James Attlee met up with Nottingham-based gospel man FREDDIE KOFI.
To most of us perhaps, Nottingham is not the first town to spring to mind when we think of black gospel music. Detroit, certainly. London, of course. Nottingham...its where they make the cigarettes isn't it? Well, the Wills factory is still puffing away no doubt, but there's a different fire burning in one Nottingham street. Rosetta Road is the home of one of Britain's newest gospel record labels, Beulah Land Records, and of it's founder and principal artist, Freddie Kofi.
Twenty-four-year-old Freddie is Nottingham born and bred, although his family have links back to Ghana in West Africa. Unlike many of his fellow musicians on the gospel scene, his background is not a church one, and he might cite George Benson or Lionel Ritchie as having been more of a formative influence during his teens than The Winans or Thomas Whitfield.
"I left school when I was 16 and I started playing around the clubs in Nottingham with my brother - he played saxophone and I played guitar and did vocals. We did a lot of Benson and Ritchie and we did old jazz standards. It was a mixture really, because we had a set of around 80 songs, anything from Michael Jackson songs to Casablanca! We played anything people asked us to play, and we did that for two and a half years. I never went to church at all - I went to a christening when I was about six, but that was about it."
After his conversion in 1985, Freddie made the radical transition from nightclub crooner to gospel musician working as Youth Choir Director for the Wesleyan Holiness Church and performing with local musicians like singer Barbara Brooks. Soon he began writing songs that expressed his newfound beliefs and it was only a matter of time before the questions of how to get them recorded and in the hands of the record-buying public would have to be faced.
Freddie's approach was unusual; he decided to set up his own label. I soon discovered that this decision had been more than a casual whim for the young singer.
"To cut a long story short, I had a really strong series of dreams and visions and as a result I can definitely say that I heard God's voice. You don't hear that today - you tell people that and they look at you like 'hey, this guy's got something loose', you know what I mean? But that's what happened to me, it was a real strong dream...not to set up Beulah Land Records so much, but God was saying 'hey Freddie, I've called you to be a leader and if anybody goes astray you're responsible.' From that, a lot of inspirations came about and the record label was the first among them."
He soon realised that the cost of setting up the label and the recording budget for his debut EP would exceed the input he could reasonably expect from his church. His dream must be firmly rooted in practical ways if it was to take on flesh and become reality. It made sense to explore the avenues that any other young businessman would when setting up a new business.
"I approached it as a business and said 'I want to do gospel'. The Enterprise Allowance Scheme have this stipulation that they don't support anything religious, but my argument was that if someone comes in and says they want to sing about 'I love you, yeah', or someone comes in who wants to sing about 'dance and boogie' you'll do it, but if I come in and want to say 'Jesus Christ is love joy and peace' and I'm not forcing it I'm just offering it, you're saying that I'm not allowed to say that...They had to look at their written stipulation again, and eventually I got my grant. With the Prince's Youth Business Trust, I just approached it as a business and there was no real basis for them to say no really."
Once backing had been secured, Freddie recorded an EP at studios in Birmingham and London, and released it on the Beulah Land label. It's a confident debut with a strongly contemporary feel and some unusual arrangements, as every budding record company magnate knows however, making the record is one thing, but getting it into the hands of the public is quite another.
"Locally I've managed to handle distribution myself to HMV shops in Birmingham and Nottingham," Freddie explains, "but I'm negotiating with the gospel distributors Travail Records, and they're very interested, so that ought to help to get it around the country and hopefully make it available everywhere which will be a big plus."
Freddie is convinced that gospel fans have had a raw deal from high street record shops, and is determined to change the current status quo in record retailing.
"The shops are dominated by Indie bands and charts and whatever, and gospel's always shoved in the corner of the shop - if it's there at all. I think that once we have the money to buy space in the record shops it will change a lot of things. That's what the other companies do - buy shop space and stick posters in the window so people know it's there. At the moment the world's got gospel in the palm of it's hand, and it's time we took control. The main difference between myself and Virgin Records is they've got a whole lot more money than me! At the end of the day we've got to find the right channels to get the money independent of the big companies and strategise how we're going to use it."
As for influences, Freddie's reference points are unusual for a gospel performer. "The person who stands out for me at the moment is Steven Curtis Chapman, on the Sparrow label. His stuff really speaks on a street level as well as being Christian. I think his lyrics are very fresh - he's been through a lot himself, as I read in your magazine. It all comes over as honest, I don't think he's trying to be different but he comes over as different because it's honest. In black circles he's totally unknown - but before I was a Christian my tastes were always wide. My friends at school used to say 'Freddie, you're not black!'."
Freddi aims to take his music to as wide a range of people as possible, way beyond the usual gospel circuit. The 'Searching For Love Tour' that he and his band are embarking on to promote the album in early 1991 will begin by doing the rounds of the clubs in Nottingham he once played as a young cocktail-jazzer. He's back, but with a different message. We'll leave the last word for him.
"The only thing that I'd like to add is that today you're looked at funny when you talk about prayer and fasting and stuff like that - even Christians look at you funny, like you're some kind of square or something. I think that's sad I think prayer is going to be the deciding factor between the Christian artist with longevity and all the other people on the circuit now - prayer. That's all I wanted to say."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.