What started as one man’s mission to provide an atmosphere for people to worship God has become a platform for national unity, youth empowerment, commerce and hospitality, writes Vanessa Obioha

Even though he’s been organising gospel concert for the past 11 years, Paul Adefarasin, clergyman and convener of the largest gospel concert in Africa, The Experience, has not been able to overcome the tense disposition that accompanied the first outing. He is nervous each time the show draws near. Half of the time he is scared that the responsibility keeps increasing; becoming more daunting than he imagined. His anxiety goes beyond the worries of technicality. He’s more concerned about the congregants. How do they feel? How do people facilitate The Experience? How does it impact on the zeal of young people? What will be the impact of the concert on the audience? Although, these concerns are hardly voiced, they can be seen on the way he immerses himself into planning and execution of each edition. He is on his toes most of the time. Despite the over 2000 volunteers working with him on the project, the priest believes in thorough supervision.

That fateful Friday morning, before he went for the general press conference with the performers at the concert, a media parley with him and a select group of journalists was scheduled. It was his first unscripted encounter with the media. For a man who addresses hundreds of people regularly, it was interesting to note that he was tense for a meeting with a small group of people. He modestly shook hands with the personalities who were gathered at the Sky Restaurant of Eko Hotels and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos as he walked in. After the introductions were made, he humbly admitted that he was very nervy, a fact most people found intriguing due to his regular work as a pastor. Was he acting his own script? But it was clear that he wasn’t feigning it. He was indeed a bit on the edge. He constantly rubbed his palms. At times, he would recline on the seat but most times he sat upright, leaning closer to address the individuals. However, he needed not worry as the gentlemen of the press used their persuasive skills to put him at ease. Within few minutes he had regained his composure.

As the conversation picked up pace, one could not help but notice the joy and pride radiating on the face of the clergyman. It was in no way egotistical. Indeed, Adefarasin who heads the Rock Cathedral has a good reason to be proud. The Experience which he said he stumbled upon has gone beyond the initial plan he had in mind. What started as one man’s mission to evangelise souls through soul-lifting gospel music has become pilgrims’ destination of sorts; bringing people from all over the world to Lagos in the month of December.

Every year, The Experience pools hundreds of thousands of persons to Tafawa Balewa Square in Onikan, Lagos for an unforgettable night of endless praise and worship to the Almighty. Featuring both local and international gospel artistes, the concert does not only appeal to gospel musicians but also pools secular musicians as well as celebrities in other sectors. It is one of the most popular events of the yuletide season and usually holds on the first Friday in December.

“We were particular on creating a moment for people who love God regardless of their concept of God to come into a space and atmosphere where many more people can interact and have an encounter with the Creator. The result of that is that it became something many young people, including myself wanted to belong to. They brought their talent, skill, gift and experience to help. It has become quite significant and a good thing that it is coming out of Nigeria. Most times, we hear only negative things about Nigeria but The Experience has been able to showcase excellence, good organisation and resilience of young people.”

Due to the mammoth crowd it pulls, The Experience attracts commercial activities. Yearly, vendors of food, drinks, and other products converge at the venue to sell their wares to the worshippers. Adefarasin even noted that The Experience has empowered a lot of entrepreneurs.

“The other great thing that has happened as a result of the concert is that it has empowered small and medium scale entrepreneurs. We call them The Experience Entrepreneurs. Out of this concert, we have created a fashion industry, security, hospitality, sound engineering and entertainment SMEs. Most of them have developed strong businesses as a result of leaning on The Experience. I am so glad to share this platform with them because they always bring amazing ideas to the table.”

One of the things that puzzles the public is how Adefarasin has been able to put up such a great show every year without a charging fee. The very eloquent pastor answered it this way. “It is a great miracle of God that he gave us right thinking minds as human beings. We are all planning, strategising, thinking, meeting at tables all year long, thinking through what challenges we have had in the previous year and how we could improve. We look for professionals who are great in their jobs in the industry and welcome them on board. For example, we had challenges with regards to power. We looked for the sustainable alternative, so that if we have issues in that respect, we are layered; same with sound engineering.

We have done the same thing with managing the artistes. With 17 acts and between 60 and 70 people on the microphone, it requires lots of coordination and we haven’t had the time to rehearse in our many services. We are always careful of the succession of performances so that it will be seamless. We believe God is the rock. We do everything to signify excellence. We train the best. We seek the best indigenous and when there is need for expatriates, we bring in the best so that they can transfer their knowledge to our local engineers and they too can become great in their fields. As far as it concerns managing human traffic which is enormous, I don’t have the exact numbers for you but I think it is in hundreds of thousands considering the size of the entire Race Course and the immediate environment. In some parts of the arena, we have 60 people in a square metre. Sometimes, when we ask them to sit, a fellow will have one person sit on his left lap, another on the right, and even one on the floor. This scenario is really scary to us. The ushers are very organised. We have the emergency units and most of the people working with us are volunteers. It’s a clean experience. It’s the best you can get on this side of the world.”

Ususally, fears of insecurity are often a major concern with such events, Adefarasin and his team have been able to curtail this menace by working with the best trained hands in the field. Through the support of Lagos state services in areas of traffic control and emergency services, the show is yet to record any tragedy. For instance, it is a sure-sight to see officials of the Lagos State Traffic Management Agency directing traffic or armed law enforcement personnel parading the surroundings of the venue and maintaining orderliness. Regarding the common touts who usually cause chaos at such concerts, Adefarasin humorously called himself the ‘Baba Agbero’ of the area. He said the church frequently holds services with the touts at the National Stadium and tries to meet their needs.

Another sector that has largely benefited from the concert is the hospitality and tourism sector. As the musical show attracts more and more people within and outside Nigeria, the hospitality sector enjoys a boom in their business as people seek their services. Likewise the tourism sector as the event provides first-time visitors an opportunity to explore the city of Lagos.

Undeniably, The Experience has provided exposure to local gospel artistes as well as build synergy between them. These interactions have yielded musical collaborations like Nathaniel Bassey and Micah Stampley; Don Moen and Frank Edwards among others. It gladdens Adefarasin’s heart that the local artistes are having global exposure. He believes such exposure gives room for greater opportunities. He cited the musical relationship between Don Moen and Frank Edwards as an example.

The ‘Mma mma’ crooner had performed on international stages alongside the American gospel artiste. It is this kind of association that makes him foresee an Experience with only indigenous artistes.
The most significant thing about this relationship is the cultural export. It has become a given to hear regular performers like the award-winning American gospel artiste, Donnie McClurkin, sing the Ibo song ‘Imela’ or like he did in this year’s edition, render a song in Yoruba. Not a few were amazed when they heard Don Moen sing in Ibo language on his recording with Frank Edwards titled ‘Ka Anyi Bulie’.

Perhaps, the most celebrated achievement of The Experience is its promotion of national unity, a feat the Governor Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos State acknowledged at this year’s edition. He commended Adefarasin and his church for dismantling the barriers of political affiliation, ethnic origin and doctrinal differences through the music concert and engendering a legacy of love, peace and unity. Incidentally, Ambode was seen sharing friendship with his archrival in the 2015 governorship race, Mr. Jimi Agbaje. The governor was particularly impressed by the latest corporate social responsibility of the church – a donation of ICT infrastructure to 100 schools in the state. This he said was a good testament to Adefarasin’s leadership qualities who presented the handover certificate for the ICT infrastructure donation to the governor.

One of the clear messages promoted by The Experience is the abundance of competence and excellent leadership in the country.

Like previous edition, this year’s The Experience was also mind-blowing. A foretaste was given at the press conference where the anchor Ijeoma Onyeator of Channels TV persuaded the convener and artistes to sing freestyle.

Themed ‘Jesus Our King’, the 12th edition of The Experience was a sight to behold as every nook and cranny of the venue was occupied. The crowd outside was no less intimidating as those who couldn’t make it inside watched the performances on stage from the huge screens strategically positioned outside. The Lagos Metropolitan choir kicked off the show with an electrifying performance while Tope Alabi brought it to a rousing close. Artistes who performed at this year’s event included BeeJay Sax, Tope Alabi, Onos Ariyo, Eben, Sonnie Badu, Micah Stampley, Travis Greene, Chevelle Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, Don Moen, Tim Godfrey, Chioma Jesus, Nathaniel Bassey, violinist Manuel Druminsky who performed the national anthem with Segun Obe and Chee; the Midnight Crew and Frank Edwards.

Each of these artistes was a delight to watch as they rendered inspiring performances that left people in awe and worship of the Most High.

The Experience has also been a miracle ground where marriage proposals are made and souls are healed.

Although the organisers have made great efforts to expand its reach, there are still places in Nigeria where the show is unknown or have little impact. As the journalists pointed out areas that The Experience needed to improve on, Adefarasin listened with rapt attention and promised to bring it to the notice of the experts in charge. Such areas included higher quality streaming and reaching out to people from other parts of the country who cannot afford the trip to Lagos or have access to DStv where the omnibus of the event is shown.

While all these factors account for great achievement, the clergyman said they would all count for nothing if it does not please God. It took him a while to come to this conclusin. “I like to think that the Almighty One is smiling down at me. God is bigger than everything in the world and He can do anything.

“Just to see him smile gives me the sense that He is not out of sight. Not by merit but purely by His benevolence, magnanimity, particularly His grace and that for me is the biggest achievement. When you think about the concert, it’s not about the musicians but the multitude. There’s a difference between when you are worshipping with just three or four persons and when you are worshipping with hundreds and thousands of people which creates a bigger sense of unity.”