Interview with Marvin Sapp
"It's church, but funky. Definitely an up tempo groove, with a tight band and having scripturally tight, lyrical content. Contemporary, but still with that church appeal."
— interview by Stan North —
That's Marvin Sapp, and that's how he himself describes his sound and his approach to musical ministry.
After several years singing with Commissioned, fresh from the exhilarating Commissioned Reunion, and now presenting his fourth solo album I Believe his Verity Records debut Sapp exudes energy and enthusiasm for his very evident calling.
He was more than eager to dig deep with us into that oft-mentioned descriptor of himself that he is so very passionate about. You know the one : "I'm not a singer who happens to preach, I'm a preacher, called by God, who happens to sing".
"No one's really asked me to explain the difference before. But it's very important. I believe that preaching is a calling, while singing is a gift. If you simply focus on your gift, then you risk never really tapping into your call. Because a gift can be perfected. But a calling is special, because it just 'happens'."
"My gift enhances what God has placed me here for. God says, ok, I'm choosing you for this. So, I never want to put my gift before my call, because I want God to recognize that I have my priorities straight."
"I'm not calling myself a preacher for any reason other than it's my calling. Sometimes people will change their focus to preaching for certain reasons, maybe because of a decline in their musical career or whatever. But I'm truly a preacher first. Wow, I'm so glad you asked that question."
Of course there are always that segment of people in any crowd who seem to be so much more into the music than the message. "You see that all the time," acknowledges Sapp.
"But I don't try to read into the minds of the people. I believe that the music I sing is Christ-centered, therefore the people are also getting the message. I don't sing music that simply entices the flesh, it gets to the Spirit. I'm always ministering."
Album Review: I Believe
Marvin Sapp's fourth solo album is his debut for Verity Records. Titled I Believe, it's glorious return to that live, church-groove aural environment that God created this artist to inhabit.....|
See full album review.
Sapp grew up in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area being a big fan of artists such as DJ Rogers, Rance Allen and Marvin Winans. He credits all three of these men as musical influences, and puts a special emphasis on Winans.
"I always said that I wanted to be well rounded. Teacher, pastor, singer, producer, all of it. Pastor Marvin Winans is all of these. I look at my influences from the point of view of who has spoken into my life and encouraged me to go to that new dimension."
"Another major influence is Rev. Darryl Hines from Milwaukee. He's the chair of the Men's Dept. of the Church of God in Christ, and he pastors the largest African-American church in the state of Wisconsin, Christian Faith Fellowship. And of course, there's my own pastor, Bishop William Abney."
"So I've watched these men, the way that the live, the strides they've made as men of God, and I draw from that."
No surprise that another huge influence is Fred Hammond, whom he considers to be a musical genius.
"Being near Detroit, I of course grew up listening to Commissioned. We would drive anywhere to go to a Commissioned concert, all over the state. I was in the same church denomination as they were, but they really didn't know me at all."
"A lot of people think that I auditioned to be part of Commissioned, but that wasn't the case at all. Somehow, Fred just heard me, saw me direct and sing. Then he just gave me the opportunity, there was never any audition. I give him the credit, he saw something in me."
The recent Commissioned Reunion project saw both Hammond and Sapp, as well as co-laborers Keith Staten, Marcus Cole, Karl Reid and Mitchell Jones unite on stage for one of the most heralded live recordings in recent Gospel memory. Sapp finds picking a highlight of that event to be easy.
"For sure, the best part was when we had finished the concert [in Detroit at Bishop Andrew Merritt's Straight Gate Church]. All of us, we just got together and hugged on stage, it was just that coming together again to complete something that was so successful. To see the 5,000 people up there in the church on their feet for 2 and a half hours, to see all that, to see the [resulting] video, everything, it was such a blessing."
"We're much older now, when I came in to Commissioned I was in my mid 20's, now I'm in the mid 30's. I'm one of the babies of the group, the others are a little older. And the six week tour, that was great too."
Sapp's vocals have always been lauded. It while he was still singing with Commissioned that he embarked on his solo career, recording his first of three albums for Word Entertainment in 1995.
His biggest success came with his second album, Grace and Mercy, a live recording that captured the essence of Marvin Sapp, that combo of church and groove produced by Percy Bady that even brought Marvin Winans into the picture on some songs.
His junior project, Nothing Else Matters, detoured off into studio tracks and put much more of an urban focus to Sapp's material (see 1999 interview).
"Grace and Mercy was extremely successful for me. The next one was really what I'd call the record company's album."
Echoing the familiar push and pull that frequently goes on between artists and record labels, the tug of war over artistry vs. marketing issues, Sapp explained that he veered into that urban direction reluctantly, 'kicking and scratching all the way'.
"With Commissioned, we did some urban stuff for sure, but that was as part of a group, and that was for then. But I'm a church singer, and that's the way I want to keep it. It's my thing, it's me."
I Believe is a distinct return to that familiar church/funk territory for Sapp. Unusually, while June 2002 marks the release of the album on Verity, the powerhouse label to which he signed a five year record deal in early 2002, he actually recorded most of the album in 1999, nearly three years ago.
"After the Myrrh division [of Word Entertainment] shut down, the label still was intending to put out the album, but I said, no, please, I want to shop it."
So shop it he did, with Verity being his final destination.
"Max Siegal, he used to be my lawyer, then he became the President of Verity, I've known him for 10 years. And I've known Tara Griggs-Magee [Senior VP of Verity, see interview] for years too, since her days at Benson [Commissioned's former record label]. So I've known these people years and I trust them."
"I had the opportunity to sign with three other labels, but I said no."
"I believe God does things in a time and a season. I know that this is the destined time for I Believe to come out. Yes, the songs are familiar to me now, even my three-year-old can sing them all but even though I know them inside out, I know that this is the time for the record."
"Every song on this CD, I specifically chose it to be on there."
And once again Sapp hooked up with respected producer and songwriter Percy Bady. There's something about that relationship that works so beautifully.
"Percy knows me well, we've worked together since album one. We collaborate wonderfully together, we've got the connect. He'll send me a song, it'll be just him with piano, and he'll let me go to it. Percy really doesn't give me a whole lot of instruction.
Bady wrote the lion's share of the songs on I Believe, and also produced most of the material. Paul Wright III also stepped in to produce a couple of the cuts. And yet Sapp so evidently sings it like it's his own.
"While I didn't actually write any of the songs on this particular album, it's all me, because I don't sing songs I haven't experienced."
"As a preacher, I don't feel I can minister a song I haven't experienced. There's certain things I just won't preach in song, because I haven't experienced them. As a pastor it's different, but musically, I've got to relate to where I've been."
The title track is particularly important for Sapp, you can hear him say that himself, since he says it's his favorite song directly on the track.
Marvin Sapp's Praise Place
Another aspect to Marvin Sapp's ministry is his passion for Praise Place, a non-profit venture based in Grand Rapids that aims to give back to the inner city area that Sapp came out of. Mentorships, bookstore, coffee house, studio, computer learning center, these are all a part of this practical ministry, housed in its own building.|
Sapp also brings an annual event to the Grand Rapids area, Praise In The Park, featuring free haircuts, BBQ, concert and other activities. Thousands flock to the August event annually.
Sapp states, "I don't just believe that God raises you up and give yous a platform just to forget where you came from. If God can change my life growing up in the inner city, he can do the same thing for other young people."
See Marvin Sapp's own website for more information.
"'I Believe' encouraged me from day one. With this three years of record label stuff even, I believed that God would bring me through."
"Another song especially meaningful for me is "Not Now Doesn't Mean Never". As believers, many times we think that God has forgotten about us. But just because He wants to make us wait a little, that doesn't mean it's not going to happen. He has the perfect timing. It's about being patient."
Preach it, Marvin.
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