Grace Chinga died in March 2016, hours after announcing her fourth studio album titled ‘Esther’. It was a highly anticipated project bearing in mind that it had been six years since she came up with an album. ‘Udzayimba Nyimbo’, one of the most popular and personal gospel albums in Malawi.
In it we saw a Grace Chinga who had gone through one of her deepest life moments and used music to promise herself better days. An average life of an album in Malawi is three years. But Grace Chinga remained relevant despite her album being six years after release.
Had she died before ‘Esther’ was recorded, her previous songs could still have done the job of reminding people of how talented she was. But with ‘Esther’ in the offing as she was breathing her last, and already announced, people had the opportunity to have a glimpse of her last effort on something she dearly loved; music.
‘Esther’, even before she was buried, got leaked and found itself in the market. This has been a challenge for a long time in Malawi. The pirates may have stolen money from the family, the rightful people who deserved it, but they could not with the enormous talent that she had, and she fortunately left to her children.
The album was largely produced by Grace Chinga’s first born son, Steve Spesho, at his GimmeTheBeat Studio in Blantyre. He produced eight out of the eleven songs in the album, including the title track, ‘Esther’, which will be our main focus in this article. ‘Esther’, the album, is probably the biggest project he had to handle so far, as a producer. A quick assessment shows that he rose to the occasion and produced one of the greatest gospel albums in our times.
Just like with ‘Thandizo Langa’ in 2008 and ‘Udzayimba Nyimbo’ in 2010, ‘Esther’ falls within the trend of Grace Chinga telling her personal story in an album title. But ‘Esther’ is subliminal in the sense that it does not come out as something from her, but as a human being.
It stems from the Biblical story of Esther. A beautiful young Jewish girl who was chosen by King Xerxes of Persia to be his wife after divorcing his former wife, Queen Vashti. Later on, King Xerxes’ grand vizier, Haman, planned to kill the whole exiled Jewish population after a feud with Mordechai, a cousin to Esther. But Mordechai, encouraged Esther to use her position to save the Jews.
He reminded Esther that it could have been God’s plan that she be the Queen of the land for such a time. But he warned her that if she hesitates thinking that she is guaranteed survival, as a Queen; she is wrong. The plan was to kill the whole Jewish population, of which she was part of it.
But if one closely listens to the song, Grace Chinga does not simply tell it as a [Sunday school] story. There is more in it. Between the lines there is a message of social consciousness, an encouragement for one to identify themselves more as part of the society and not as an individual. There is no safety in individualism despite a social privilege.
In addition, just like Mordechai told Esther that she had to use her position for the good of the people, it goes out to everyone who has the opportunity of having social power to use it in influencing service to the people. Esther did exactly that and her people were saved. But in the song, Grace Chinga takes it to the people and laments of how different they are from Esther.
In the next two verses, although not making direct inferences, sings against people who live to their selfish gains. There is no Esther in them. But believing in a just universe, she goes on to say that their own actions will destroy them. As a gospel artist, who make songs around the Christian themes; the song is different. Just like in the book of Esther there is no mention of God, Grace Chinga rarely mentions God in the song but circles around the theme of justice which is prevalent in the Bible.
She finishes the song by taking the position of the Jews while facing the planned extermination. She also takes the position of Esther, by complaining of the wrongs being done on her and the people. With the Jews in the Bible taking a human action, as God was never involved as in other books, the song also talks of the need for people to act in order to get saved.
Sounding as Esther, she sings;
I cannot be passive
For my nation is perishing
You are threatening me.
Should I stay quiet
And just be looking?
These were the exact thoughts going through the Biblical Esther. She was told that her nation and herself as well were about to perish. She chose not to be quiet and ended up taking an action that saved thousands of souls.
That makes the song timeless. The theme it tackles, of injustice happens in our society. There will always be people who are willing to use others as a means to their ends. Again, there will always be people who think that their social status can save them. Therefore, the idea of rising and falling together as a society, as Grace Chinga sings, tempers such unfortunate human actions.
But facing the reality that such thoughts do evade some people, she calls for some to rise up against them. She sings, through the Esther story that one man can rise up against an injustice and save the people. Although she was not clear with the specifics, she collectively sung against the injustices and with prescribed ways of how to deal with them.
There should be something deeper in the song. Grace Chinga carefully chose her album titles to reflect her state of circumstances. And that was what her music was built on. She was having herself in the songs, and out of all the good songs in the album, choosing ‘Esther’ to lead the album meant something.
It is now seven months since we lost her. She never lived to see the response and the impact of her new album. But it did not need her to be around for the project to be certified as one of the best among its contemporaries. She came out as the usual great gospel lyrist. And for the ‘Esther’ song, Grace Chinga can be admired for the rare ability of using a well-known Biblical story to give a lasting social message, reminding us that we are the ‘Esthers’ of today.
About the writer: Wonderful Mkhutche is a speech writer, a political scientist and a manuscript editor and developer.