With the release of his sixth and most creative album to date – DUETS – on RCA Inspiration, which features a cast of close friends formed over a lifetime of ministry, Donnie McClurkin opens up in our exclusive interview about his recent collaborations, his role as a tough judge on BET Sunday Best and his expectation for excellence in ministry and music.
Christopher Heron: First off, your latest project – DUETS – reveals a lot of interesting collaborations with talented friends from over the years…Dorinda, John P. Kee, Israel, Tramaine, Marvin…the list goes on. Were there any duets you wanted to have with friends that just wasn’t possible due to scheduling or other issues? For me, I was surprised not to hear you sing with CeCe or Yolanda (after the success of the selection THE PRAYER) or Smokie Norful or even your mentor, Marvin Winans. And I guess another question emerges. How did these personalities you recorded with make the cut for DUETS?
Donnie McClurkin: Like you said, scheduling is everything. All of those names you mentioned were on my list, with the exception of Smokie Norful. Everyone of them originally said yes but our schedules just did not gel. I couldn’t prolong the production of this CD. Through prayer and consideration, we just kept on going. The one thing I noticed is that there’s always time in the future for collaborations. These individuals are not just artists. We have relationships, we’re all like brothers and sisters. Pastor Winans wrote a song for me that will be done at a later date. I wanted to do a song with CeCe off her album, Everlasting Love. Everyone was compliant. It’s just that scheduling prevented us from working together. I also couldn’t have 27 songs on this album. We’ve got the potential and possibility for a follow-up CD.
Christopher Heron: DUETS is a very interesting concept for a Gospel album. Did you have this idea for an album for sometime? Who gets credit for conceiving of this collaborative project?
Donnie McClurkin: The credit would go to my brother, Fred Hammond. Number one, Fred Hammond is one of the greatest Gospel artists out there today. He’s a real brother and I don’t mean that in a generic sense. He’s a real brother. We’ve been friend and brothers in this Gospel industry for years and we’ve grown a strong attachment. We’re were all on the One Love Gospel Cruise with Cathy Hughes about two years ago in the middle of the Caribbean. Cathy called a meeting with all of the Gospel artists, their managers and label reps…she wanted us to talk about the state of Gospel music. She gave her input on what Gospel music was to her and how it’s doing. That meeting may have ran for three hours.
In that whole meeting, Fred Hammond said, it was time for us to collaborate amongst ourselves the same way Rap artists collaborate with R&B artists today and how that collaboration was making that genre of music stronger and more powerful because of the collaboration. When Fred said that, it clicked inside of me. I hadn’t begun planning my CD. So when it came time to start working on my CD, I realized that was the direction to go. I started thinking collaboration. The songs started to come in mind with different personalities or songs would be written with a different slant in mind for a certain personality. That’s how the whole CD developed and came to be as you hear it now.
Christopher Heron: Five years is a long time between albums. Why did you wait so long to release your next project? Was it your demanding schedule? Was it the transitioning from Verity to RCA Inspiration? What kept you from the limelight for such an extended time?
Donnie McClurkin: If you look back at all my albums, they’re actually released in four-year increments. Everyone of my CDs are released about four to five years apart. I don’t have the urgency to flood the market with material. The thing is, Christopher, I’m not qualified or identified or made great because of my album. I’m not a slave to my music. It’s a whole life that we’re living. It’s about becoming everything that God has called us to be. If I was solely an artist, then that’s what I would pump out constantly but I’m a father, I’m a brother, I was a son before my mom and dad passed away in 2013. I’m a pastor. I’m an evangelist who travels around the world preaching the Gospel.
God has given me favor with BET, so I’m now a part of the BET brand with Sunday’s Best. God has given me a great radio show with five million people who listen. Then I have my personal time to be me. So, it takes time to do all of that. I just can’t limit myself to music. In fact, today I think Gospel artists are learning to be fully rounded people. No matter how much people laud us about our musicality and vocality, we’re learning to pull back. I look at a friend like Kirk Franklin. His primary goal is to be a good husband to Tammy (Franklin) and a good father to his kids. I look at Israel Houghton. It’s the same thing. No matter what movie he’s working on or what music he’s producing, his main focus is Lisa (Houghton) and his kids. I think there’s a balance coming back among the ministers. We’re putting first things first. The music will sound much more anointed when our lives are aligned with what we say and do.
Christopher Heron: Pastor McClurkin, your visibility and popularity has certainly grown even more with your judging duties on Sundays Best. You developed a reputation for being a bit tough on the contestants. Let me ask you this, is it a fair and accurate projection of who Donnie McClurkin is on TV, in terms of his personality, his sense of humour, his spontaneous praise, and yes, his sometimes sharp criticism or is your personality lost from all the editing to the show?
Donnie McClurkin: A lot of what you see of me on BET Sunday Best is lost in the editing room. It is a fair portrayal of who I am. I am tough when it comes to music. What you see on Sunday Best is a small sample of how I am with singers and musicians. Just as it is in the military, there is a certain demeanor you have to possess as a leader to demand excellence. In the military, there is bootcamp. You have to go hard, do everything precisely in order to make a soldier. I believe music is the same way. There’s a discipline that goes along with it. I tell everyone who works with me, “In ministry and music, I don’t have any friends, I don’t have any family, and I don’t have any feelings.”
When it comes to ministry, it has to be done the way God wants it to be done, which is in excellence. No time for foolishness. If you don’t have a knack for medicine, don’t try to operate on me. If you don’t know law, don’t try to represent me. And if you don’t have that musicality, don’t present yourself as an artist or musician or worship leader. If you read I Chronicles, chapter 15, it says David put Kenaniah in place as a head Levite because he was both skillful and anointed. I apply that same scripture with each person who comes on (Sunday Best). I don’t carry on to be the so-called Simon Cowell or for the hype or to be mean. It’s not about being mean but it about being straightforward. If you can’t sing on this stage at this level, then I have to tell you. If you’re not a Levite, then I have to tell you. The Bible says that only the Levites could carry that anointing.
Christopher Heron: Is it safe to assume that visitors to Perfecting Faith Church, where you pastor, can expect the same level of excellence from your choir members and your worship leaders?
Donnie McClurkin: Most definitely. Everyone who is in the choir is there because they passed the audition. Everyone who plays on the Musical Team is there because they passed the audition. I hear folks who come to church say, “I want to sing on the choir.” but if you’re not called to the choir and there’s not an anointing on you as a minstrel, then there’s no sense putting you there. You have to function where God has anointed you to function. The choir is not a place for everyone to come because they like music. It’s a place for ministry. I don’t want anyone to preach who hasn’t been called to preach and I don’t want anyone to sing who hasn’t been called to be a Levite.
Christopher Heron: You’re at an interesting time in your career. You’re an elder stateman. You’re an A-List artist. You’re one of the most recognizable and most beloved artists in Gospel music, nationally and internationally. So at this point in your music ministry, what do you want to achieve when you record an album or when you go on tour? What is your goal and objective, particularly since you have a very successful church ministry and don’t need to record music anymore?
Donnie McClurkin: My purpose is to be what God has called me to be. I probably still need to record because God still has made me viable and everything you do that still has that light to it, you simply need to do it to the best of your ability. There’s no competing with the past. It’s a matter of staying the course, with the same motivation that I had before. Asking God, “What do you have for me next?” Oprah Winfrey told me, “I wake up every morning to Donnie McClurkin.” So, I ask God, “What do you have for me to do today, God?” I’ve been making it a practice every day of getting out of the bed and praying, “God, what do we have to do today? And help give me the grace to go through it because I don’t know if it’s going to be a heartbreaker day or day that’s going to knock the wind out of me or if it’s going to be a day that I’m floating on air…whatever the day turns out to be, tell me what are we going to do today?”
There’s no more sitting back and saying, “what’s next or how can I get another award or make a stronger song?” It’s about what it’s always been about. “What do you want me to do, Lord? Can we hurry up and finish the work down here, so we can get on up to Heaven?” (Chuckles) I’m one step closer to seeing Jesus. That’s the way I look at it. My time is widdling away. That’s why I have to redeem this time and do the best I can with this time. Christopher, if we as artists only live for the awards, we’ll be famous but we won’t be great. Famous is about feeding the ego, applaud me, give me high visibility, know my name. But greatness is about doing something that has purpose.
Christopher Heron: Finally, what is the lasting impression and the message you want to resonate with the listener to DUETS?
Donnie McClurkin: I want this CD more than any of my previous albums to show to the Gospel and secular communities the power of unity, the power of this Gospel and the power with comraderie, how it can make something larger and better than it could have been alone. That’s what this CD does. This album brings people together. Everyone of these artists I have a relationship with. They’re not just artists. I’ve known Erica and Tina Campbell since they entered the Gospel industry in 2000. We became friends since then. I’m friends with their sisters, their mother. We’re really family.
It’s the same thing with Justin Savage. He’s been playing with me as a musician for over seven years. Now, he’s into singing and songwriting, so, we have a relationship too. I can’t even remember when I first met John P. Kee. It had to be back in the 80’s, only to find out that we’re biological cousins. As for Dorinda…I’ve love the Clark Sisters since I first met them. Their mother was a good friend of mine. Mattie Moss Clark would call me ‘tall boy’. To sing the song with Dorinda that her mother wrote the year I was born was really something special. Preashea Hilliard is the newest artist I’ve met but we became close friends because of the purity in her ministry and the power in her praise & worship. She has a real relationship with God. Everyone on this CD holds a special place in my ministry and life.
That’s what I want people to see. Take note of the people that are in your life and find out what is the divine purpose. It will be something that will impact everyone you meet. That’s what the CD is intended to do. It’s going to impact lives when people hear the songs and feel the camraderie. The anointing comes from being unified. The Bible says that in unity, God commands a blessing, even life forevermore. That’s what I want to leave with the people who listen to the CD.