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Interview with Marvin Sapp
(March, 2010)

Every major artist can point to a career-defining moment that changes everything. For some it's a life experience and for others, it's a concert date. For Marvin Sapp, it's the song "Never Would Have Made It".

From sweeping the 2009 Stellar Awards to dominating the Billboard and radio charts, with one song, Marvin Sapp became a household name in both the gospel and urban music communities. As the popular vocalist releases his eighth solo album, titled Here I Am, GOSPELflava.com caught up with him to recap the last few years and get his take on this brand new release.

As you might imagine, life can change after a phenomenal experience like the Thirsty release and the success of the album has not come void of challenges.

Marvin Sapp"Well, it's been up and down," acknowledged the Grand Rapids pastor. "It was up because the Thirsty release was just overwhelmingly unbelievable. But in the middle of all of that, my wife experienced a major health challenge. So for the last nine months, I've been home. Whenever you are experiencing something supernatural, I just always look for the enemy. The best way he can hit me is through my family. My wife dealt with cancer over the last nine months, but God is good. She's completely healed. We're just excited to now move forward with Here I Am. Hopefully, we will have some form of success. Maybe not the success that Thirsty has had, but hopefully we'll have at least close to it and that will be enough for me."

Already, Pastor Sapp's newest single, "The Best In Me", has made chart history and has found a home atop the charts. However, all of it is news to the Verity artist.

"I wouldn't know. I live in a city where we have no gospel radio," admits Sapp. "Our R&B radio station goes off when the sun goes down. The only words I hear about how great the song is doing is from the record company and they try to keep me posted on things. Seeing the response from the people when I go out now is really mind blowing. It kind of reminds me of when 'Never Would Have Made It' first took off."

After the monumental success of one of the biggest albums of the last decade, one might feel nervous for the album's follow up. However, nervous isn't the feeling that Sapp is facing.

"I feel more pressure than I feel nervous. "Never Would Have Made It" is a phenomenon in gospel music history. What has happened with that record may never happen again," admits Sapp. "I wasn't really trying to follow that as much as I was trying to make sure that with my next project, I didn't alienate my base. I've built up a wonderful following and I know what they like to hear me sing. I wanted to give more of that but I also wanted to stretch them and stretch myself by adding different nuances to what we do and making the sound bigger. So Aaron (Lindsey) and I didn't leave our formula. I recorded in the same venue as Thirsty. We used the same producer, the same background singers, the same musicians, and the same people in the city that I live in, because I wanted to produce the same anointing. I really think that we accomplished that goal with the Here I Am CD."

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One of the album's most infectious songs is the Jonathan Dunn-penned "Fresh Wind".

"It's like an extremely long vamp," laughs Sapp. "Once people get it, it'll be there all day. It's straight church. But then we went a little more "adult contemporary" with "Praise You Forever", which has more of a rock vibe to it, which we've never done before. Again, we know what our listening base enjoys so we wanted to try something that we thought would stretch us while being a blessing to them. I think that our fan base is going to enjoy this record. I also think that those being introduce to Marvin Sapp will enjoy this as well."

One of the benefits of Sapp's recent success is his introduction to a new fan base. For this 20 year industry veteran, there are still many who view him as a new artist.

"I think it's great. People that have been with you all along can really testify to the new listeners about what I've done in my past. And, to be perfectly honest, it helps the record sales from the old records," laughs the multi-time Stellar Award winner. "Now, a lot of my new listeners are asking me, 'When did you do that Grace & Mercy album?' and I'll tell them fifteen years ago. It's all brand new to them. It's great! I appreciate the fact that God allowed me to experience this type of success when I'm old enough to handle it. At 22, I couldn't have handled this, but at 43, I'm capable of better dealing with this success. I understand that this is a season and it won't be like this always. I may be hot today but there's someone that's coming that's going to be hotter and I have to make peace with that. So while I'm on this roller coaster, I'm just going to ride it until I ride it out."

One of the most exciting moments in this new season for Sapp is the ability to share his success with his family.

"My son was very young when I left Commissioned," continues Sapp. " I'm really glad that my kids are now able to experience the success of their father as a solo artist. I'm glad that they get to see it and see the world with me. They get to become more cultured and appreciating what God has done and is doing in the life of their father."

The last two years have brought brand new exposure into national circles for Sapp. The access has not come without a price.

Marvin Sapp"It's a two-edged sword," shares Sapp. "Because of the exposure, people get the opportunity to see you. My message has always been the same and my position has been very clear. We don't write songs to cross over. We write songs where God can take the cross over. Our focus is to keep it as strictly Jesus as much as possible. On the other side, you have your critics who see what you do on national television and then begin questioning your stance and standards. It comes with the territory though. At this point, I have tough enough skin to take the good with the bad. My focus is to live a holy and righteous life and to be a light at all times. As long as I'm doing that to the best of my ability, I'll let God be my judge and every other man be a liar."

The song selection process for creating Here I Am is one that Sapp continues to use. Simply put, use new blood.

"I actually had about 100 songs that were sent to me. My process is very simple. I'm a strong believer in using new and untapped talent," says Sapp. "One of the major blunders we make in this industry is that we overlook the unsigned, raw writer. I've felt that I've been a platform and springboard for new writers. Of course, I have a core of writers that I deal with, like Jonathan Dunn. He's an artist in his own right, but he's never presented a song on anyone else's record besides mine."

"Jason Nelson, Jonathan Nelson's twin brother, is another great example of a new writer. "Praise You Forever" was written by another unknown, first-time writer by the name of Jarmone Davis."

" Then you have Jason Hendrickson, who used to play drums for Hezekiah Walker years ago. It's his first time putting songs on a major recording artist's record. My process has always been to find rare gems and nuggets, take their music, and give them a platform so people can see that they have gifts and talents that can change the world as well. Of course, the songs have to touch a place in me so that I can minister them to the masses. I think that's what we did on this record. Actually, we had to cut a few songs that I wish we could have recorded just to have them, because they were great, great songs. I told them that if they'd cut me some slack, I'd try to figure out how to put them on my Christmas record or something because they are great songs."

Sapp believes he's found the secret to songs resonating with his fan base and it can be found in his monumental hit.

"I believe the reason why "Never Would Have Made It" was such a great song is because we have all had "Never Would Have Made It" moments," reveals Sapp. "There's a connection there. The same thing with "The Best In Me". All of us have found ourselves in places where people have written us off, said that we'd never make it, and said we were never be nothing. All of us have that testimony in our lives. The fact is that many of us, across the board, not just in the urban community, have esteem issues because someone we've looked up to has shattered us with their words. Words can cause more pain in the lives of people than any stick or stone. There are things even now as a 43-year-old man that I heard when I was 8 years old that I still struggle with. I have to tap into a few facts. One, I'm fearfully and wonderfully made. Two, I'm made in His image and His likeness. And three, man is the only one that looks at the outer appearance but God looks at the heart. When I look at all of that, I understand that God only sees the best in me. People can relate to that. I think that's what hits home. It's relatable music. When people can relate to it, can sing with it, and it's not difficult, people can connect to it."

Another favorite on the new album is "Don't Count Me Out", which has a specific Commisioned flair to it.

Marvin Sapp"Jason Nelson is a phenomenal writer and is a Commissioned-ite, " acknowledges Sapp. "Jason picked up the bass because Fred Hammond played the bass. If you listen to him sing, he sounds like Fred in Fred's early days. He sent me this song. I was in a sermon series talking about the life of David in my church. I was dealing with how David's father had written him off as being a possible selected choice for the King based on the fact that his dad didn't call him in with the seven brothers. The words really speak to David's life and what he had to go through in order to be the king that became later in life. Even though we look at people based on the world's qualifications, God doesn't look at that. That's where 'Don't Count Me Out' comes from. It's literally a David story of how he was selected by God. Again, another song that deals with the emotional duress that we have as individuals feeling like we're not chosen because we don't do it like others do it. The truth of the matter is that I don't have to be you. I can be in the field, tending stinking sheep. I don't have to have your stature, your ability, or your talent. All I have to be is available to be used and have the right heart. God looks at that. We miss a whole lot of people because we look at talent and gifting. Talent and gifting may be great but if you don't have the right heart, your character may be flawed and you'll come in and mess up everything I'm trying to do."

With twenty years in the business, Sapp has seen a lot of change and transition. With that, he has a healthy perspective on the current state of the gospel music industry.

"We're in transition," states Sapp. "There was a day and time where gospel music was only about talent. Now it's about talent and look. When I started 20 years ago, you had to be able to sing. There weren't any tricks. No knobs they could push. No pitch bending. No tuning. You just stayed in the studio until you got it right. Or do like Fred (Hammond) used to do. If you couldn't get it in the first 15 takes, they'd call somebody else and have them come and sing your part. It taught us that we had to be excellent in our craft. You just couldn't get up and give people anything and think that it was going to be acceptable. I believe that the industry is in transition. Because of the overwhelming move to digital, it's sad to say, but record companies are becoming obsolete unless they transition with the move. With people being able to upload their singles to iTunes and Amazon.com, it's really changing the game of what this industry is all about. I like the direction that it's going because it's teaching entrepreneurialism and independence. However, it's also highlighting the lack of talent. Now, everything is going towards sampling."

"My album is very musical. I want them to understand that music is still important to what we do and not sampling and that type of stuff. People want to see instrumentalists and instrumentation in the music we deliver. I'm glad to be in the industry understanding the trends and direction in which this music industry is going. I'm even happier to be at the forefront of what the gospel music industry is doing. It gives me the opportunity to make sure that they understand, if this album is successful, that it's still instrumentation, musicianship, vocal ability and talent and not always the look that breeds success. Most importantly, my hope and prayer is that they say that it's the anointing as well that really makes the difference."

So many have longed for the return of arguably one of the industry's most influential forces, Commissioned. So, will there ever be a second Commissioned Reunion?

Marvin Sapp"No!" exclaimed Sapp. "We're so busy. It may happen but it would have to take a lot of prodding. Everyone's doing their own thing right now. Karl (Reid) is doing his own thing. Mitchell (Jones) is doing his own thing. We have enough songs where we could do another reunion without revisiting one song from the first reunion album. It would be fun to do it. I just don't foresee it. You know, those jokers are old now. I'm the baby of the bunch at 43. Everyone else is in their 50s now," jokes Sapp.

"It's funny," continues the Commissioned alumnus."When Fred's record came out, I had the opportunity to see him in Atlanta. He was on his promotional tour. He had done this mini-concert piece in one of the major malls in Atlanta. I knew he was supposed to be back on the road for another 10 days to finish up his promotional tour. He looked at me and said, 'I'm going home tomorrow man. I'm too old for this.' When he said that, I was like, this is the beginning of the end for all of this ripping and running. I feel it in my physical body. You get older. You gain weight. I've dropped about 20 pounds and working on another 20, trying to get in working shape. Focus is different now.

" As a pastor, husband, and father, Sapp does see life outside of the music industry. While in the midst of a very successful run, he has other goals and avenues he's pursuing.

"I'm in the process of trying to build a new 18,000 square foot extension to our Family Life Center on our 17-acre campus. We're still pursuing our charter schools. We just did a deal with our local mental hospital to open up a residential treatment facility in one of our properties. I have three books that have not been released yet. I'm planning on getting them released this year. One is called "Diary of a Psalmist". Another is called "Stepping Out on the Promise". I did a book called "Never Would Have Made It Moments" which is a reflection book with a workbook. I just started a self-help book. This is something different for me. It's called "The Best In Me", giving people ten steps to bringing out the best in them. There are other projects that we're trying to do."

"There's more to Marvin Sapp then just music and we want to make sure that everyone knows that."

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interview by Gerard Bonner

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