Donnie McClurkin is one of the most recognizable — and controversial — figures in the Gospel music arena. Beginning with his solo debut in 1997, McClurkin has pressed his listeners to examine the nuances of life's ominous struggles, as well as the ultimate road to redemption that every man ends up traveling. Through the power of song, Donnie McClurkin has given the world intimate insight into the trials and tribulations of his life, and his recent autobiography, Eternal Victim, Eternal Victor, builds upon his belief that "a saint is just a sinner that fell down and got up."
To date, McClurkin has received two GRAMMY Awards from his industry peers: Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album for …Again (2003) and Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album for Psalms, Hymns & Spiritual Songs (2005). His best-selling album, however, is the platinum, critically-acclaimed Live in London and More… (2000).
Upon review of We Are All One (Live in Detroit), Donnie McClurkin managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on the role of religion in politics, the Winans family's influence on his career, and the difference between preaching and singing.
Throughout the course of your career, you have stated that the Winans family was a key part of your personal and professional growth and maturity. In what particular ways did they shape the course of your career?
Marvin Winans was the one who saw who I was going to be and told me who I was going to be. Marvin Winans told me point blank, "God's going to make your name greater than mine and I've got to get you ready for it. The Lord told me to get you ready." He took painstaking time to prepare me for what I'm doing now. He was selfless. He shared everything of his platform. He became nobody and pushed me and made me know the spirituality, understand how to keep myself holy and remain uncompromised. When I did mess up he said: "Tell the truth when you mess up, boy." He's just a year-and-a-half older than I am but he was more like a father figure to me in the Gospel. In this industry that he already conquered, it was his job to make sure that I kept balanced and glorified God and not glorified Donnie. Bebe Winans was like, "Donnie, anything from my house is yours." He sang my song "Stand" to Maya Angelou for her 70th birthday. And Oprah approached him and said, "Oh, Bebe. That's a wonderful song. I really liked that song." He said, "Do you really want to hear this song? Donnie McClurkin – that's the boy you need to hear." The next thing I know, Oprah was calling me up. I was in the Bahamas. She said, "Bebe said I need to talk to you." The relationship started between me and Oprah because of Bebe. It was the Winans who taught me how to be comfortable with who I am and not to allow anything that was done or said fill me up. Be confident with God and stay true to the ministry.
When you talk about the ministry, you play a dual role. You sing and you're also a minister. Do you think there's a difference between the two roles?
Music can bring people to the point of letting down their guard and hearing it and knowing that there's more. They can hear and be inspired by the music. They can hear and be encouraged by the music. But it's only by the preaching of the Gospel that man can be saved, the Bible said. God said He chose preaching, the tools of preaching to bring about salvation. Not every singer is a preacher. Not all preachers can sing but it's important to know the stark difference. I can't be satisfied with just singing. When God put His Word in me, I'm obligated to preach His Word to the people to know the love of Jesus Christ. That's what delineates the two. The music can bring you to the point of receiving but it's the Gospel that gives you what you need to receive.
Your latest album is entitled We All Are One. When you were preparing for this album and when you look back on the final product, what's the significance of that title?
God has made us to be one. Jesus prayed before He left. He said, "Father, make them one as We are one." We've become everything but one. We are so divided in church and in this world. We're divided by nationality. We're divided by skin color, by gender. We're divided, you know, over stupid stuff. We all have denied the fact that we all have a common bond. Everyone is inexplicably linked to one another. We have majored in focusing on our differences instead of focusing on our commonality. The songs tell us to come back to that, to understand that God made us one. In the Lord, we are one. God so loved the world – not the Christian body – the whole entire world. And He gave His Son. He wanted the world to know Him. He wants us all to fall in love with Him and to love each other. What if there are stark differences? That doesn't stop me from loving. It shouldn't stop me from loving. So what if you don't believe in God like I believe in God? I may not agree with what you believe in but I can love you. That's one thing that we haven't majored in. If you're a Muslim and I am a Christian, I may never agree with your tenets of faith, but we can sit down and eat together. We can laugh and joke together. If you're in need, I can give you what I have. You don't have to be like me, walk like me, talk like me. But… I can love you.
This album — and the bulk of your musical catalog — has been recorded live. What compels you to do a live recording as opposed to a studio recording? What do you get the most out of a live performance?
The feeling, the connection with the congregation, the ability to interact and to worship with them and have it sent back to you, you know. To have that physical and essential connectivity that only can be had through a live recording.
When you look at We All Are One, is there a song you feel encompasses that whole experience?
"All We Ask." It's a prayer. I was sitting in the studio. It wasn't even live. I was sitting in the studio waiting for the mixes. I was playing the piano and the melody came. I just played the whole thing and it became like a hymn. While I played it, God didn't send me words. He said, "You don't sing it. I don't want you to sing it. I want this to be a background for a prayer." So I didn't sing at all. I just played the piano.
You are one of the few Gospel performers that has been able to perform with a wide variety of groups and individuals. Most notably, you have performed at the Democratic National Convention, the Republican National Convention and, recently, on Barack Obama's campaign trail. What's your perspective on the role or the influence of religion in politics?
Religion and politics have always been linked from the start of this country. It was one nation under God. In the middle of the 20th century, they added "under God" because it's getting back to the roots. The founding fathers believed in God even though they had profound belief in human beings. They had an essence of Godly belief. That was the seed that allowed this to happen – the freedom of somebody even to the first black man becoming president. There was something in the make-up of this country that included God. That is the reason we can't extract God from the fabric of society, not politically or socially. You can't extract Him. Everything that we do is Bible-based, even the "beware of dog" sign – all that's from the Bible; that's Scripture. People say "by the skin of my teeth" – that's a scripture in the Bible. Everything that we do is linked to Biblical principles.
Throughout your career, you have garnered a lot of awards and critical praise. And in many circles, you are touted as one of the best traditional artists.
You know the funny thing is the first one was for the contemporary, and then it shows how you grow old. Four years later, it was for traditional. So, wow! Four years before that I was contemporary and now I'm old.
Why do you think that was the case?
Because that's the truth, I think. The music changes so quickly. The next generation that comes up makes the generation before antiquated. It's funny. I'm sitting here with a GRAMMY for contemporary and a GRAMMY for traditional. Now, I'm in the traditional category. It's like for those 21 and over. All these young kids are coming up. I'm a great-grandfather [laughing].
You talked about certain styles becoming antiquated. What traditional elements would you like for the younger Gospel acts to keep intact?
In all honesty, I believe that they've kept it intact because they've been raised up in the church. You can hear Kiki Sheard, 20-21 years old, singing Beyonce-type songs, but always keeping the Gospel traits true to her ancestry, as Mattie Moss Clark's granddaughter, Karen Clark Sheard's daughter. Kiki still has the essence of traditional that she can add in anytime she wants. Beyonce can sing all that stuff if she wants to. I think the generations are still linked to "Amazing Grace" and "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." They can still sing it. I believe this is with us as it is with them. They've taken it further than we've taken them but we're making sure that they hold on to the traditions.
One of my favorite songs out of your catalog is "Great Is Your Mercy." Every time I hear it, tears come to my eyes. What are your thoughts on that song and the recording experience?
That recording alone is just for me just what I believe in – Psalm 27. It was a whole experience; that Live in London was a whole experience. Each song contributed to that experience. It was a moment in time that God literally sat in the room with us and said: "sing to me." You can feel the presence. You can feel that He touched everybody that was present. Now, I find out almost 2 million CDs later around the world that out of everything that I do, everybody goes back to Live in London. It impacted a globe and it wasn't my intention; it was of God.
Even though it wasn't your intention, do you ever, on a personal level, try to compete with yourself?
Sometimes. Kirk Franklin and I – we have such a close bond. When we talk, we'd sit up till about 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. We really talk to each other about addiction, the bad part of the industry that makes you compete with yourself. We keep each other accountable and it keeps us from that self-competition. That's why I don't do anything but every 4 to 5 years. I got to wait for that inspiration rather than competing with what I just put out.
In this day and age, it's rare for a Gospel artist to just break out and go platinum, even though most Americans regard themselves as Christians. Why do you think there is a disconnect between the public and the buying process?
Number one is, "I can't afford to buy it." The second part is, "Why should I buy it if I hear it on the radio?" Or "I can go to a website and somebody downloaded the whole CD on the website." This modern technology is counter-productive to the sales and the record companies will tell you that. All in all, it doesn't really matter to me as long as the Gospel is heard.
What do you think is your greatest contribution to the Gospel genre?
I don't know. The only thing we can ever say is our best accomplishment is that His Will be done. That encompasses the whole gamut of what we do. It's obedience to God. I never know what God has in store. I never know His plans until He shows it. It comes about as you go, like Abraham. "I'm going to take you to a land of promise but I'm not going to tell you where it is; just walk and I'll show you as you go". That's what God does. "I'm going to make your name great, Donnie. But I'm not going to tell you how I'm going to do it. Just walk and I'll show you as you obey Me."
Earlier, you spoke about the difference between preaching and singing. How is your ministerial experience at church? And how is your life off the stage compared to on the stage?
It's much more complex off the singing stage. I'm currently pastoring a wonderful church in Long Island, New York and another branch church down in Chester, South Carolina. I don't want people to think that I don't do fellowship, so I go and preach to other people's churches and a couple of other people's ministries whose pastors have died and we put somebody else in. I visit hospitals, train up children in the youth department, love my son, love my daughter, raise them up, wait on the good wife to raise me up – the whole nine yards. It's complex but it's a wonderful journey.
How do you balance all that – having the church and your own congregation? I'm sure you get so many requests to sing and travel and perform.
You wait on God to give you the insight. If you make a mistake and do it yourself, you pay the consequence of exhaustion. If you wait on God, God will give you the "yes" and the "no." He'll tell you what countries to go to. He'll tell you what churches to go to in whatever state they're in. If you listen intently, you'll be okay. I had to learn to listen to God.
For more information on Donnie McClurkin, visit his official website: http://www.donniemcclurkin.com/