effect has been explosive.

By day 10, well over 30,000 people had checked in for the hot new flavour of the month on Instagram. Five days later, that number had doubled while the Facebook live feed was doing over 50,000 persons. Projections are going on to call a 1million total viewership by the end of the thirty days.

The popularity moved over to other social media platforms, like Twitter, normally considered too cool for these kinds of religious incursions. Hashtags like #Olowogbogboro trended for days, making the challenge the number one most talked about topic nationwide. Whether it was cynics unimpressed about the hopelessness of the cause, staunch believers who swore by Bassey’s calling while carrying along feverishly, or intermediates, amused by the antics of both extremes, everyone was talking about the #HallelujahChallenge.

Bassey encourages and regularly reposts testimonies from participants who have waited unto God for some thing or the other, only to have their requests granted after participating in the challenge. There have been testimonies of pregnancies, promotions at work and retrieval of lost items. Even the arrest by the Special Intelligence Response Team, of Chukwudubem Onwuamadike a.k.a Evans, allegedly Nigeria’s most notorious kidnapper was spun as a fall out of the #HallelujahChallenge after some persons prayed along those lines.

Celebrity Hangout

Turning up as regulars at Bassey’s midnightly challenge are members of his core constituency who have come out in full force to support this online ministry. Pastors Biodun Fatoyinbo (COZA) and Nike Adeyemi (Daystar) have publicly showed support. Music colleagues Glowreeyah, Mairo Ese and Nikki Laoye are constant participants.

If the Christian community is only expectedly supporting one of their own, it is the buy in from the mainstream that has been truly wondrous. Want to catch a glimpse of the biggest celebrities worshipping on a single platform at the same time? Look no further than Bassey’s virtual community where Don Jazzy, Tiwa Savage, D’banj, Omoni Oboli, Rita Dominic are just some of the A-listers who have stopped by.

As pop culture phenomenon, the #HallelujahChallenge has been truly striking and folks who still find it difficult to connect with on a spiritual level can at least appreciate the sheer cultural impact. Nothing has connected with Nigerians quite on this level since TY Bello discovered a local breadseller last year and turned her into a major media sensation.

But why this? And why now?

Nathaniel Bassey told CNN, “Against the backdrop of the challenges in the world today especially in our nation, with the scourge of terrorism and the recession … it has brought a sense of hope and respite. It is a reflection of the desire and hunger for answers and for hope”

The challenge has also brought with it dissenters and every day on social media there is a fresh argument as to its actual usefulness in the grand scheme of things. Media entrepreneur Joy Isi Bewaji wrote a highly critical article on the utility of the medium (and of organised religion generally,) that was widely shared on Facebook, and debated just as passionately.

Bewaji argued, “You cannot pray Nigeria to greatness… It is not up to God to save the rot in our educational institutions or fix the drainage on our roads. It’s up to us. And we can’t do any of that on our knees.’’

Supporters of the movement choose to see it another way, as a simple, personal expression of worship and not necessarily a national intervention. Sometimes the clashes have descended into bilious brawls, with each side sinking as low as the other. Bassey has been unperturbed, energising his flock with messages like, ‘’Nor be today… They’d always thought we were out of our minds. But then, that’s what Hallelujah means!’’

Nathaniel don blow

However the rest of the challenge plays out, Nathaniel Bassey has already made a worldwide splash with this initiative. Technology has gifted the world with a lot of unusual, out of the box occurrences but no one could have guessed even a month ago that an unassuming minister of the Word would be breaking records and beating techies at their own game.

Tech watchers have tagged Bassey’s methods a growth hack, albeit, a hugely impressive one whose scale has been unprecedented in these parts. Restricting the entire movement to that one element is however, merely an arrogant refusal to genuinely grapple with the entirety of Bassey’s unusual phenomenon.

Whatever the case, the challenge has been great for Bassey’s online following. His Instagram followers count currently stands at over 440,000, a massive leap from the previous 20,000 at the end of May. Over 40,000 people follow him on Twitter and the Nathaniel Bassey official Facebook page has well over 100,00 followers.

This kind of success at a time content providers from Nollywood to the ever increasing bank run online media side hustles have been struggling to figure out how to engage just a fraction of the 97million Nigerians with internet access. No one in Nigeria is presently doing the numbers that Bassey is doing and the following reasons could explain why.

Nigeria is a secular country but only in name. Religion remains at the core of every single thing that the average Nigerian does and whoever labelled religion the opium of the masses must have lived in these parts. It explains why apart from telecommunications, churches are virtually the only business making a killing presently.

Bassey’s challenge appeals directly to this core essence of Nigerians. No problem on earth is too big to defy prayer. Prayer may have failed to lift the country beyond the third world these past fifty years but who knows how much worse things could have gotten if not for these same prayers? Why not pray some more?

With the economy mired in a recession, the president away on an indefinite sick leave, corruption thriving practically unchecked and a desperate lack of big thinkers at the helm of affairs, it isn’t out of the way to hope for some divine intervention for both minutiae and major concerns.

Another reason the #HallelujahChallenge works so well is because Nathaniel Bassey has earned the moral bonafides to lead the country on such a mission. Every new day comes with a report of yet another man of God fallen from grace but Bassey has remained unsullied without the slightest hint of scandal attached to his name.

His chose platform,-mobile,- has been a factor also as people can tune in from the comfort of their mobile phones. With more and more people accessing the internet by way of mobile, Bassey merely tapped into a ready market. His music bound ministrations and the confrontational context of his requests (with God,) speak directly to an audience hungry for a change.

Nathaniel Bassey didn’t just happen on the challenge. Like many things in life, he had tried it out earlier with the language challenge and he was able to focus group on what Nigerians could respond to. Music met religion in this case and Bassey harnessed the power of the internet to connect human beings to a common event.

The convenience of home viewing and the timing made it imperative that regular worshippers would key in, but beyond that, people who originally wouldn’t bother have been arranging their schedules to keep up with the #HallelujahChallenge.

Authentic Jesus Lover

To watch Nathaniel Bassey minister live is to be moved by the spirit. Every appearance is the same, yet different. He enters, armed with his trumpet, says a few words and then starts to sing. His songs; soulful and plaintive, connect jazz to gospel, and cut directly to the soul of his audience and have a way of appealing to as many people as possible.

As the son of the Joshua Bassey, a former minister with the Apostolic Church Bashua Assembly, Bassey was grounded in the music of the church. As he aged, he strayed into secular sounds and discovered jazz music with a vengeance, embracing vibes from greats like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker.

He joined Spectrum 4, a jazz quartet in Lagos before he was invited by the late Elder Steve Rhodes to join the Steve Rhodes Orchestra as lead trumpeter. After two years with the band, Bassey moved on to solo pursuits and worked with artistes like Cobbhams Asuquo, Tee Mac and Yinka Davies.

He abandoned a promising career in jazz/secular music to be mentored in the word by the late Eskor Mfon, then the Pastor of the influential Redeemed Christian Church Of God, City Of David Parish. His music ministry took hold here and Bassey hasn’t looked back ever since.

‘Ifreke Inyang, a sports journalist and writer with Daily Post Nigeria, describes his cousin, Nathaniel as ‘’heavily anointed.’’ He adds, ‘’ If Sammie Okposo elevated contemporary gospel music in Nigeria, then Nathaniel Bassey introduced an intense brand of worship. He effortlessly commands the very presence of God into a room, with his deep lyrics and stunning instrumentation.’’

A graduate of Politics and International Relations from the University of London, Bassey’s initial aspirations were a lot vainer. He recalls in an interview with Vanguard newspaper, ‘’Initially my ambition was to be the best trumpeter in the world, have girls around me, travel abroad, have fun, enjoy myself and go to Berklee College of Music. Everything in me was just all about music.’’

Inyang remembers those younger days somewhat differently, ‘’Nathaniel has always been reserved, even when the call on his life wasn’t visible to all. Which is why I laugh at people who think he craves attention now.’’

Born to Worship

Solicited or not, Nathaniel Bassey is getting loads of attention right now. It remains to be seen what he does next with this level of influence. His music ministry is set to soar higher as he embraces engagements from around the world.

Maybe it does not matter what he does next anyway, and maybe arguments as to the empirical effectiveness of the movement are self-defeating. Those who will give testimonies after the challenge will do so anyway and those who refuse to join will probably not see the need by the end of the exercise. Nathaniel Bassey’s achievement has successfully blurred the line between church and pop culture and for this alone, deserves to be recorded for posterity. It may well be the template for future social engagements.

Someone say Hallelujah.

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