In his songs and from his pulpit in Grand Rapids, gospel star Marvin Sapp sings and speaks frequently about enduring life’s trials and putting faith in a higher power to pull you through.
And during the past few years, he’s had to walk it as well as talk it.
Since 2006, Sapp — a Grand Rapids native who was part of the group Commissioned from 1991-96, when he launched his solo career — has lost his biological father, his “spiritual father and pastor,” his musical mentor and, just 11 months ago, his wife MaLinda to colon cancer. And yet that same period of time has also seen his career ascend to greater heights with 2007’s “Thirsty” and last year’s “Here I Am,” both albums that topped the gospel charts and achieve rarefied standing on the Billboard 200 — the latter debuting at No. 2.
“Musically it’s been unbelievable, but life has been a mess,” notes Sapp, 43, who remains the founder and senior pastor at Lighthouse Full Life Center Church in Grand Rapids, where he’s also raising his three children. “My life has been bittersweet, but at the end of the day I win, and that’s how I want it to be.
“At the end of the day, even though I’ve had some trouble and pain in life, I still overcome. I’m still on top. It’s not because I feel like I’m on top, because sometimes I’m not, but it’s because I know I am. That’s the way he created me to be.
Singing and sharing the gospel has certainly been Sapp’s lifelong pursuit. He began singing in church when he was 4 years old and joined a
number of groups and choirs before Fred Hammond invited Sapp to replace Keith Staten in Detroit’s Commissioned. Sapp was with the group for three key studio albums — including 1994’s Grammy Award-winning “Matters of the Heart” — and the hits “Love is the Way” and “One Man” before taking his leave, but the experience established his place in the gospel music world and insured he was a known quantity when he released the “Marvin Sapp” album in 1996.
But it was “Thirsty,” his seventh solo release, that put him over the top. The single “Never Would Have Made It” not only topped the Hot Gospel Songs chart but also landed on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot 100 polls. The album was certified gold, and Sapp wound up sweeping seven Gospel Stellar Awards in 2009.
“Here I Am” recorded at the Resurrection Life Church in Wyoming, Mich., showed that “Thirsty” wasn’t a fluke. With first-week sales of 76,000 copies and a No. 2 debut on the Billboard 200, it was the highest charting album ever by a gospel artist. Another single, “The Best in Me,” topped the Gospel Songs chart and also hit the Top 10 of the Urban AC survey, and Sapp snared another batch of Stellar trophies and a GMA Dove Award for Contemporary Gospel Song of the Year.
Sapp, who’s also authored three books, is gratified by the secular success, but he’s also proud that he’s been able to do it on his own terms, without diluting the spiritual message in his music.
“We do what we do — we lift up the name of Jesus in blessing,” he explains. “Not only do we get up and give a show that is entertaining, but we also make sure that the message in the music permeates and hits people where they are. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s enlightening. It’s power-packed and energetic, but by the same token it’s anointed.
“That’s the most important thing.”
Sapp’s next plan is a live album, but of all new songs. He’ll be recording Oct. 7 at Evangel Cathedral in Upper Marlboro, Md., near Washington, D.C., for release next year, and he describes the music as “Marvin Sapp with an edge. It’s going to be a little more high-energy, the production will be a little tighter.” And he’s not worried about the expectations that will come in the wake of “Thirsty” and “Here I Am.”
“I feel no pressure because I’m not trying to do anything but stay in the niche I’ve grown accustomed to,” Sapp explains. “One thing I’ve learned is that as long as I do what my audience enjoys, I’m gonna be all right.
“I know what they like. I have a formula, and my formula is if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Keep doing what you do and people that enjoy what you do are gonna buy your music and love on you. So in the spring of 2012 we’ll bring it out and hopefully we’ll set records again.”
But given his tribulations of late, especially in the year since his wife passed away, Sapp acknowledges that the new songs — including one called “I Made It Through” — will convey some very personally messages.
“The focus of this record is how you can come through situations and still remain on top,” he says. “It’s about how the enemy has a way of hitting you with stuff to cause you to fold and buckle, but I’m still standing.”
And, he adds, so is the rest of his family — son Marvin II, 17, and daughters Mikaila, 14, and Madisson, 12.
“We’re doing good,” Sapp says. “I tell people all the time, as long as my kids are doing good, I’m gonna be all right. They’re adjusting very well, and I just really try to keep them well and loving one another. We’ve got a slogan — ‘us four, no more.’ Right now it’s just us, and as long as that remains the focus, I believe the rest of our days will be blessed.”
Marvin Sapp and Tye Tribbett perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75. Tickets are $10-$35 pavilion and $10 lawn with discounts for groups of 15 or more. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com for more information.
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