Tony Cummings quizzed LIC (Living Is Christ) about their exciting fusion of R&B, hip-hop and African music
Even in the insular world of British gospel music with its unfortunate tendency to organise award ceremonies at the drop of a hat, the announcement on Saturday that London-based LIC had won a prestigious Best Gospel Music award from the Christian Broadcasting Council has caused quite a stir. What is even more ironic is that LIC (which stands for Living Is Christ) have been beavering away with scant publicity since 1994. It's only now with the release this year of their hugely engaging fusion of urban beats, African flavours, hip-hop savvy and the old, old story in the album 'Awesome' that LIC finally seem likely to get the recognition their talent deserves.
LIC consist of Paul C'Roy, Dbass McKigundu and brothers Roger Kyeyune and Ronnie Ziwa. Roger gave Cross Rhythms a potted biography of the group. "We started out as a group called the Gospel Brothers, made up of Dbass and three brothers, Fred, Ronnie and I. We were later joined by Paul Kimuli, a former member of Limit X (the Afro R&B group who went on to have an album through N-Soul) and Sam Kimuli, a very talented musician who produced our first albums, 'Searching' and 'Breakthrough'. We are all originally from Uganda and came to the UK as young boys. We were all attending the same church, Liberty Christian Fellowship (LCF) led by Pastor Lincoln. We still attend that church. Our initial vision was simply to exhort the body of Christ through music and dance. We were known not only for our diverse music style, ranging from R&B to African, but also for our dance routines."
Roger spoke about the breakthrough for LIC, opening for Commissioned and Alvin Slaughter in London concerts in '97 and '98. "That was an amazing experience, to be opening acts for such big names in the gospel music industry. We grew up listening to these guys, they inspired us to do what we do now and here we were being offered the chance to open their concerts in the UK. Personally I felt blessed sharing the stage with powerful men of God who I had looked up to for such a long time and it took me time to take it all in! That was like a milestone in our ministry too, just to show us that God was taking us places and elevating us to another level because we put in a lot of time back then, seeing as we were young and had a lot energy! It was an honour to have served on same stage us two household names like Commissioned and Alvin Slaughter.
"As for the gigs themselves I think we were running on a mixture of adrenalin and the help of the Holy Spirit because if you saw us back stage, you could clearly see the nerves starting to unearth in some of us! I mean on all the gigs we were always the first ones up and here we were, most people in the audience had never heard of us by then I'm sure but as soon as we got on that stage we just did what we do best and sang our hearts out in our native language."
LIC's 'Searching' CD was recorded in 2000. Ronnie vividly remembered the project recorded at Ground Level Studios in Tottenham and produced by Sam Kimuli. "Sam is a huge talent with a classical music background and when this guy plays the keys (piano) you can only sit back and be mesmerised by his gift. Even though the album was released in 2000 we started the project a few years before that and it was something we funded ourselves. Well, the guys didn't - I was still in school finishing my GCSEs then! It was hard work to say the least as most of us were studying. Only Paul and Sam had full time jobs so after their nine to fives we all hit the studio until the early hours of the morning. Half the time the studio equipment played up and we ended up losing some material! Anything bad that could have happened did happen but it was an experience we gained a lot from."
It was three years before LIC were able to record another project. Explained Roger, "'Breakthrough' was recorded at the same studio as 'Searching' and literally all the profits we made from sales of 'Searching' went into producing this album. Again this album was produced by Sam Kimuli and with this album there was a transition in all the guys because we all tried hard to apply the experience we had gained from recording 'Searching' so there was a lot more input in the recording sessions this time around. Two of the then five members of the group were married. Having been at work for over seven hours they would then head to the studio and still have a creative mind. That was not easy. Then of course they would get home after midnight and do it all over again for three months. It was hard. For those of us that were married, we had to be released by our wives to be ministers which was not easy!"
'Searching' and 'Breakthrough' had their moments but it is the 'Awesome' album which has taken the band to the next level. Said Ronnie, "'Awesome' is the best album we have come out with and it also took the shortest time to produce, believe it or not! All the songs we literally learnt in the studio as we were recording them and we worked with yet another amazing talent in the shape of Paul Kim. The experience gained from previous recordings definitely did come in handy. We used our time wisely and not all of us were in the studio at the same time when recording. We tried to apply a smarter way of working seeing as most of us have families now and couldn't be at the studio all the time. So on Mondays when none of the other guys could make it, I would go in and put some vocals down, Tuesday and Wednesday it would someone else, etc. I think 'Awesome' possesses a good blend of genres which makes it more appealing to a wider audience. Paul Kim had ideas for us and knew what all of us were capable of so he targeted individual songs for some people and behold, his formula worked well."
The track "Draw The Line" is currently on the Cross Rhythms radio playlist. Paul spoke about the song. "'Draw The Line' is a very deep, meaningful song, one which a lot of people can relate to because we all have things holding us back somehow. We just wanted and hoped that listeners to this song would be invoked to change something about their lives in a positive way. In the song we sing about various situations, one of them being someone struggling to beat alcohol and how they are contemplating ending their life but then a voice inside them tells them they can rise above that particular situation, to 'draw the line on it' and reach for something higher and claim their blessings which God is holding for them. But in order to claim that blessing they have to align with God's purpose for their life first, as the second verse says, 'I must be real and align myself to my inner voice.' The inner voice represents the Holy Spirit who is telling him/her to clean up their act. The song is a metaphor for a lot of things we go through in our day to day lives and we all have things in our lives we need to draw the line on and change. We hope to inspire those that do listen to the album to change something about them."
Another standout is the title track. Commented Paul, "We are trying to tell the world how AWESOME God is and has been in our lives. It's a good praise song, one which once you hear you just want to get up and dance. All the songs we write come from personal experiences and all of us have got stories to tell about how great God has been in our lives. As for the song 'Awesome' it's more like a celebration and a testimony of the works God has done in our lives. As ministers, God's works in our lives are all we can tell other people about, not only that but also show them in a song of praise like 'Awesome'."
With so much urban music sounding like it was cut from the same template, there is an infectious freshness about LIC's music. Said Ronnie, "We have tried to come up with our own genre of music called Afro-soul which has a touch of soul, R&B and of course our roots which are African. But also some songs can be seen as having a hip-hop style to them. How does this differ from the American styles of rap? Well, I say ours is a softer version of hip-hop with simple hooks. It's not full blown rap music that we do - we just like to borrow a touch of hip-hop and put it where it fits best in our songs!"