Over the last five years, eight-time Grammy Award nominated singer Marvin Sapp has experienced some of the highest heights and the lowest depths a man can face.
After two decades as a respected Gospel artist, Sapp burst to superstar status on the heels of his 2007 radio smash, “Never Would Have Made It,” which beat out hits by The Beatles and Elvis Presley to hold the record as the longest #1 single at radio (43 weeks) in the history of the Billboard charts. Not only did it hit the top spot on the Hot Gospel Songs and Adult R&B Airplay charts, but it also became the first Gospel song to sell a million digital downloads. His follow-up CD, Here I Am, released in 2010, made further history as the highest Top 200 chart debut by a Gospel artist ever when it came in at #2 with over 76,000 in first week sales.
During this period of unprecedented success, Sapp, who also pastors the flourishing Lighthouse FLC church in Grand Rapids, MI, had to balance his public triumphs with his private tragedies. Thirsty, the CD with the breakout hit “Never Would Have Made It,” was recorded after the loss of the three most important men in his life - his natural father, his spiritual father, and his musical mentor. A few years later, after the release of Here I Am, he lost his wife of twenty-two years, Malinda, who died in 2010 after a battle with colon cancer. That loss, and how Sapp mitigated the pain through conversations with God, provides the backdrop for his ninth solo CD, I WIN (Verity Gospel Music Group). “After all the stuff I’ve had to endure over the last five years, I felt like I needed to make a declaration and be open and honest about how I feel about everything that I’ve had to overcome,” Sapp says of the set. “And when I look back at it, I wasn’t as swift as I should have been. Probably wasn’t as fast as I could have been, but because I endured I won.”
The 10 brilliant songs comprising I WIN all touch on some element of winning whether it be a spiritual victory or just succeeding in the game of life. For the first time in his career, Sapp solicited songs by aspiring tunesmiths via Facebook and Twitter. He and his longtime producer, Aaron Lindsey (Israel Houghton, Karen Clark Sheard, James Fortune), listened to over 2,000 songs and picked four of them for the project. “I kind of feel like it’s my assignment to give unknown writers an opportunity to be heard on a national scale,” Sapp says. “Our prayer is that now those names will become a little more prominent.”
In spite of putting his ear on so many songs, it was easy for Sapp to pick the ones that fit this album. “The songs that I listened to I wanted to make sure I could deliver them,” he explains. “I’m a strong believer that you can’t sing with passion something that you don’t have a conviction about. So I listened for songs that lined up with the direction I wanted this record to go into, and that’s being a winner and understanding that it’s not when you cross the finish line but it’s that you crossed the finish line that makes you a winner.”
I WIN kicks off with the Go Go-flavored “Teach My Hands To War,” a call to fight life’s battles with praise and worship, and closes with the rocking, R&B-styled groove, “Keep It Movin.” The latter is based on a mantra Sapp’s wife used to exclaim to their church congregation as an encouragement. I WIN was recorded at Evangel Cathedral in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. “I picked Evangel Cathedral simply because that was one of the first places I ever did a concert at when I first started in the Gospel music industry some 22 years ago,” Sapp confesses. “I was in Commissioned and one of our first concerts was at that church. I’ve had a great relationship with that church for literally 22 years. Because of that relationship, I recorded my CD there. As bad as I wanted to do [the new recording] in Grand Rapids, where I’ve done all of my live recordings, it was just too close of a reminder of having buried my wife. She was always a part of my recordings because she managed my career. So, since I wasn’t going to do a recording in my city, the only place I could think to take it was to family that’s not here, and that was Evangel Cathedral.”
Sapp didn’t find a huge difference between recording venues. “There was no real difference,” he concedes. “Of course, when you’re away from home you always get a little bit more love [laughs]. The people were still embracing and still connected and they enjoyed that which we did. They even applauded the fact that it was done differently. Usually with live recordings people do a song, stop it and have to redo it again. We kept it flowing like a regular worship service and the people really appreciated and enjoyed it.”
The art of worship is something that Sapp has known since his childhood. The Grand Rapids, MI native first sang in church and grew up on a musical diet of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. With such influences, it’s no wonder that his national platform began in 1990 with Commissioned, the groundbreaking Gospel band with the R&B twist. After the group disbanded circa 1996, Sapp launched his solo career and spent the next decade churning out a string of Top Ten radio hits such as “Calling Me” (1996); “Not The Time, Not The Place” (1997); “I Believe” (2002); “One Thing” (2003) and “Do You Know Him” (2005).
Then, fate intervened. The Sunday after he had eulogized his father, a broken-hearted Sapp improvised “Never Would Have Made It” and sang it before he began preaching. He later told USA Today reporter Steve Jones that he didn’t think he’d make it through that service. “I started singing, `Never would have made it, never could have made it without you, I would have lost my mind.’ The Lord told me that he would always be there for me,” he recalled. As Sapp was rehearsing the songs to include on his 2007 CD, Thirsty, “Never Would Have Made It” was not on his mind. His wife pushed him to add it to the set list for the live recording - and the rest is history. It’s been onward and upward ever since, but Sapp remains humble and focused about the life lessons he’s learned on his journey. “I make sure I can be the best Marvin I can be,” he adds. “I’m not perfect by far and I’ve got issues but if I can be the best me, then I win.”