JUST FOR KICKS: Kirk Whalum took time out to try to learn the moves of traditional Zulu dancing from the Mandeni Umfula Ongashi dancers last week when he was at Durbans King Shaka International Airport. Photo: Puree Devjee

IN AN age when gospel music is often watered down by commercialism and reduced to a studio or stage performance, it’s refreshing to come across an artist who is sincere in leading the life of a Christian.

Not that this is meant to be a judgement of anyone, but we often hear of drug and alcohol scandals, extramarital affairs and the like involving gospel artists at home and abroad.

Internationally renowned gospel and jazz artist Kirk Whalum was in KwaZulu-Natal last week to help launch the Awesome iLembe Festival – aimed at bringing the arts to rural communities.

In preparing for our interview and reading up about Whalum, I was taken aback by what I learnt.

While most music-lovers know him to be a multi-award-winning and highly acclaimed jazz fundi, Whalum is a humble servant at heart.

An ordained minister, he has an MA in Religion.

Whalum also spends much of his time performing in nursing homes, schools and so on.

This leads to the question: why does a celebrity of his stature place so much value on studying the Bible and leading a life of service?

Asked this, he said: “It’s a dual reality we have. One is that we are accepted by God and that is not just a Christian, but a person who is created is accepted by his or her creator.

“And God went through a lot of trouble to make sure we knew that, through the Saviour, Jesus.

“At the same time we study to show ourselves approved or accepted by Him (God) by virtue of whatever God has put in your heart.

“If it’s writing or if it’s cooking or computer technology or science or law or whatever – we study. Our worship of God is by virtue of the work that we do.

“I tell young musicians, especially gospel musicians because they say ‘Praise the Lord, God put His hand on me and I’m going to just go out there and play’.

“And I say, Well, you know what, your primary worship is in the practise room. That’s where you worship God. Now if by some chance God allows you to go out and play to the masses, well, that’s great too.’

“But the main thing you should do and concern yourself with is that which you can control – because you can’t control if you’re going to go out and play for those thousands of people or on television – but you can control your going into that practise room every day, that’s what you can control.

“And that sacrifice is what honours God.”

Commenting on his work in communities in the US and other parts of the world, Whalum said: “Whoever we are, whatever station we happen to be… that doesn’t negate our responsibility to serve and specifically to serve the marginalised, those who have not been given the same opportunity – and to provide an environment where there are more choices for the next generation.

“Even those who are peers, we work hard to see to it that they have the same things that we have, that’s what we should do.

“That’s what Jesus did… People say, ‘God is going to take us to the next level’. What level is that? That level is the level of serving people like He (Jesus) did.

“That’s what I believe.”

With his decades in the music industry – from being a session player for artists like Al Jarreau, Luther Vandross, Quincy Jones and Whitney Houston, to his mega-hit albums and numerous awards – what advice does Whalum have for young gospel musicians in a sphere that can be overwhelming?

“I’m sure they’ve heard this before, so it wouldn’t be anything new coming from me… but it’s important to spend time with God,” he says.

“At the end of the day, if you succeed sometimes that’s the worst thing that can happen, because then you find yourself in another very difficult environment.

“As they say, success sort of brings out the worst in you in a sense.

“It accentuates who you are – so you should always be working on your character.

“Who are you? And that’s why I think the practise room is such a great place.

“They say character is who you are when no one’s watching. So the idea that we should constantly be trusting in God for wisdom, for insight… that’s important.”