Khaya Mthethwa means business. The church business. When we meet, he’s sporting an all-black outfit and round-rimmed glasses and a very serious look.
Now based in Durban, where he has taken over from his father to be the head of the Oasis church, he’s in Johannesburg for a media run to promote "All About Jesus" - the album he’s just put out with his church’s choir, Oasis Worship.
Mthethwa was just a year old when his parents founded the church in their home. He says the music always resonated with him through the years. “At the age of eight, I was always fascinated watching praise and worship,” Mthethwa recalls.
“Our church had moved out of our home maybe four or five years prior to that, so I’d get to church and just sit by the drums. I was so fascinated by the drums. By the time I was 19, I was a worship leader.”
The worship team has changed over the years, but Mthethwa has played his part to shape it. Today, the whole world gets to hear exactly what they are made of on "All About Jesus" by Khaya Mthethwa and Oasis Worship.
I ask Mthethwa what he changed in order to have a universal appeal. “Ab-so-lu-te-ly nothing,” he says emphatically. “If you listen to the album, that’s our praise and worship at church.”
The 12-track album is a mixture of English and Zulu songs that are original or adapted, and as the title suggests, the focus is on Jesus.
“We live in an age where the name of Jesus is a bit of a taboo,” he starts. “People want to talk about spirituality and not attach it to a religious figure. Our church had a slogan two years ago that says: it’s not what God can do for us, but what God can do through us.
“We want our lives to mirror who he could be to other people, and that would mean turning the focus away from us and putting it all on him,” he continues. “That’s why it has to be all about Jesus. That focus is in the music and speaks about who He is to us, what He has planned for us, and we believe that will raise hope for you to turn your eyes from whatever situation you’re in and refocus.”
There is also a distinct light, feminine feel to the backing vocals on pretty much the whole album, and there isn’t a focus on baritones or deep vocals.
“That’s where my producing ear and what I hear musically comes in,” he smiles.
“I don’t really like bass. I love the bass as an instrument but not as a harmony. When you listen to our sound, there is something angelic and beautiful about a woman’s voice. Music is frequency, and that frequency of a woman’s voice pierces cluttered areas of our lives more than a man’s voice would.”
The sound is definitely ethereal, even on a song like Atmosphere, which features American gospel star, Vashawn Mitchell.
“We’ve been friends with Vashawn Mitchell for a while now,” Mthethwa tells me. “The whole thing was a blessing really.
“I told him I was recording my latest album and he wished me well. "Atmosphere" was one of the songs that we’d already recorded, and everything was done. One of the girls in the worship team was leading it.
“I hate being that guy who seems too forward just because I know you,” he continues. “We had a conversation with Vashawn and I said: ‘Yo, dude, I’ve been really scared about asking you this, but there’s a track that, if you were to jump on it, it would be explosive.’ I toured with him when he was in South Africa, and he said he’d heard me sing that song on tour and said: ‘Ever since I heard you sing that song, I have always wanted to sing this song.’ Our paths just crossed so amazingly. I sent him the stems, and he recorded his parts in two days.”
Mthethwa has had a very busy life in the limelight. He came into public consciousness when he was the first black winner of the Idols TV competition. I ask what he learned from that competition that he implements today.
“Maximising opportunity is the golden rule of Idols,” he explains. “The most prepared person who knows who they are will go far. The second thing I implement is the issue of time keeping and taking what you do seriously. Lastly, Idols is all about giving someone else an opportunity - there’s a winner every year. Our greatness will be measured by how great the people around us are (because of us).”
Idols heaped a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. But then more responsibility came when he took over the family church from his father.
The senior pastor says: “I grew up in a pastor’s family. I’ve seen the struggles and different highs and lows that my father had to face on a day to day basis, so it’s not something I’d run to. But, it’s something I consider a privilege now that I’m doing it, and I thank God that my purpose is aligned with helping people.
“About 75% of our church demographic is under the age of 30. Maybe 20% is between the ages of 30 and 45. I am the mirror of what our organisation is. When my dad handed over the ministry to us, it was about the next generation,” he says. “So the music must align, how we dress, our brand, who we are on social media must align and make sense.”
Khaya Mthethwa and Oasis Worship’s "All About Jesus" is in stores and online platforms now