The Rise and Fall of Donnie McClurkin
A best-selling gospel superstar turns into a falling star over his own string of hypocrisies and troubling remarks about LGBT people
And Donnie McClurkin, the soaring tenor among gospel all-stars, has penned a great number of them. Stop by a number of churches specializing in black gospel and you’ve probably heard a few of those anthems like “Stand,” “Jesus, At the Mention of Your Name” or “Speak to My Heart” coming from that sweet, sweet hour of prayer. The road to such prominence was one that took lots of grooming. And lots of years climbing up the mountain of gospel’s non-prosperous food chain. First, McClurkin grew up in Kings Temple Church of God in Christ, becoming a young star in the church’s famed choir. Then, he transitioned as a background unit in the Benny Cummings Singers and carried that position to the bitter end before Cummings passed away at the age of 37 in 1988 for undisclosed reasons. After that, he formed his own family of singers, later titling them The New York Restoration Choir. The group, mostly made up of his own kin, signed to Savoy Records and recorded a few modest records. One of those shining jewels was “Speak to My Heart,” a sleeper hit that eventually impacted radio across much of the Southeast and the James Cleveland-dominated West coast.
When he finally became a unshakable name in devout gospel radio households, McClurkin found himself signed to a respected label. Warner Bros. had just created a gospel imprint and made McClurkin one of their first choices. Warner Alliance didn’t last long, but he was there long enough to become one of the genre’s most beloved personalities. As a prominent songwriter, he took on the hymnology of luminaries like Andrae Crouch and Walter Hawkins. His greatest mentor both musically and spiritually was Detroit’s Marvin Winans, the powerhouse songwriter of the Grammy-winning Winans dynasty. With a solid background in song composition and sporting one of the finer male voices in the gospel tradition, McClurkin eventually sold 10 million albums worldwide and nabbed three Grammy awards. Much of the credit was attributed to crossover success, which included stints on The Oprah Winfrey Show and considerable airplay on urban radio. After leaving Warner Alliance, McClurkin found a home at Verity, the powerhouse gospel imprint for Zomba/Jive. There he pulled off his magnum opus, Live in London and More, an album partially inspired by Andrae Crouch’s Grammy-winning legendary 1978 album Live in London. Inside the set included a massive set of worshipful songs and gorgeously penned originals like “That’s What I Believe” and “Just for Me.” Also included was his humbling cover of Bob Carlisle’s “We Fall Down,” which only featured the song’s chorus and removing the biblical narrative of the verses. In McClurkin’s presentation, he chose to turn the singalong chorus into an invitational hymn, perfect for a salvation campaign. The song did come with a good load of controversy among staunch Christian theologians who felt the song’s repetitive lyric (“we fall down but we get up”) was criminalizing God’s grace, allowing Christians a “skip the line” pass on sin. But the negative controversy only pushed the sales of the single, making it a crossover giant.
Live in London and More, now certified platinum, was released in 2000. Look right now on Spotify and check out his most played songs. At 1 million plays stands “Great Is Your Mercy” and “We Fall Down.” In third and fourth place stands “That’s What I Believe” and his cover of “Lord I Lift Your Name on High.” All four songs are featured on that set. Nothing new sits in that league of most played “popular” songs, except 2014’s “We Are Victorious,” which only sports a meager 400,000 plays.
In between 2000 and 2014, McClurkin has recorded several albums, but none have marched with the glory and magnificence of Live in London and More. So what’s the reason behind that?
Over the years McClurkin’s career has been on a sharp decline. You can smell disappointment when you listen to the average material being served on albums like We All Are One and Psalms, Hymns & Spiritual Songs, both albums that tried to duplicate the Live in London pattern but failed miserably. His latest release, the ambitious collaborative Duets, stalled at number four on the Billboard Gospel Albums chart. To make matters worse, the last time he missed number one was when his 1996 solo debut LP dropped. It also stopped dead at number four.
And then that word “anointing” — a hyper-gloss phrase often used to describe the creme de la creme of God’s chosen people — was used to pump up McClurkin’s preaching ministry. Often in his concerts, the singer-songwriter would drift into heavy Pentecostal revival style preaching bearing this “anointing.” That calling led him to start his own church, Perfecting Faith Church, in his hometown of Freeport, New York. That anointing — the air of arrogance or saintly ego — caused McClurkin’s sermonizing to turn into erratic rants that planted him in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. In 2009, McClurkin waged a holy war on gay men in the black church experience by calling them “vampires.” He was still upset and perplexed over the coming out story of Tonéx, another talented gospel singer. McClurkin, who identified as being a former gay male but “delivered” according to his published memoir (Eternal Victim, Eternal Victor), pleaded with tears over the new dawn of emerging, bold youth now embracing their sexuality. For the troubled singer, this new era felt like the last days of civilization. “God did not call young people to such perversion,” he said in a campmeeting style service at a Church of God in Christ convocation. “I see feminine men, feminine boys everywhere I go. It ain’t funny. It’s because we failed. I see them everywhere.”
The convocation videos were published on YouTube and went viral quickly, but was removed due to building pressures from the COGIC Protestant denomination because of its insensitivity to LGBT people. The language used was dubbed by gay blogs and advocacy groups as hate speech. Eventually McClurkin apologized years later for his choice of words, but it was only after he fell out of favor with the public eye.
But he was not done.
When Senator Barack Obama began his campaign for the White House back in 2007, McClurkin was asked to perform at a campaign stop in Charleston, South Carolina with the hopes of driving up the votes in the religious South. That appearance was also scorched with McClurkin’s prejudices on LGBT people. “I’m going to say something that’s going to get me in trouble,” he said before the crowd. “They accuse me of being anti-gay and a bigot. We don’t believe in discrimination. But there is a side of [Jesus] Christ that deals with judgement, and all sin is against God.” Then a sea of applause erupted around his churchy lingo, as he shouted “I tell you that God delivered me from homosexuality.” In McClurkin’s world, homosexuality is a choice. In the vernacular of Pat Robertson “700 Club” ideology, that means alternative sexuality — opaque in the eyes of heterosexual — is a lifestyle and is corrupt.
Obama quickly responded to McClurkin’s sour notes. Through a spokesman, the future U.S. president states that he “strongly disagrees” with McClurkin’s views. With heavy protest over his inflammatory and nauseating rhetoric and knowing it was not in line with Obama’s brand of liberalism, the budding senator and presidential hopeful rebuked McClurkin from performing at future campaign rallies.
In 2013, McClurkin made national headlines again when he was abruptly removed as a headliner for a March on Washington fiftieth anniversary. The event, sponsored by the U.S. government and the city of Washington, removed him for his previous commentary made on LGBT people. This was bound to happen, considering D.C. has a non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBT people and also allowed same-sex marriage since 2009. McClurkin published a video statement via SocialCam about the controversial episode (see below).
In his emotional diatribe, McClurkin shot down D.C. mayor Vincent Gray and his administration over the “foul move” and even suggested that he was being discriminated on for being an “ex-gay.” Like all the other McClurkin-related stories of the turbulent past, the D.C. story made a big splash in the headlines. Gray spokesperson Doxie McCoy released a press statement to LGBT paper Washington Blade saying the mayor directed the D.C. commission on the Arts and Humanities to withdraw McClurkin on the grounds that his appearance would be a “distraction at an event about peace, love and justice for all.” Of course, pressures from LGBT advocates and activists forced Gray to make the move.
In the video. McClurkin seemed emotional, but very bitter about the drop. “Quite unfortunate that in today that a black man, a black artist, is uninvited from a civil rights movement,” he said. “It’s bullying, discrimination, intolerance and depriving someone of their civil rights when they are told that they cannot come to an event. And by coming, it will cause a disruption.”
Fast forward to June 26, 2015 and McClurkin finds himself in a similar circumstance. Utilizing the freedom of speech, McClurkin took to Facebook to publish his open rebuke of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on marriage equality. “We’ve just received the answer from man’s Supreme Court,” he wrote. “We already received the answer from God. We stand against all sin…I know I’ve done many things in this regard wrongly, but that only qualified me to address it.”
So who gets the last word? Looking at the number of comments aboard the thread, it looks like the masses read McClurkin for filth.
Like this one from Troy:
“Donnie just shut up and be real. You sound really unloving and jealous. You afraid to marry what you really want and who you really love because you done put yo foot in your mouth claiming to be delivered.”
Wade Grant, a black LGBT blogger, was one of the hundreds who educated McClurkin’s on Bible 101 hypocrisy. “Do you go this hard on talking about the gluttonous people in your constituency, the slothful people…the black on black violence…the adultery and fornication in your constituency?,” he asked McClurkin. “Don’t put God and Jesus in your hate-filled agenda because you are fulfilling an agenda by your paying bosses to destroy Black America. Furthermore if you are really a man of God and stand firm on your belief here, you would not delete comments of disagreement and reply like an attacked victim.”
Grant raised a very powerful point. Many of the following comments being posted revealed a great chunk of McClurkin’s personal hypocrisies and inaccuracies, although the tougher posts have mostly been removed. One deleted post stated “U of all people should be the last to talk with all our little boyfriends running around DC and ATL.”
Meanwhile, an avalanche of similar responses still remained on the thread. One post stated, “Did you all know King James [accredited as overseer of the most popular English translation of the Bible] was gay?” Another said, “Can someone find his Jack’d or Grindr profile PLEASE?! We ALL know its out there.”
And the creative memes are providing a huge jolt of laughter to readers, some so racy that it could be inducted in the RuPaul’s Drag Race Shade of Fame.
Being on the wrong side of history again, McClurkin — still blessed with unparalleled talent — will probably never see redemption in the popular sense. The majority of Americans are in favor of marriage equality and the evolution of LGBT rights is now reaching a powerful plateau. Fighting against the majority will always discredit one from fame and notoriety, a lesson most musicians learn early on in their career. McClurkin cannot use the excuse of being too young and naive for his failures. He’s 55 years of age, now 30 years deep in his career. He’s a judge on the BET-sponsored gospel talent show Sunday Best and still has a gospel radio show in syndication. Considering the most recent downfalls of radical conservative loudmouths like Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump and even Sarah Palin, McClurkin seriously risks losing those jobs. He’s falling down a dangerous slippery slope and has no way of returning. Even a forthright apology wouldn’t be enough to solve this crisis. But hey, that’s what happens when you’re falling and can’t get up. But maybe he can. McClurkin — gospel’s precursor to Andrew “Delivert” Caldwell — still believes in the adage of “We Fall Down.” You can fall and get back up again. That’s all a saint is anyway.
In the meantime, Jesus be a publicist. Donnie needs one bad.
UPDATED: Donnie McClurkin is currently on the “Festival of Praise” tour with Fred Hammond, Hezekiah Walker, Israel Houghton and Kim Burrell. No official word if McClurkin will remain on the lineup.