The American church’s quarantine anthem made its way to the States from Nigeria, where songwriter and Pentecostal worship leader Osinachi Kalu Okoro Egbu, known as Sinach, first popularized “Way Maker.”
Her hit has since topped the US charts for both Christian airplay and church worship during the first months of the pandemic. As churches joined protests in US cities in recent weeks, the song has also been sung by demonstrators marching for racial justice, calling out for God as a “way maker, miracle worker, promise keeper, light in the darkness.”
“Way Maker” holds the top spot on the list of Top 100 songs ranked by Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), based on use in churches. In April, the song also claimed two of the top 10 spots on the Billboard Hot Christian Songs when Michael W. Smith and the band Leeland both released popular renditions.
It was the first song in the chart’s history to hit the top 10 twice at the same time. Performances of “Way Maker” by Mandisa and Passion took spots 39 and 40 on the same chart.
Last month, Sinach also became the first African artist to rise to the top of the Billboard Christian Songwriters chart.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, the 47-year-old singer has been an international gospel sensation for years, leading worship at a huge Pentecostal congregation and taking her music on tour around the world. Last year, Sinach became the first African gospel singer to tour in India.
Her original music video for “Way Maker,” released in 2015, has been viewed over 151 million times.
Les Moir, a manager and talent scout for Integrity Music in the UK, first heard Sinach’s music in 2014 when he received one of her albums during a trip to Nigeria. Integrity licensed Sinach’s “Way Maker” to appear on two British worship compilations in 2018 and 2019.
But “Way Maker” didn’t take off among American evangelicals until Christian music godfather Michael W. Smith released it as a single in February, featuring longtime backup singer Vanessa Campagna and worship leader Madelyn Berry.
Integrity Music formally partnered with Sinach in July 2019, said Mark Nicholas, the company’s vice president of song publishing. Her songs soon appeared on releases from Integrity artists like Leeland, whose Better Word album highlighted songs from other nations.
“It is obvious that this is a special song for this moment in history, and the fact that this song emerged from Africa makes it all the more compelling and to be celebrated,” Nicholas told CT.
“Way Maker” has been sung by Christians protesting in the wake of George Floyd’s death, including in Milwaukee; Fredericksburg, Virginia; and Indianapolis, where they sang it during a prayer vigil interrupted by police tear gas.
The song has been translated into 50 languages, and Sinach wrote that “Way Maker” has become “a theme song sung in many languages [to] bring hope and faith to many in distress during the Covid pandemic.”
In March, Smith released an Italian version—“Aprirai Una Via”—again featuring Campagna, who is Italian and has family in Italy, which was one of the earliest hot spots for the coronavirus outside of Asia.
Though some Sinach fans bemoan that Smith recorded her song, fearing he will steal her credit, Sinach is not concerned. In an interview with CNN Africa, Sinach said she is thrilled when artists can introduce her work to their audiences.
“The joy of a writer is that when you write a song, the whole world will sing it, because the song is really not about you,” she said. “If the song goes ahead of you to announce you before you even show up, that means the song is successful.”
In Sinach’s native Nigeria, she’s a superstar, leading worship at the popular Christ Embassy in Lagos, one of the largest Pentecostal churches in the country, known for attracting young, college-educated Christians. Its pastor, Chris Oyakhilome, keeps the church on the leading edge of music and technology, according to Nimi Wariboko, a social ethics professor at Boston University who studies Pentecostalism in Africa.
Oyakhilome, whose ministry also has congregations in urban hubs in the UK and around the world, has used his public relations skills and tech savvy to help propel Sinach to international fame. “He helped Sinach package herself and become this phenomenal figure,” Wariboko said. “He has been instrumental in mentoring her and pushing her career forward.”
Christ Embassy has strayed into controversy, however. Last month British broadcasting authorities sanctioned Christ Embassy’s UK television station Loveworld after it broadcast a sermon in which Oyakhilome claimed COVID-19 was caused by 5G technology.
Around 20 percent of Nigerians are Pentecostals, according to Wariboko. The popularity of Sinach’s “Way Maker” has spread across both Trinitarian and Oneness branches of Pentecostalism.
According to Leah Payne, assistant professor of theological studies at George Fox University, the ambiguous wording of “Way Maker” makes it palatable to both Trinitarian Pentecostals who believe in the divine triune God, and the Oneness Pentecostals who believe Jesus alone is God.
“Trinitarian and Oneness Pentecostals have a lot of cultural as well as theological differences and they don't always share the same songs in common,” said Payne, who specializes in religion and popular culture. “One reason why ‘Way Maker’ may have taken off in both circles could be that the lyrics are adaptable to Oneness hymnody as the song includes no explicit references to the Trinity.”
In her native Nigeria, Sinach’s hit was the No. 2 most-listened-to song of the past decade, and she had another title (“I Know Who I Am”) make the top 20.
Though 46 percent of Nigerians are Christians, the country is No. 12 on Open Doors’ World Watch List for global persecution. Just last week, Nigerian press reported that Emmanuel Bileya, a pastor serving the Christian Reformed Church in Nigeria (CRCN), and his wife, Juliana, were attacked and killed while working their farm in Taraba state, Nigeria, leaving behind eight children.
When she sees people all over the world recording her songs and worshiping to songs she wrote, Sinach said she feels blessed.
“They are getting blessed, but I am more blessed just seeing everybody singing the song,” she told CNN Africa last week. “That God could use someone from Africa, Nigeria—yes Nigeria!—just to bless people the way he wants to bless people.”
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