Holy Rhymes: Kenyan priest suspended for rapping

Father Paul Ogalo entertains his congregation with the rap. He is wooing them to the faith and to get them in profit earning activities to benefit the society. (Photo: Tonny Onyulo|ARA Network Inc.)NAIROBI – On a recent Sunday morning, the sun shone brightly over St Monica’s Catholic Church in Rapogi village in western Kenya. The house of worship was packed wall to wall. The choir’s singing filled the nave. Everyone waited for their favorite priest to appear.

Soon, Father Paul Ogalo appeared at the pulpit dressed in flowing white robes and began to preach to the multitude of worshippers.

“God is great and through Him we can defeat drug abuse, food insecurity, diseases and environmental issues,” he declared amid cheers from worshippers. “We should all come together as youths and discuss activities that benefit the society.”

It seemed like a normal mass in Kenya, where worship can border on the boisterous.

But immediately after the sermon, 45-year-old Ogalo transformed the venue into a concert space – he changed his vestments to black shorts and a white shirt and began to rap, pacing around the pulpit with microphone at hand.
“Yeah! Yeah! Please come to Jesus, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest….youths come to Jesus, youths come Jesus…Ah!” he rapped as his audience – young people, elders, nuns – go wild.

Ogalo is an ordained Catholic priest who uses rap to preach the gospel.

His methods are controversial. Critics like Bishop Philip Anyolo, who is chairman of Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Ogalo had been suspended from celebrating public mass for one year as of June 18. During that time, he can celebrate private masses but not conduct regular services.

“Rap music is not part of our liturgy. People come to church for worship not rap music,” Anyolo said. “He can do the rap outside but not during the liturgy mass. He is a man who was ordained to be priest and offer leadership and worship for the people, not drama. We have only suspended him for one year to examine himself and come back reformed.”

But Father Ogalo defended himself, saying church doctrine does not oppose rap or any other kind of music or dance to preach the gospel. He said he changed his way of preaching in 2007 after several youths died in stampede in a concert in Nairobi, including one youth from his village. The youths had gone to seek entertainment that they could have experienced in church.

“I’m not doing anything wrong because the church doctrines do not oppose the use of music to preach the gospel to the youths,” he said. “I began to rap so that I could reach many youths with the gospel of Jesus Chris.”

A recent survey on alcohol and drug abuse conducted by the country’s National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse showed a high use of drugs and alcohol among schoolchildren

Ogalo said his preaching style will help eliminate such vices. His rapping is drawing more youths to join the church. That, in turn, will have a positive impact to the society, he said.

“My music is saving millions of youths,” Ogalo said in an interview. “I encourage youths to come to church where they can sing, rap and dance for Jesus Christ as they engage in activities that will change their lives because youths are the leaders of tomorrow.”

His style of preaching has certainly excited Catholics throughout Kenya.

His congregation at Rapogi parish calls him ‘Father Masaa’ while youths and others across the country call him Paul S.W.I.T. meaning “Paul Sees the World in Turmoil.” When Ogalo oversaw services, hundreds of youths filled the church while others stood outside the church, glimpsing him through the window.

“I really love the way he preaches, he has changed my life forever,” said Joel Odis, 23, a recovering drug addict. “He uses the language the youths understand. When I met him, he advised me to stop taking alcohol and drugs and engage in activities that build my future.”

Some clergy agreed with Ogalo’s suspension.

“I don’t support what he is doing,” said a priest in a Homa Bay who asked not to have his name published. “We cannot turn our churches into social gathering where people dance and entertain themselves. We should respect the house of God.

Dickson Onyango, 30, another member of the Rapogi parish, thought it was a shame that Ogalo couldn’t take up the mic in the service of God.

“I can’t miss a mass service if Father Paul Ogalo is leading the mass,” Onyango said. “He makes the service entertaining and you can’t sleep in church. He is the person we need as youths.

He particularly liked the priest’s green sensibility.

“He’s using rap music to reach out to the millions of youths and also to educate people on the importance of conserving the environment through tree planting and need to embrace farming,” said Onyango.

A version of this story can be found in Religion News Service.
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