Donnie McClurkin Extended Interview

Why is the focus of your new CD praise and worship?

Well, you know, so much that we do is industry driven. In music form, whether gospel, secular, it’s all industry driven. And it’s very rare that the artist can really do what is closest to his or her heart. You do what the industry dictates that the people want to hear. But there comes a time when you’ve got to know your audience and you’ve got to know where you really function best and you’ve got to take the chance. That’s what we’ve done with this CD. It’s more of the songs of the church because that’s the thing that people respond to more than any of the other songs that I sing, and there has to be a bridge that can connect the old with the new and everything in between. That’s what this CD does. It becomes an eclectic blend of the church songs that will bring the young people back to the foundation of where it started and the old people [to] a greater appreciation [of] what the youth of America and the world are partaking [of] in their worship services. We reached way back [to] songs that only your grandmother and great-grandmother would know, and we just brought them back into today and didn’t doctor them up. Just did it totally raw. We didn’t slick it down in the studio.

Do young people who are listening to lots of other kinds of music have a heart or an ear to hear this?

Sure. I’m 45 years old, and it’s starting to tickle me very, very much how the young people — and I’m talking about from the kids five, six, seven years old on up to the young adults — gravitate to the music form that I sing. You’ve got little kids singing “I’ve Got My Mind Made Up,” jumping up on stage, doing all kinds of dances. You know, they appreciate it. The only reason why they haven’t is because it hasn’t been given to them, but they appreciate it and they gravitate and they even take it on. You know, they learn the songs, and they become a part of their lifestyles, just like they were mine. These songs that I’m singing were ancient to me when I was a child, but because they sang it to me it became a part of my relationship with God and my church world.

Are you hoping it will be a crossover success like some of your other songs? Are you hoping for airtime on secular stations?

No, and I can guarantee that it won’t. You can’t sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” on BET or MTV. They’re not going to play that, and it’s not for them necessarily. It’s for those people who have roots in the church even if they’re not in the church any longer. There’s no way in the world that this is going to have any crossover appeal or be picked up by the secular stations at all. It’s not supposed to. It’s geared to the church. But most secular artists and secular listeners have roots in gospel and the church, so it will appeal to them in that sense. And believe me, the majority of the people that listen [to] and buy secular music, they also listen to and buy gospel music, and that is how it will appeal to them. It won’t be something that will be commercial, but it will be something that grabs them in their heart and their spirit and brings them back to a place of remembrance that was precious, that was innocent, and that gives them, you know, that moral “oomph” that reminds them of who they are and who they are supposed to be, even if they’re not that. So we won’t see this played in between Lil’ Kim and, you know, Outkast, but it will have an appeal that will probably be greater than any other CD that I’ve done besides “We Fall Down.”

Music has been such a part of your spirituality. What is that connection? What is it about the music that affects your spiritual life?

Music has a divine root, a divine origin. Music comes from God. So it doesn’t only affect my spirit; it affects everyone’s spirit that hears it. No matter what music form it is, it affects our spirit. There’s some music that can make you sad because it can invoke memories. There’s some music that can lift your spirits. There’s some music that can just calm you down. There’s some music that can make you crazy and angry and do crazy things — mosh pit, and tear up furniture while you’re listening to it — hard heavy metal. But all music affects the spirit of man, in one form or another. The music that I sing affects me because it is my connection between God and my situations. It is how I relate to God and how he relates to me. I can learn more through the songs than I can through any other form, and that’s not just me but that’s people in general. But the music helps me to express my feelings toward God and even incorporate him into my different situations, that I can display through my musical interpretations. It’s a release.

I was always introverted. I was the guy that was scared of crowds, that was inferior. I had such an inferiority complex, and the only way that I could really depict any feelings or any emotions was through music. The only way that I had a voice was through music, because I was the reclusive fellow that sat in the back and that didn’t think that I had any worth at all. The way that God caused me to become integrated into society was through music. So that has a spiritual connection with me that was really imperative and important in my development [and] ministry, because other than that, I don’t think that I’d be able to function socially.

Does it still have that spiritual reality for you?

More so than ever before, because I’ve been through much more now, and the song “Stand” that I wrote, that Oprah fell in love with, came out of that because I was able to express some things that I was going through. You know, we fall down but we get up, the whole nine -yards; everything that I’ve ever really written or sung I’ve been able to pull out of me, what was in me, through that. I don’t know if I’m making sense, but it caused a release of the things that were pent up in me, through the music. It tapped into the spiritual side of me and the emotional side of me and allowed me a voice that I would have never had any other way.

Tell me about the song “Stand.”

Oh, Jesus! I was sitting on a plane. I was traveling from Los Angeles going to Miami and stopping in Detroit, and I had been gone for two weeks and I was going to be gone for a week and a half more and I was just having a meltdown, a real meltdown. I didn’t want to go any further. I wanted to stop, and I sat on the back of a big 260-seat jet, with only 50 people on it, ’cause it was 1 a.m. in the morning, red-eye flight. I was so tired. I was fed up with this; this didn’t make any sense, and my thing to God was, “God, why can’t I be normal? Why can’t I have a wife, 2.5 children, a dog, a cat, a white picket fence? Where’s my stuff? Why do I have to do this?” And I was really out of it. And within 20 minutes the whole song came. What do you do when you’ve done all you can? Seems like it’s just never enough. What do you say when people who thought that they would be with you, promised that they’d be with you — but they didn’t understand the level of ministry that God was calling you to, and they left because they couldn’t handle it, and you’re all alone? All of these different things came out in 20 minutes — the melody, the words — and I thought it was a song just for me. You know, artists have their own special songs that nobody else is going to hear and nobody else would understand because it’s totally crazy. And then I taught it to a choir in Cleveland — one of the stops I had to make — so I could remember it, ’cause I didn’t have a tape recorder or anything. I don’t know what happened from there. It just went, like, berserk, crazy, took on a life of its own. The next thing I knew, I was in the Bahamas and the telephone rang and it was Oprah. I never saw or spoke to her before, and she asked me to come and do a show with her in Cape May, New Jersey, and from then on Oprah would stand on the show and on television and talk about the song “Stand” week after week and told the whole nation, ’cause whatever Oprah says, you know, the nation does! That’s what happened. And we did this thing in Nassau, Bahamas, maybe about two years later, and she wanted me to come and sing “Stand” and she said, “Donnie, has this CD gone gold yet?” And I said, “No, no.” She said, “Okay.” She stood on television and said, “You’ve heard me talk about Donnie McClurkin before. This is a voice that you’ve got to reckon with, and this is my favorite song. This is the CD and the song is ‘Stand.’ You need to, everybody needs to have a copy of this. And now Donnie McClurkin sings ‘Stand.'” Two weeks later, the thing went gold, and the rest is history. That’s how it happened; it was just something that came out of something that I was going through and, again, the music was my way of expressing it — and not knowing that expression was going to touch a world. And it still boggles my mind.

What does it say to you about the songs — that it is something that did touch so many people?

I don’t know. A lot of this is really a mystery to me. A lot of this is so absolutely phenomenal and mysterious to me — that God would allow you to go through something for the purpose of touching a whole entire world. He’d allowed me to have a temper tantrum on a plane so that a whole entire world can be, you know, ministered to by a song. Why he does that? I don’t know, and when I get to him I’m going to ask him, because it seems like it would be so much easier for him to use somebody else because of the pains and stuff, but he does it for his purposes, and consequently people are helped. When you have people coming to you talking about how after they tried to commit suicide and lay in the hospital and somebody brought a tape up, a CD, and put it on their ears and gave them hope — now that kind of stuff, you know, just humbles you. It breaks you down because you never expected that type of thing, and it’s still mysterious to me.

You’ve been really open about some of your own struggles and certainly [about] some of the music that became a part of that.

It’s not an unusual story. It’s just one that’s not usually told. I have been totally, you know, taken by surprise by the thousands on top of thousands of people that relate to the story because it’s happened to them — child molestation that you have to keep quiet. I was raped at eight years old by my uncle and again, at 13, by his son. And it’s amazing, you know, when you stand up there and tell it and you become totally naked and transparent and you pull the skeletons out of the closet and your family goes totally berserk because “That’s our business” — and let me tell you, in the Black family we’re a very quiet family; we’re a very secretive family. “What goes on here stays here,” “Don’t air your business in front of people,” you know what I mean. And when I started talking about it, it became tumultuous. But this is what God laid on my heart to do. I wasn’t even trying to really reach out and help a world. It was just the spur of the moment where I felt the leaning of the Lord just to share it. And consequently, it has turned around and given me platforms in so many different areas to talk to different people who have gone through [it]. It’s all because of the brokenness of the past and the healing of the present. Yeah, the rape happened, twice. Yeah, there was a 20-year period of total sexual ambiguity and scars that dug so deep, you know, but at the end of the road it was worth it.

You’ve gotten a lot of opposition from gay groups for what you say.

This has been a three-ring circus. “Controversy” is a small word compared to what it’s been, with people not even giving me the chance to do what you all are giving me the chance to do — to talk about it, straight from me. But people have filtered things and said things and contorted things and distorted things to the point where it’s become a battleground now with a few, because it’s not the entire gay community; it’s a few of the radical activists in the gay community trying to spin things into something that it really isn’t — misquoting or adding quotes to things that I’ve said, misinterpreting purposely to start a war — and it’s been interesting.

It doesn’t reflect the whole of the gay community, because there are a whole lot of gay people that understand exactly what I said, and although they are in that lifestyle, they give me the privilege of having my opinion and my free speech, just as they have theirs. So it’s not so much of a full-fledged battle, but it’s just the few that are trying to make more of what I’ve said than I have said.

Now, I do have my views! Don’t get me wrong. I do have my views and as a minister of the gospel, I make my views known. It is not to condemn anyone, but it’s to give an opportunity for anyone who wants help. And for those who don’t think that they need help, then, you know, I’m not the guy. But for those that do and that want help, then I can use my experiences. I’m not talking from another place. I’m talking about, from my experiences. I can use my experiences and how God did what he did in me, in order to give them the help that they need.

Let’s be clear about it. What did God do?

Well, like I said, there was a big 20-year gap of sexual ambiguity where after the rape my desires were toward men, and I had to fight those things because I knew that it wasn’t what we were taught in church was right. And the older I got, the more that became a problem, because those were the first two sexual relationships that I had. Eight years old and 13 years old. So that’s what I was molded into. And I fought that. When I tell you from eight to 28, that was my fight — in the church. And you were in an environment where there were hidden, you know, vultures I call them, that are hidden behind frocks and behind collars and behind — you know, reverends and the deacons, and it becomes a preying ground, a place where the prey is hunted, and that was what it was like. And for 20 years, trying to find who I was, trying to define myself and my lust pulling me one way or my passions pulling me one way and my spiritual conviction pulling me the other. And I was never one that would say, “This is who I am. This is just who I am.” Because there was something that I read in the Bible and that had been preached for too long that said it was the exact opposite.

And finally God started showing me some things in the Bible, in Ecclesiastes. “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” There’s a time to love, and a time to hate. And they’d preached about the time to love, but nobody had really told me about the time to hate, and then God started making it plain to me the things to hate. You don’t hate the people, but there are certain things that are against God that may be in you that you have got to learn how to hate, even though it’s in you. It’s not self-hatred, of yourself, but there are certain things like, you know, anybody who has a lying problem; they get to the point where they hate being so, having such a lack of character that they make a change. And so on and so on. Whatever a person finds in themselves that is really counterproductive to them being the best that they can be — you learn how to despise that and cause a change, and that is what exactly happened to me. I had to be a man that was made for a woman. I wanted a family, I wanted a home, I wanted the whole lot of it. This was a problem to me. And God gave me the wherewithal to get out of that and to find out who I really am. And, consequently, that’s how the change took place — the different scriptures in the Bible, his will being shown through the scriptures.

Once I got to that point and that determination hit — that just because this happened to me doesn’t mean that this is who I’ve got to be — that’s when the change started taking place and God walked me through it until I became the Donnie that you see sitting in front of you. A little shabby, but it’s still the Donnie you see sitting in front of you. And there are other men and women, boys and girls that are going through the same thing.

There’s a group that says, “God made us this way,” but then there’s another group that knows God didn’t make them that way. And for those that are looking for that exit, there are those of us, — and I’m not a lone wolf; there are many more — that can tell that God did it for us and he will do it for them, and consequently we see it happening here in this church quite consistently.

Does it follow the theme of your song “We Fall Down” — this notion that people aren’t always perfect? How does all that fit together?

Not only people are not always perfect, but Christians are not always perfect. You know, the Christian body is the religious body that portrays, you know, sinlessness. You know, we are above sin and our character is beyond reproach. But the bottom line is, if you really looked underneath the covers and in the underbelly of Christianity, we are an imperfect people that are serving a perfect God. We have faults and failures that we just, you know — I don’t understand where the hypocrisy comes in heavily in Christianity. And it angers me in a way, because the bottom line is, if you mess up, just say, “I messed up.” Don’t cover it up and act like, you know, “I’m too pomped and pious to say that I’ve done wrong.” No, if you are a preacher and a pastor or a minister, and you mess up, just come clean and tell the truth: “I’ve messed up.”

The song “We Fall Down but We Get Up” brings the preacher and the pious to the same level as the so-called peons. That song levels the playing field. Every one of us are sinners that need a savior. And even in our piety, we jack this thing up so many times, and we just don’t want people to know it. But the song simply tells us, “A saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up.” That is the only thing that distinguishes the saint from the sinner. The saint was a sinner who fell down and had enough sense to get back up and know that God is merciful. And that’s the thing that I think turns people off about church — the pretentiousness that we are a bunch of people who have so been enlightened and brought to the greatest awareness that we don’t do wrong anymore. That’s a lie. That is nothing less than a lie that the church world is still paying the price for, because people don’t want to come to a hypocritical organization. That song just brought people to the realization that we are all the same. Consequently, the secular world grabbed a hold of it. “We Fall Down but We Get Up” just simply let people know we’re all the same, just some of us go to God for help.

How has celebrity changed you? And what new challenges has that posed for you as a minister?

It’s not so much a challenge [as] a change. If anything, it’s been more beneficial for the ministry. Celebrity has its pros and cons. But what celebrity has afforded me is a greater platform to declare the very message that has changed my life. I never intended, nor ever wanted — ’cause remember, I’m still the reclusive guy that’s afraid to be in certain areas and environments, and when I get around people of renown, I go back to that same reclusiveness. I’m not one to grab — “Hey, Stevie Wonder, I love you, man.” I’m the guy — they’re in the room, okay, let me go to the other room, because it still makes me jittery and nervous. What’s happened in my music career has bridged a gap that has caused people to embrace me. They’ve embraced me, and they’ve gravitated to me and pulled me into them also. A lot of them call me their pastor and I never dreamed of that; that wasn’t an intention of mine. It has given me a greater platform to deliver this life-changing message, and for that I’m grateful. You know, I don’t apologize for that.

How do you maintain your own spiritual strength or spark? What do you do to keep it fresh within you, so you have something to give out?

Well, the first thing I do is I never let this become really a part of me. The first and the main thing I do is never let this affect me. All the going and the singing and the crowds and the people and the church and the growth of the church — I take it off because at the end of the day, I’ve got to be the little boy that met God at nine years old. At the end of all accomplishments, I’ve got to be that little boy — the one who was broken, who realized his own lack of self-worth, who depended on God in the beginning. That’s the same little boy that I’ve got to be now — the one that depends on God now, that still realizes his own lack of self-worth, his own inabilities no matter what accomplishments have been made, attributing all of the success to God and all failure to me. That’s how I stay grounded, surrounding myself with people who are not going to praise me. I don’t travel with entourages. I don’t need folk, you know, [who say] “You’re great, you’re great. Oh man, that was wonderful, that was great. Oh my God, you’re the best thing since sliced bread.” Those people get on my nerves, and when people like that come around me I become enemies to them very quickly. I need people that are going to be levelers for me, that are going to help keep me aware of who I really am. I don’t want to be larger than life. God’s chosen that I am for his purposes. But when all this is over, and when these lights go off and this television show is over that you are doing right now — I go right back to being the nine-year-old boy that met God on July 14, 1969 and cried out at an altar in Amityville, New York and stayed in his presence, who felt most comfortable in his presence ’cause he didn’t fit in anyplace else. I become that boy all over again. In my bedroom, I become that boy. In my home, I become that boy. In my office, I become that boy. After the concert is over, everybody knows what I do. I go right back into the room and everybody that comes with us, we go and we pray and we go back to our hotel rooms and my admonition to them is, “Take this off. We’re not wearing this. The success of this concert — we’re not wearing this. Take it off. Don’t care who was here. Don’t care what they say, don’t care what they write about us. This ends here, and we wait for the next assignment, and we go back to God.” ‘Cause nobody can get the glory of this but God. If you know who I am, I’m Donnie McClurkin, a nine-year-old boy who met God. That’s it.

What role does music play for you?

If you sit me at a piano now, I’d cry like a baby. There are certain songs that bring me into a greater awareness of who God is. There are certain songs that open up another illumination to how great God is that would reduce me to tears, you know. There’s a song that says, (singing) “Sweet hour of prayer, Sweet hour of prayer that calls me from this world of care, and bids me at my Father’s throne make all of my wants and wishes known.” Those songs reduce me to tears.

Music has always been a part of religious activity — always has. Go to any major religious belief system, and you’ll find that music plays a part, because music has always been something that has come from God. It’s a gift that God has given to man, and it’s the greatest thing in the world. I don’t understand it to this day, but music goes past the soul, goes past the emotions, and gets into the spirit of a man and can bring him to his knees.

If you ever want to get anybody in touch with God, sing to them. And if you can touch a person where they live, you can bring hope to them. That’s what music does. You won’t find a major religion in this world that doesn’t use music, because the truth of the matter is that music comes from God.