Black Music Month: Donald Lawrence

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The GRAMMY® Award-winning Donald Lawrence has put his inimitable stamp on contemporary gospel music as a choir director, solo artist, songwriter, arranger, and producer. Whether for his own projects or for Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, The Clark Sisters, or Karen Clark Sheard, Lawrence weaves texturally-rich choral patterns that reflect his music conservatory training, his skills forged in the crucible of church music, and his abiding affection for musical theater.

Goshen features stories from the Book of Exodus that serve as metaphors for living a better life. For example, “He Heard My Cry” suggests that each of us has a Pharaoh within us. “And the song says it’s time to tell that Pharaoh to let you go,” Lawrence says. “What is controlling you can’t control you any longer.” He describes the song’s sonic underpinning as “starting out like a long-meter hymn and becoming tribal-trap-meets-typical-Tri-City. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard.”

“He Heard My Cry” also showcases talented Chicago-based hip-hop artist Sir the Baptist (who also co-wrote and co-produced the song). Lawrence met Sir eight or nine years ago while teaching music business at Columbia College Chicago. A huge Tri-City Singers fan since childhood, Sir is one of Goshen’s several collaborators. Sir also serves as a Co-Producer of the album.

New Orleans hip-hop combo Tank and the Bangas, who won the 2017 NPR Tiny Desk Contest, is another collaborator. The group appears on “Let My People Go,” a song that uses Moses’ declaration to Pharaoh to speak out against today’s social injustices.

“The Sound of My Breathing (YHWH)” takes its concept from when Moses was at the burning bush, when he asked God His name and he heard the sound of the wind (Exodus 3:13-14). For Lawrence, pronouncing the Hebrew name for God transcribed into English lettering, YHWH, is like breathing YH (inhale) WH (exhale). “The first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do before we die is take our last breath,” Lawrence says. “With every breath, we say God’s name. His name is the sound of our breathing.”

The senses also appear on “The Voice of the Blood,” a song based in part on Exodus 12:12-13, when lambs’ blood smeared on the doors of Egypt kept the angel of death away. It’s also based on the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain. Lawrence explains: “At that time, the blood spoke revenge, but when Jesus died, His blood spoke mercy. The point is that Jesus’s blood speaks a better word than the word the blood spoke to Cain and Abel.”

“Sir the Baptist calls the album ‘choral theater,’ Lawrence says. “To me, it’s choral theater mixed with traditional gospel, contemporary gospel, some hip-hop and trap music. It has Sunday morning music with some edge, old-school samples, rap and hip-hop, and tribal sounds. The record is sonically unique. It’s been one of the hardest records to get out of my head because it is so different.”

But in the end, it’s all about the story. “I like my songs to tell stories and teach spiritual wisdom, to help others live a better life,” Lawrence says. “I always try to give a solution or a resolution, a remedy for how to get through these particular times. That’s what gospel music has always done and should always do.”

To mark the 25th anniversary of his debut album with the Tri-City Singers, Lawrence has gathered nearly all of the original choir members to participate on Goshen. One of the new members is the daughter of Robin Rowe-Stewart, a Tri-City singer who Lawrence first met when they were in first grade, but who passed away from breast cancer in 2002. “Her daughter is a singer and sounds so much like Robin, it’s unbelievable!” he says.

It’s been a busy time for Lawrence as he’s toggled between working on Goshen, performing, and serving as vocal score arranger for Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story. The new musical, which tells the story of BeBe & CeCe Winans through BeBe’s eyes, has played Atlanta, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Boston. Opening a show on Broadway has always been his dream, and Born For This is Broadway-bound.

Right now, completing Goshen is at the top of Donald Lawrence’s mind. Could the album be a trendsetter, just as A Songwriter’s Point of View was a quarter-century ago? “I want music to be authentic and inspired,” Lawrence responds. “I want to write music that helps people not only get through the week, but look at life through a different set of eyes. And if it’s new and it shifts the culture, it just does.” (Source: Donald Lawrence Website)

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