INTERVIEW: Donnie McClurkin (2009)

If there’s any single message Donnie McClurkin would love to leave the listener with through his latest album – We All Are One – it’s that God loves us all…the sinner and the saint…the Jew and the Gentile…the Apostolic and the AME…we all are one, we all are loved by God and we’re all running this race to the very end. And the sooner we see our inherent similarities, our common goals, our shared interests and our matching misdeeds, the quicker we’ll come to each other’s side and rally to each other’s defense…after all, We All Are One.

In our recent exchange with Pastor McClurkin, the sanctified shepherd also shared his many thoughts on the evolution of his latest release, which was four years in the making. The revelations don’t stop there. McClurkin goes on to reveal his mixed emotions stoked by the loss of his sister and close friend – the late Olivia McClurkin.

The last twelve months may be one of the most eventful periods in Donnie McClurkin’s life, as he became the target of the media, Republicans and gay-rights activities who took exception to his involvement in the Barack Obama presidential campaign, after declaring homosexuality to be a curse.

Donnie speaks openly and honestly about that very volatile period that he was thrust into. We also discover McClurkin’s favorite holiday destinations in the world. And if that wasn’t enough, Donnie McClurkin opens up on the influence of pioneers like Andrae Crouch, Walter Hawkins and The Winans Family on his prolific career and anointed ministry. It’s a candid, colorful and always clever conversation with one of the most recognizable figures associated with the Gospel.

Christopher Heron: Let’s begin with the new album, We All Are One. It’s an interesting title. Who wrote and produced this particular song and what inspired you to tag this album with this title?

Donnie McClurkin: Well I wrote the song. The song was produced byAsaph Ward. It was a song that came out of my experiences of being in church all my life and seeing not only the church world, but the secular world as well, so many things that keep us separated. We haven’t come in to the real unity of the faith or loving mankind yet. We haven’t learned how to love. We don’t realize that we are all one.

We have such intolerance, we have such division and we have so many people saying, “I’m this. I’m that.” We judge people by titles instead of by who they really are as a person. It kind of got on my nerves.

Everybody knows me. Everybody knows where I stand on different issues. God asked me a question. He said “Donnie, do you really know how to love? You’ve been saying a whole lot of stuff, but do you really know how to love? And will your love continue even if people don’t change?” That broke me down. I really started looking at how He loves. I had to love people enough to bring about change, instead of beating them over the head. I had to repent and realize that it’s God’s job to save and my job to deliver the Word. That’s where we all are one.

From saint to sinner, we all have so much in common. We have a common bond that should cause us to unite even if we don’t agree. That’s the thing that God has really showed me, that we all are one and God loves the world, not just the Christian body. In the eyes of God, we’re all one, and He wants all men to be saved.

CH: Well, You invited some of the most revered and admired artists in music today to your latest project. I’m referring to CeCe Winans,Yolanda Adams, Mary Mary, and Karen Clark Sheard. I know that they’re all lifetime friends of yours, but what inspired you to feature all of these particular ladies on your latest project?

DM: The song When You Love was kind of a stretch for me, because it dealt specifically with love. It had no real attachment to religious dogma. It was about love specifically, love simply, love inspired, love romantic and love committed. My thing was “okay, I know CeCe. She’s been singing that kind of music for a long time.” I knew Yolanda would do it because she is my right arm. She’s my sister. When she heard the words she said “oh no, you don’t have to do nothing for me, I’ll go and record this song.” Cece was the same thing. She said “Donnie, it’s a beautiful song, but are you sure?” I said “yeah, come on girl!”

Tina and Erika (Mary Mary), what can I say about them? They just brought the song to life. They made the song come alive. I gave each one of them individual parts. CeCe had “be inspired”. Her part was just simply, “write them a poem. Sing them a song. Draw them a painting. Walk arm and arm.” Yolanda’s was “be romantic, draw in the sand, write in the sky, tell them your gonna love them till you die.” Erika’s was “be committed, go get a preacher. Go get a singer. Put a diamond ring on their finger. Be committed when you love.” Tina’s was “let them find out, the families, the elders, if you love them why don’t you tell them? Give them flowers while they can smell them.” It was essentially taken from I Corinthians 13th chapter. It’s the love chapter.

Then there’s Karen Clark Sheard. What can you say? You can’t record in Detroit without using a Clark Sister or a Winans Family member. Karen at the last minute saved me. The person that was supposed to sing the song got sick. I called Karen and asked her to do it. She said “I don’t know this song”, but did it like it was written for her. She came to only two rehearsals. With Karen Clark, you can’t keep up with her. You have to back up and let her go to town. She doesn’t play fair (laugh).

CH: That’s going to be a signature song for Karen Clark Clark.

DM: It is. And now the only trick is to get her to travel with me and sing it. That’s the trick. (Laugh)

CH: The album in my opinion is reminiscent in tone and in message to some of your early works like Again and Live in London And More, and more. You explore a lot of styles and expressions in your music with this project, but is that a fair observation or is this a departure from your previous releases?

DM: It’s all a continuation. This album took me a little bit longer than usual to release. It’s about five years. But it’s all a continuation. It’s a conglomeration of music, inspired songs, Praise and Worship. It’s the whole gamut for me. I’ve always been a little eclectic when I record. This one, the worship songs, really came on the spur of the moment. They weren’t even prepared for. They were just added on. They came at the last moment. The Lord just flowed with it. The singers just grabbed a hold of it and flowed with it.

There’s a song called I Choose To Be Dancing, and I taught that song two hours before the live concert. I was in my dressing room, got everyone out of makeup and wardrobe, took everyone downstairs and taught it. And we sang it that night, and everybody in the venue was singing it. So there were a lot of things that were inspired spontaneously that made the recording what it is. There are a lot of songs that didn’t make it because I didn’t feel it, so I didn’t release it. They were more contrived than they were inspired. The album followed the same trend as before, just a little more inspired.

CH: You watched and learned from some of the greatest vocalist and artists of our time. I’m speaking about two titans, specifically Pastor Andraé Crouch and Pastor Marvin Winans. What were some of the greatest lessons in artistry and ministry you picked up from these pastors?

DM: Don’t forget Walter Hawkins. I learned there are different levels of artistry, and more than artistry, the importance of a real relationship with God and ministry. Andraé Crouch mentored me as a little boy. It’s not often that these types of men stop for a moment. He stopped for just one second just to play for an eleven year old boy like me. Then he followed up throughout his touring period just to send postcards.

He’d always put a scripture in the postcard and say “Remember this scripture. I’m going to ask you about it when I see you.” He fostered ministry. He didn’t say things like “Hey, I’m in Ireland. I’m having a good time.” Everything was scripture. With Andraé you learned the artistry of musicality. All of Andraé’s records were musically driven. The music was the thing.

With Walter Hawkins, he simply changed the way Gospel music fans viewed choir music or choral music. Walter Hawkins was more practical in his lyrics than Andraé was. His lyrics would be “sometimes I feel discouraged.” His message was so poignant and practical. One thing about Hawkins was the message and the harmonies.

Marvin L. Winans…Amen! He was just totally about the word of God, about fasting and prayer. No matter what the Winans’ did, before they recorded they would go out on a 30 or 40 day fast. The four brothers would lock themselves in the church and not come out until they heard from God. Pastor Winans taught me that, for as much as your career grows, your consecration has to grow at the same pace. The more popular you get, the more you have to know God. You‘ve got to stay in God’s face so that you can keep your balance.

Marvin Winans would never let me be an artist. All the years I’ve known him, he never let me be an artist. He prophesied to me. He told me “they’re gonna know you more than they know any of the Winans, Donnie.” I told him, “you’re crazy because your The Winans. Nobody knows my name.” He would drive me into the ground. “Donnie, stop telling me that I’m wrong. Listen to what I’m saying. Stop saying no to God. I’m telling you that the Lord said you’re going to be greater than we are. I got to prepare you for that.” He became selfless.

Between him, his brother, BeBe and Ronald, I became their project. BeBe brought me to the Oprah Winfrey Show. He told Oprah, “You need to hear Donnie sing, not me.” When BeBe got a radio show, he’d say “you need to have Donnie do this, not me.” That’s the way that they were. The Winans family took me in and they took the seed that I had from Andraé and the seed from Walter, cultivated it, groomed it, and taught me how to apply holiness as the mainstay.

CH: This past year was a particularly trying year for you with the loss of your sister and friend, Olivia who lost her battle against cancer. How did her life, her fight with cancer, and her ultimate death affect you both as a brother and as a man of faith?

DM: In the faith realm, it was easy. It wasn’t hard at all. In the faith realm, her life and her passing increased my walk. Olivia’s faith was what gave her an additional nine and a half years since her diagnosis. The original prognosis in 1999 was that we found the cancer in the fourth and final stage. It had eaten away her whole breast. The doctors said there was nothing they could do. The cancer was on her spine, down the nape of her neck, on her kidneys, her liver, her lungs, her vocal chords, her lymph nodes, and a patch on her skull. That’s when they found it.

They told her within six months to a year she’d be in a vegetated state, and within a year’s time, she’d be gone. That was in 1999. She said no, went through all the chemotherapy even though the doctor’s said it wouldn’t do any good. But then they would come back and say “we don’t know what’s happening, but we can’t find it in your breast anymore.” They would x-ray her stomach and then they would investigate her lymph nodes and nothing. Then God told me to ask Olivia, “what if I don’t heal you. Will you still believe in Me?” She said yes, and God stretched out her life to nine and a half years until she was ready to go.

CH: That’s a testimony.

DM: That’s a faith walk. The faith aspect that affected me was wonderful. Even her home-going service was a celebration like I’ve never seen before. We praised God like it was going out of style. That was the easy part. Now, as a brother, which people didn’t allow me to be, it devastated me. To this day it devastates me. She lived with me the last year of her life. I cared for her, watched over her everyday with her ups and downs. I would watch her come down the stairs with her skinny bird legs, looking for something to eat in the refrigerator as she jumped into my conversations.

This was fifty years of a relationship in the making. It was the hardest thing in the world to see her go. When my 2-year old brother died I was only 8-years old, so it wasn’t as devastating. But this relationship was after fifty years of growing together, and our family has always been close. We don’t have that fake closeness. We are in each other’s face and each other’s business. We don’t have any friends. All our friends have got to be family to us. It was hard, and it still is. But the faith aspect gives us consolation.

CH: You worked and supported the campaign for President Barack Obama. How was that experience?

DM: It was painful for me because I got beat up in the media. I got beat up when I campaigned for him in South Carolina, by political parties and activists. They jumped me man! (laughs) They waited till I came around the corner and ganged up on me. [laughs] I supported the campaign because Oprah asked me to go and campaign with her when they launched their efforts in California. Then President Obama asked me if I would come and help in South Carolina because my folks are from the area. So I said yes.

But then a few activists and the Republican Party jumped on all over me in the press and brought out all this controversial stuff. They demanded that I be taken off the performance list. I spoke with President Obama and asked him, “Did you not know about all these controversies?” He said “no, we just took peoples’ word for it and we didn’t vet you, but now we’re in a predicament that if we remove you from the performance list, we’ll lose the Black and church constituency, and if we keep you on, we’ll just suffer the outrage of activists and there’ll be political fodder for the opponents. So, Pastor McClurkin, we’re asking you not to pull out.”

My thing was that he threw me under the bus in an interview by saying he disagreed with everything I said. But he told me, “This is politics.” I understand politics and he had to do what he had to do in order to balance this awkward situation. So they sent me down to South Carolina. I got on a private jet, had secret service people escorting me, they put me in the car, had a dummy car trail us, and there were over four thousand people standing around the building waiting to get in to this venue. And there were only fifteen activists across the street protesting. When I went in, I just did what we do and the place went up.

People raised their hands to receive Jesus. And then I talked to the cameras. Some of it’s on YouTube. I told the media point blank what I believe. President Obama called and thanked me. I thought by that time I was out of the camp because of the controversy. I thought they’d never call me again. But then they called me again to appear at the Inauguration.

To be a part of history is remarkable, absolutely remarkable. And to see him ascend to a height that has never been ascended to by an African American makes me proud to be an American. I’m proud that I can tell my son and my children’s children that I helped campaign for him.

CH: Your ministry has definitely resonated with International audiences as far away as Japan, South Africa, Jamaica and Canada. What have been some of your favorite international destinations to minister? And is there any truth to a Live recording in the far East?

DM: Yes, there is. There are plans in the works for recording in Japan within a year. I’ll be going to Japan at the end of May. There’s a concert we’re producing before about six or seven thousand Japanese people, featuring a five hundred voice choir. We’re set on coming back later on in 2010 and doing Live In Japan. Gospel music in Japan is the rage. It’s huge. Less than 0.5 percent of the population is Christians but there are hundreds of gospel choirs throughout Japan. I don’t know how that happened, but it’s amazing.

So even when we go back for the workshop in May, there won’t be Christian’s that are in the workshops, coming to the concert, or even in the choirs. Maybe a few Christians, but the majority of them will be doing it because of the music form. They become Christians afterwards. One of my favorite places in the world is England and Jamaica. I love Jamaica because of the food and because of the terrain.

I love to drive from Kingston, over to Mount Rasha, go through Fern Gulley, to Ocho Ríos, to Dunn’s River Falls, then drive Ocho Ríos to Montego Bay and stay at the Half Moon Hotel. Then drive across all the way to Negril. But I haven’t been to the countryside yet, so that’s what I’m going to do this year. I love England because of its antiquity. I love England. And it doesn’t matter where you go in that country, all you meet are Jamaicans. England is filled with Jamaicans.

CH: Finally, what kind of lasting imprint and message would you hope that the listener will draw from your latest album?

DM: That we are called to God and called to each other, that we are ordained to serve and worship God and to serve and love one another. This album is geared to glorify God. Every song speaks to the majesty of God, or the relationship with God, and it doesn’t glorify a human experience. It is just God.

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