Sometime in 2019, Pitson called an Uber to pick him up at Karura Community Chapel. When the uber driver arrived, he was surprised to find that he was picking a young man and not a mzee. That’s because Pitson had sounded like old man on the phone, his voice raspy and hoarse like that of Mzee Moi in retirement.
He had lost his voice and it was a nightmare for a person to whom singing is second nature. Some intruders called vocal nodules had grown on his vocal cords, probably due to overstraining his voice, and they had to removed surgically.
He went to Nairobi Hospital for an operation that cost an arm and a leg. By God’s grace the operation went well and he was back to singing after three months.
That experience taught him to value his voice and everything else that he has, understanding that he’s only a steward of what God has endowed him with. He now takes lots of water to keep his vocal cords lubricated and had to go slow on milk and sweet things like chocolate and ice cream.
He told me all this and more about gospel music when we met for an interview at Karura Community Chapel, serenely located next to Rosslyn Riviera Mall on Limuru Road. The morning was as chilly as July could get in Nairobi, only that we were in September. Nairobi weather is like two months late these days.
He walked into the Church’s boardroom carrying a guitar in its case, a laptop bag and wearing a glaring red flat top fedora hat slightly lifted on the front so that a part of his hair could be seen. He was in faded jeans, dark green t-shirt and a striped dark jacket that looked like a favorite. He set everything on the table, signaled me to wait a bit, made a flurry of calls before he settled down for the interview. He’s an artiste, you can tell, but one that would rather show you than tell you. During the interview, whenever he referenced a song, he would hum it melodiously. I didn’t want him to stop but our time was tight.
After introductions, I was too eager to jump into the interview but then he asked that we pray first, something I didn’t even think of doing.
He commits himself, myself, the day and the interview to the Lord. He invites God’s presence and asks Him to tame his tongue, that what he’ll say will be from God and not from him. He prays that the story will not be for fame and hits but will change many people’s lives.
I started by asking Pitson about his role at Karura Community Chapel. He’s the HoD/Pastor in charge of services which includes ushering, prayer ministry, worship team. He joined Karura in 2014 as a regular singer in the praise and worship. He later on became the worship leader, then music director then assistant pastor then got commissioned as a pastor in 2020.
According to Pitson, Karura Community Chapel has been blessed to attract and mentor good musicians in this season. He names some of them with the pride of a father written all over his face; Njoki – a vocal teacher, Bire – a respected artiste, Liz Korir – a vocalist, Tevin – a vocalist, Laura – an upcoming artiste, some musicians from the coast and many others.
“What do you do with them practically, what does that mentorship entail?” I ask.
“It’s more spiritual than talent based, they can develop their talent out there. But if they are not seeing God in their daily lives, if they are not spiritually nourished, if they are not becoming and growing, then we are failing them.”
He prays for them, aware of the potential and influence they could have if they are rightly grounded in God. He tells me of Pastor Muiru’s worship team that once had Sarah K, Esther Wahome and Emmy Kosgei. Can one altar give birth to music revolutionists in a country? Pitson believes so and he sees what they are doing at Karura as birthing a generation of gospel ministers who are bringing a breath of fresh air to gospel music.
“As long as the altar is authentic, has fire and is driven by the power of the Holy Spirit, it will give birth to people,” he exclaims.
“What advice would you give an upcoming artiste who will never meet you or be in your team?”
“Get a mentor. Someone who knows your story, your struggles, someone you can be vulnerable to and who’s interested in your growth and spiritual prosperity. Also, start a journey of becoming. Develop yourself, get additional skills, change your environment, language, company, prayer life. Do something.”
“Our generation is guilty of being lazy, expecting things to come too easily. Someone has been in the music industry for 10 years and is yet to learn one music instrument. They are not adding any skills to their life.”
“The bible says, Jesus grew,” he continues, “he grew in stature and in favour with God and men. Growing means he must have been doing something.”
Pitson quotes Jim Rohn, a life coach who said that if all the money in the world was taken and divided among us equally, within five years it would be back to the same people who had it. Because they have become, it’s about their mindset and not the money.
You can tell Pitson is passionate about growth and helping people see and reach their potential. He’s passionate about breaking people out of mediocrity prisons.
It’s a prison he understands too well, because he has been there, in the valley where the engine stopped running and he had no answers for the questions life was asking him. It was after Lingala ya Yesu became a huge hit, made him lots of money, won him lots of awards, but then the fame, the praise and the money made him compromise his values. The king was naked and blinded by a veil of sensuality. He hit rock bottom or as he puts it, God took him to the valley to work on him. Some screws needed to be tightened, some hedges needed to be trimmed, some rooms needed to be cleaned.
Everything in his life had stopped working. He surrendered to God in those low moments, but with an ultimatum for God to either use him or kill him. In fact, he asked God to kill him three times.
“Are you serious?” I ask, with my eyebrows raised and my eyes as wide as they could be.
“I was so serious, I begged God. I told him, Mungu please. When I read 2nd Samuel 2:6 I read that it’s you who brings poverty, you who brings riches, you who brings life and death. I said if you can bring death, bring it upon me. He refused to kill me.”
“Why did you want to die,” I ask.
“I have never believed in a mediocre life; I would rather not do it. I can’t believe we can meet, like in a church, fifty, a hundred or a thousand people; sing, dance, sweat, and go back home with our problems. That’s not the God we serve. Those who came with cancer, HIV, it must dry. Those who struggle with masturbation, pornography, prostitution… when they appear in the presence of God, something must give. They should leave challenged, changed or transformed.”
He goes on to question why we claim the power of God if we are not experiencing it. Why are people preached to for years and years in churches and bear no spiritual fruit? Is it the seed, the sower or the soil that has a problem?
So, while down there in the valley, God having refused to bring death to him, he got the idea of Pitson Pen and Paper, to write songs. He was to rise, but this time – God said – not alone but with people, because he was a seed that had been planted.
The first fifteen songs he wrote were to be given out to other musicians. God’s instructions.
“Those fifteen songs changed this country,” Pitson says animatedly, his fingers hitting the table with every emphasis. “They became the songs that brought a new sound into the gospel industry.”
Vanity, performed by Daddy Owen was the first born of those fifteen. It’s a valley song, if you listen to the words.
Pitson brought in other writers and instrumentalists to create tunes for these songs.
“So, you do the song and also the tune, then the musician…”
“Just sings, their work is just to sing,” he finishes my sentence.
Of the five hundred songs that Pitson has written so far, not all were fully his work. In some he helped do the verses, or the hook, or the chorus, its mixed up.
“May the Lord receive all the glory for the work that I have done but if I died today then I know I gave all that was in me,” he proclaims.
He takes me through his songwriting process. He uses the TCR guide. Think Create Record, in that order. Not all songs follow that process but that’s the ideal one. He is quick to warn that you shouldn’t record, create then think. Many songs are done like that. A guy appears in studio and tells the producer “niwekee beat.” Since producers always have a ‘special beat’ for everyone, they will play it and then the artiste will start creating and thinking. That’s the wrong way.
God said, let us make man. Creation began with a thought. Pitson thinks first, as he prays for what God wants him to communicate. When God blesses his thoughts, he creates. Creation can take 2 minutes, 2 weeks, 2 months or even 2 years. He’s never in a hurry with a song. The thought is a concept, like for example a school, and it’s God’s school and God is the owner and Jesus is the headmaster. He will then write something like;
nikiwa nawe kama mwalimu,
nitashinda adui akileta majaribu
If that’s all he can write in that session, he will record it (sing) on the phone and save it as shule yako version 1 on the cloud or send it to an email, because phones get destroyed, or they get lost or get stolen.
As the process continues, he will save different files of the same song; shule yako with verse 1, shule yako with bridge, shule yako with final chorus and finally shule yako final. Once he has the final one, he will delete all the other versions.
He thinks on paper, creates on a gadget then records in a proper studio. That’s how his songs remain rich. The original concept is never lost.
“How do you decide who sings what song that you have written?” I ask.
“It’s God who decides. He’s the one who gave me the seed for Pitson Pen and Paper so he guides everything. So, he would tell me, this one is for so and so, especially those fifteen, he had specific people for them. But there are other songs, like a client would call and request for a song. Those ones I would charge, because that’s where I get my bread”
“But there are songs that I will write and God will say, this is for a specific person. For example, God said that ‘Pale Pale’ was for size 8. When I went to her house, I found her praying. When she heard the song, she confirmed that it’s what God was speaking to her in prayer”
“We are not guessing and my songs are not up for the highest bidder. I have seen people with money but for some reason they didn’t like a song. But when someone else heard it and they said this is the song. I have also confused some songs, thinking they are for someone but then God changed that. Shule yako was not originally for Mercy Masika. I had taken it to someone else but it didn’t work out.”
Some other songs in the fifteen include Size 8’s Afadhali Yesu, Makena’s Narudi, Rosy Ohon’s Amekumulika and Laura Karwirwa’s Ni Neema Yako and others.
The kind of music that Pitson is talking about is what most of us understood as gospel music. The lyrics are deep, the production is good and the videos are clean and often telling a story. But that has since changed, or has been overshadowed by those who still claim to be gospel artistes but whatever they sing about and portray in their videos cannot be looked at twice.
So, I had to ask Pitson how he defines gospel music.
“A gospel song is any song that people can sing when they gather in the name of Christ. If we are in a crusade and we have gathered and we can sing ‘nimesikia simba ananguruma’, that’s a gospel song. Or ‘Blessed Assurance’. Any song that cannot be sung in a gathering of Christians, even during offering, or a presentation in the church of Christ, is not a gospel song even if it is sung by a gospel artiste.”
Pitson has a song called Niache niimbe which he is quick to give as an example that its not a gospel song. It’s not about the gospel and it cannot be sung when Christians gather. But he has many others that can be sung in a Christian gathering.
Consequently, a gospel artiste can produce other songs that are not gospel. They can produce a love song but according to Pitson its not a love song but a wedding/marriage song.
He explains, “In the Kingdom we have weddings, relationships, breakups, makeups and all that. We don’t want when people fall in love and they want to do a wedding, they look for a song outside of the Kingdom because people in the Kingdom are so narrow minded, they don’t have any wedding or celebration songs.”
He plugs Mercy Masika’s album which has a birthday song. Pitson wants to play that song in his daughter’s birthday and not Rayvanny. A gospel artiste must produce gospel songs but they should also do some songs for celebrations within the Kingdom. He throws in a caveat, quotes Psalms 119.96 which say that there has to be a limit to every perfection. An artiste, Pitson reiterates, cannot call himself a gospel artiste when they have no song that Christians can sing when they gather.
Incidentally, Pitson is currently working on a wedding album with a cheeky name; PDA – The Wedding album.
“Haina nishike hapa, nifanye hivi, hapana. Haina tabia mbaya, it’s an album that when Christians gather in a wedding they can play those songs,” he says.
“Can all the gospel artistes be worship leaders,” I digress.
Pitson thinks a bit, looking straight ahead, lets out an um then answers, “Yes and no.”
He explains, “not all of us can have the chance to stand on stage and lead God’s people in worship. That’s a privilege that not all of us have because not all gospel artistes are singers, not all are gifted with a singing voice. Some are rappers, others sing ragga or reggae, which is a vehicle to carry the message (not the culture). So not all of us can fit on stage to lead worship but two things must happen”
“One, the worship leader must also be an artiste. They must also produce their own songs. This thing of worship leaders singing all of Sinach, Don Moen and all the other songs but have no songs of their own, that thing needs to stop. Now small kids in Nigeria have come up and you are singing their songs, which is not bad but wewe utazaa lini?”
He goes quiet, shakes his head like a teacher who’s been teaching the same thing for a while and students don’t seem to get it. It’s his rallying call to worship leaders to write songs in the languages they speak and understand the best, to record those songs and for pastors to support their worship teams to record and produce albums. He argues that you cannot spend time in the presence of God, with great melodies every Sunday, exposed to deep songs, soak in the harmony week in week out, and not birth anything.
“The second thing that needs to happen is that those who are already recording in the industry must record songs for the church to sing when they gather. We have a lot of industry songs that are quote and quote gospel but we can’t sing when we gather and that’s why we are looking to Tanzania, Nigeria and South Africa for songs to sing in churches. The industry needs to come up with a congregational sound, songs that can be played out there but also sung in church. Like Sarah K’s Liseme Litaje and many others. It was an industry song that has become a church song”
“An artiste must see music speaking to the Kingdom of God and the world. That’s what the bible means when it says rightly divide. The altar for secular artistes is the club but the altar for a gospel artiste is the church. The dirtier a song must be in the world, the holier it must be in this kingdom. The further they take North, the further we must take south. The difference must be clear, and God is raising that generation that is bringing clarity.”
He quotes Job 35.9-10 which says that
Men cry out under great oppression, they plead for relief from the arm of the mighty, but no one asks where is God my maker who gives us songs at night.
Gospel artistes are complaining that their songs are not being played on radio, but are they being sung in churches? So, there’s generally a problem with the songs being produced. No one is asking what Eli is reminding Job in that verse; where is God who gives us songs at night. Answers are reserved for those who ask, finding is reserved for those who are seeking, open doors are reserved for those who are knocking. Not just anyone.
In response to a question on some of his memorable experiences in ministry, Pitson responded that you should allow yourself to make mistakes; to misquote the bible, to sing a song off key, off tune, off beat, to sing with your zip open, to forget lyrics, embrace them all. After all mistakes have been done and corrected, what remains is excellence.
You can sense that excellence in his words, his demeanor and his output. Sitting with Pitson for an hour is like spending time with a sage, a spiritual mentor and a life coach all in one. The foresight of an elder and the practicality of youth blend exceptionally well without seeming like he’s trying to. He quotes bible verses and hums lyrics like they are part of him. He’s certainly a pastor for a reason.
It was time to finish but I still had some quick-fire questions for him.
“What in your background made you a better songwriter?”
“Being able to play the guitar, keyboard and sing”
“Which part of the body of Christ are you?”
“If you were to share a stage with any artist, who would that be?”
“How has fatherhood changed the way you approach music?”
“I have understood God as a father”
“Something you’ve learned about money”
“That it’s not that important. Things can get done without money. God will always ask you; do you want the money to do it or do you want it done?”
“Best advise you have been given?”
“Read the bible for yourself”
“Favorite bible verse”
“Proverbs 21.31 – Even though you prepare the horse for battle, know that it the Lord who gives victory”
“Describe Pitson at 40”
“He has finished his law degree, masters in theology, has written a million songs, raised many artistes and is proudly in politics”
“Politics?” I quip.
“Yes, that’s one of my interests besides music”
I want to hear more about his political interests; he knows I want to hear more. It’s written all over my face but our time is over.
“Next time… next interview,” he concludes.
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