The life of OLLY RAPER has turned and twisted in dramatic and unexpected paths only God can create. Tony Cummings spoke to the singer, preacher and administrator of the From Minus To Plus outreach.
He talks, he grimaces, he laughs and in an amazing three-hour rapid-syllable interview he reminisces on the people, places and things God has crammed into the life of Oliver Raper.
Worship leader, Bible teacher and veteran South African gospel singer, Olly has more than the release of a new album 'Heart And Soul' on his mind. For as the UK director of Christ For All Nations, it is on Olly's willing shoulders that falls much of the administrative responsibility for possibly the most ambitious evangelistic initiative ever undertaken in Britain - the free distribution of a Scripture-based booklet about the Cross, 'From Minus To Plus', into every home in Britain. Olly sits in the bustling perpetual motion of the CFAN office in Halesowen, West Midlands. Astonishingly he seems eminently relaxed. He chuckles about his 'Heart And Soul' album where on some tracks Olly has made a successful venture into the world of lightly funky pop while still, on the ballads, allowing his velvet-smooth tones to caress the devotional ballads (largely American) in the easy listening style which has become Olly's forte. After his album 'Redeeming Love', a smooth collection of ancient hymns, why did this 40-year-old father of three decide to make an unexpected nudge towards the world of Top 50 radio?
"Well, I didn't say, 'I'd better do something to get myself back into the groove' or anything like that," admits Olly. "I just wanted to communicate. I have 15, 12 and 9 year old daughters. They like to listen to my hymns album. But equally I love to listen to what they listen to these days. To be honest I'm only discovering contemporary music now, I wasn't allowed to listen to any when I was a lad. I'm actually enjoying such a wide spectrum of music for the first time in my life. I was unbelievably blinkered. Concerning contemporary music I'm a late developer. Over the next few years I expect to get involved with the contemporary scene as much as I possibly can. I intend to push the barriers back as far as the producer can possibly help me to do. Recording 'Heart And Soul' was tremendous fun. We dabbled with the rap thing on the album and to be honest it was almost an accident. We'd recorded the song and it sat alright. But there was this musical riff and I turned to the producer and said what we need to do there and I just started to do a rap thing, just mucking around. And he said 'That works!'. He said, 'We'd better change your name to Olly Rapper! You're going to have all the middle aged housewives swooning in the aisles doing that.' I said, 'Thanks a lot mate!' To be honest it was just spontaneous. Much of my life has been spontaneous."
Spontaneous was the last word to describe Olly's early years. Insularity - cultural, political, religious and racial - hung over the teenage Raper and the whole of South Africa's white, affluent, nation-within-a-nation, like a shroud.
Olly was born in Capetown in 1954, the youngest child of four - two brothers and two sisters. His father was a Pentecostal minister. Olly was singing from three or four years of age. He'd sing on the busses: "As people left the bus they would put pennies in my pocket and I thought, 'What a fantastic way to make a living!'" laughs Olly.
The singing continued - school plays, operettas. Olly had been blessed with a rich, smooth voice. But though he was always singing, it was definitely not rock 'n' roll. "My environment was very, very religious," continues Olly. "In the 50s and 60s there were many taboos and rock 'n' roll was a big taboo. I was raised very much on classical American gospel music. Southern quartets - the Imperials, Big John Hall, that kind of thing. The harmony was very, very much part of my life. I knew nothing else. It was a sin to have a television, no rock music, lots of church going. It was very structured and very straight. We were not really aware of apartheid. Recently I watched the movie 'Cry Freedom' and my emotions really were on a roller coaster. I could see much of my childhood and so much of the emotion of the country's history. But I'm not Afrikaans. I was born in an English speaking South African home. My grandfather was a Yorkshireman. I was interviewed some time ago by one of the big radio stations and they said to me, 'What do you think about racism?' and I said, 'Well to be honest I have to confess I was one.' I didn't even know it, but I was one, from a school point of view, by my privileged lifestyle. I studied history from a perspective which left me very small room for manoeuvre. I was left with a small awareness of the problem and yet an intense love for the country. South Africa didn't have television, and I stand corrected, certainly until the early 1970s so it was in itself a very isolated society and many of us, and I don't use this as an excuse at all and I don't defend apartheid at all, but many of us had very little insight into what we ourselves were in other people's perceptions because of where we were living at that time."
Olly's teenage years were cocooned then in the head-in-the-sand insularity of apartheid. They were also dominated by religion. Church was where the teenage singer went to meet pretty girls, to sing on a Sunday and to see his mates. At weekends the racecourse was where they went to have some fun. But nothing too wild - Olly was an obedient young man, quite different from his brother Paul who'd rebelled and got involved with drugs and booze. Olly had a growing reputation as one of the best singers in Johannesburg, was a bright student and seemingly was all set for a lifetime glide down Easy Street. But then Olly Raper's world unexpectedly crashed.
Explains Olly, "At the age of 17 we went to a race meeting, me with my set of friends and my brother with his set of friends. On Friday nights as most of us used to do we went there just to sleep at the racetrack and enjoy the social life at the grand prix. In the morning when I woke up there were four Red Cross officials dragging a body across the track. They dragged it towards the crash barrier and unceremoniously dumped him outside of it because the race was going to start and they wanted to clear the track.
"At the end of the day I went home with my set of friends. As I walked indoors the phone was ringing. A doctor said, 'Do you know Paul Raper?' 'Of course I know Paul Raper, he's my brother.' He said, 'I think you'd better get hold of your parents very quickly, we have him in Pretoria General Hospital and we suspect he's taken a drug overdose and right now he's in a very serious condition.' I knew where my dad was preaching. I jumped in the car with my friends, charged off there, grabbed him off the platform saying, 'You better come, Paul's in hospital.' We drove right to Pretoria to discover that Paul wasn't in for drug overdose, they'd stomach pumped him, done all the tests. They didn't know what was wrong with him. Then it came out. Paul was that body I'd seen being dragged off the race course and dumped. He'd been left lying in very intense heat all day and had serious burns on his face and body where he'd been exposed to the sun and had literally baked for 12 hours or more in the heat on one side of his face. So he was in a very chronic and very sick way. We took him home."
When Paul's mother tried to wash her son she discovered that his long hair was hiding the evidence that he'd been hit on the head with a blunt instrument. Paul was rushed back to hospital in and out of consciousness.
"For 10 days we as a family watched my brother teetering between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness. A doctor told my parents, 'The very least that's going to happen to this boy because of the immense pressure that's developed on his brain is that he's going to be blind. But you need to expect he's going to die because he is very, very ill.' They were going to shave his head bald and put a valve in the top of his head. It frightened the socks off me. I thought, 'Imagine my brother with a valve in the top of his head! Man, he's going to look like a pressure cooker.'"
One Thursday, 10 days after his brother had been admitted to hospital, Olly's father came to visit his chronically ill son. Paul was conscious and wanting to talk. "Paul's weak voice told his father, 'I dreamt I was standing on the edge of a cliff and a voice in the dream said to me, "The next step you take is into total darkness."' Then Paul said to dad, 'I don't know what to do.' My dad said, 'Son, if you're stepping into darkness there's only one person who can save you. That's the Lord Jesus Christ.' And Paul said, 'Dad, if Jesus wants me he can have me.' And to cut off a long story God changed my brother dramatically, I mean dramatically. In fact I say to folks quite candidly, my brother became nice! God had not only changed Paul, God healed him. My dad had refused to release him for surgery, not because my dad was trying to be difficult but because my brother had said, 'Dad, if this God has saved me he can heal me.' And my dad said to the doctor, 'Doc, I've never seen faith in this boy in 20 years of his life. If he is putting his trust in Jesus Christ I'm not going to destroy that trust.' Over eight months I watched Paul not only recover but grow strong."
Olly's singing had brought him to the success. He had been taken under the wing of a jazz pianist, comedian and singer Len Lindeque who was also the well-known cartoonist with the national Afrikaans newspaper and a broadcaster on radio. A big event was arranged with press and sponsors' agents to launch Olly and Len as South Africa's new singing stars. That night as usual the Rapers went to church. "I got up and sang a song," remembers Olly. "It was one that says to God, 'Come and live with me, come and change me', and so on. I sang it and thought nothing of it. Then my brother got up to give his testimony. He just said, 'Hey people, if God is real why do live as if he doesn't exist? You got the problem, God hasn't got the problem. You say you believe in God and yet the fact of his existence frightens you because if God does exist then it demands you do something about your life. But if he doesn't exist stop saying you believe in him.' It really got to me. I thought, 'Boy, this guy's far too logical to be my brother!' I sat there and I thought, 'Well, I'm on the youth council, I sing in the choir, it's my night, the press are here to take photographs. Sponsors are going to launch us into a musical career.' Yet I was sitting there knowing that I wasn't a Christian. I was wonderfully religious but I wasn't a Christian. I said, 'God, I'm the biggest fool.' That night I found myself responding to an appeal to give my life to Jesus. I stood right out in front of the church. And everybody was aghast that I even responded to God. They didn't think I needed to. But I did. That night, I mean within half an hour of making a commitment of my life to the Lord, I turned to my dad and said, 'Dad, I don't care where I go but I'm going to Bible school, I want to preach the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.'"
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