Rebecca Malope: All Hail the African Queen of Gospel Music
Her hands clasped together, she walks at a brisk pace to the dais at the Presidential guest house in Pretoria, South Africa. She’s wearing a classic black bodysuit, tucked in a high-waisted red pleated skirt. She’s rocking her signature ‘german’ haircut and on her feet are black heeled pointed-toe pumps. As she elbows President Cyril Ramaphosa, her eyes crinkle at the edges, revealing the smile beneath her mask. Then she turns left and listens:
“For her distinguished contribution to South African music, with her unique voice bringing joy and comfort to many through meaningful gospel music….”
As the crowd applauds, the head of state places a medallion around her neck and hands her the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver—the highest award given to South African citizens who have excelled in the arts, culture and literature. Excitedly, she raises a clenched fist to the air and dances back to her seat, raising a ‘hallelujah’ before she sits down.
This was the African Queen of gospel music, Dr. Rebecca Malope, during her recent award ceremony on November 18th. Barely two months after receiving the Gospel Lifetime Achievement Award by Nigerian magazine, Clima.
Batsogile Lovederia Malope, popularly known as Rebecca Malope, has been in the industry for 32 years. With 36 albums under her crown, and selling over 10 million copies worldwide, she is one of the best-selling christian artists of all time. Her first ten gospel albums went gold, and the last six were platinum. She is the soundtrack to many church services, the tune on every family radio, and her music, the anthem for special occasions on stages around the world.
At a grocery store aisle you’ll hear her sing “Look at me, oh Lord and answer my prayers, restore my strength, don′t let me die,” in the cab she will remind you, “my mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy, ngibong’ ujesu ngalamandla.” But most of her record-breaking songs are in Zulu language, including the famous “Ngibe Muhle Nam,” “Uthando lwami,” and “Ukuzenza.”
President @CyrilRamaphosa bestows the Order of IKHAMANGA in Silver to Ms Rebecca Malope at the Sefako M Makgatho Presidential Guesthouse in Tshwane. #NationalOrderspic.twitter.com/8xgkcRzuhZ
— Presidency | South Africa ud83cuddffud83cudde6 (@Presidency | South Africa ud83cuddffud83cudde6)
Taking on the crown
The queen’s reign started in 1984, when at 16, she and her sister Cynthia ran away from home. The next year, she entered the Shell Road To Fame television contest with her band, but they were disqualified. Two years later, she tried again as a solo artist and won the title of best vocalist in 1987. Rebecca released her pop debut album, Sthembele Kuwe, which did not do well, followed by her second album, Woza lovely, in 1989. Her next album in the same year, Thank You Very Much, caught her transitioning to gospel,with the album divided between disco beats and pop-gospel songs. Both achieved platinum certification.
In 1990, she released her fourth full-length, Buyani, which she dedicated to Nelson Mandela during his discharge from Robben Island Prison. The album achieved double-platinum status. Since then, the queen has grown from one glory to another.
The gospel icon enjoys great recognition not only in South Africa, but across the continent as well as globally. She was the first Black artist and woman to perform at the State theater in Pretoria after the banning of apartheid, and the first South African to have a song — “Uthando lwami” — included in the American Christian Churches hymnbook. She has performed in over 20 countries worldwide and has received two honorary doctorates for her contribution to music. Mam Rebecca also sang at Nelson Mandela’s Presidential inauguration in 1994.
At 53, she is undoubtedly South Africa’s greatest living gospel legend. A contemporary of Brenda Fassie and Yvonne Chaka Chaka, the older generation remembers her for being the only gospel artist of their time, and the younger generation says she speaks their language. This especially after her stint as a judge on Mzansi Magic’s Sunday singing competition Clash of the Choirs.
“Being on Clash of the Choirs was one of my greatest experiences because I dealt with the youth, more than anything they taught me about myself and vice versa,” she said.
With over one million followers on Facebook, over 100k on Instagram, and 116k followers on Twitter, her bubbly internet presence has young people affectionately referring to her as ‘Sis Ribs.’
The kingdom suffers violence
Before the throne and crown, there was the gloom and doom, and her early years were full of trauma. Born and raised in Lekazi in Mpumalanga, she has revealed in previous interviews that her family did not always have money to buy food and had to eat rodents. “We were so poor that we had to eat rats in order to survive.”
The poverty resulted in her leaving school in grade one. To help the financial situation at home, she began working on a tobacco farm at the age of 11. Her father’s abusive nature compounded this suffering. She recalled her mother fleeing after daily beatings from her dad. Soon after, she and her sister would follow suit and run away too. Upon releasing her first album, she sought her mom.
But like the biblical church of Smyrna, after she had suffered tribulation, she received a crown. Today, her performances are an act that very few singers can match. When she comes on stage, energy radiates through her, buzzing through the crowd as her vocals and dance moves thrill the audience. In 1990, Rebecca won the OKTV Award of Best South African Female Artist. In 1993 and 1994, she won the Best Local Established Artist at the Coca Cola Full Blast Music Award. She won Best Contemporary Gospel Album at the first South African Music Awards in 1995, and in the same year, released Shwele Baba, which broke previous records in the country’s history. It sold over 100,000 units during its first week, making it the fastest selling record in South Africa.
However, In the same year, her father John, brother Jonathan, and her sister Cynthia all died. Her response to this tragedy came from her 1997 album, Angingedwa, I am not alone. It sold double-platinum. She would then tour the UK, Middle East, and other African countries.
From 2004, she’s been hosting a television show on SABC-2 called Gospel Time.
Long live the Queen!
In October 2019, Rebecca launched her 36th album, Lord You Are Good, and announced she would be retiring. This news came as a shock to fans because many thought her reign was to be everlasting. But in a later interview, she clarified she was retiring from making full albums, not music entirely.
“It’s not really the last time I will release music, but it will be the last time I release a full album. I just want to release one or two songs on streaming platforms when God inspires me with a message.”
And true to her word, the queen collaborated on a new single with Benjamin Dube, “Zilungiseleni,” which was released November 20th.
Mam Rebecca now spends most of her time with her children and grandchildren, as she handwrites her life story. She is also working on a stage musical about her life.