No matter which way Gospel music has swayed in the past 20 years, you can always count on Hezekiah Walker giving you that good ol’ choir sound he is so revered for. The self-described “choir man” continues to praise on with his 14th album, Azusa: The Next Generation (out June 11).
He spoke with ESSENCE.com about working with the likes of Deitrick Haddon and Donald Lawrence, getting a multicultural audience and shared his advice for the next generation of Gospel stars.
ESSENCE.com: “Every Praise” is your current single, but I have to say I just love that you remade “Break Every Chain” by Jesus Culture. It’s so unexpected.
HEZEKIAH WALKER: Of course you know I’m a choir man and when I first heard that song I kept saying to myself, ‘I would love to give it the choir treatment.’ I could just hear my choir singing. I brought it to them and they loved it. We came up with that and it came up really good.
ESSENCE.com: You feature Deitrick Haddon on the song. What made you choose him?
WALKER: A lot of people don’t know that Deitrick is a choir man. When I first got introduced to him, he had a choir. He sang a song with his choir back in the day called “Chain Breaker” and it was similar to “Break Every Chain.” I just heard his voice on the song.
ESSENCE.com: In “Every Praise” you say you were inspired to acknowledge how different people praise.
WALKER: I’ve had the privilege of traveling and go to different places—I go to Africa every year, Japan, London. Just to see everyone praising differently has been eye-opening. I grew up in a setting that basically taught us that if you don’t do it like this then you’re doing it wrong. From traveling and seeing so many different expressions of praise, it’s amazing how everybody does it differently, but it’s all there to praise God. And so that’s why I wanted everyone to know that even though we’re all different or worship the same, all of our work is there to praise God. I was a little nervous to put the song out there because it’s a little different from the normal Hezekiah Walker but I wanted to show people out there that you can still be a choir and stay relevant. I think the greatest thing that has happened is that in my career I’ve never had the chance to perform in multicultural churches. And in the last seven weeks, “Every Praise” has been hitting the multicultural churches. Even Joel Osteen called me and said, ‘Hezekiah, I heard “Every Praise” and you have to come and do this at my church.’ I never leave my church on Sunday, but when Joel Osteen calls, you go. When you look at the multicultural churches and you see their choirs have all kinds of people. Joel Osteen’s has all backgrounds, all ethnicities. I think the choir is the thing that brings people together.
ESSENCE.com: Tell us about the name Azusa.
WALKER: The origin of the name is a street name in California. Back in 1906, a big revival broke out on that street and really that’s where a lot of the church as we know it today came from, especially those of us that have that Pentecostal background. Back in the 80s there was a man by the name of Bishop Carlton Pearson who started this Azusa conference. Back in the day for many preachers and singers, you weren’t really legit until you were on that Azusa platform that Bishop Carlton had set up. Bishop T.D. Jakes to this day gives credit to that Azusa conference because that’s where he got his fame. I felt the need to pick it back up. I went to Bishop Carlton and said I would like to pick up from where he left of by bringing the same amount to collaboration, from artists and preachers that he did. He gave me his blessings and last year we did our first Azusa conference and it was just amazing. So many people came out. Deitrick Haddon was a part of it. Pastor Donnie McClurkin, Brian Courtney Wilson, and John P. Kee as well. They’re all featured on this album.
ESSENCE.com: And you got Donald Lawrence to co-produce this album because you felt like he too was a choir man?
WALKER: Yes. What would the choir movement do without Donald Lawrence? He is a choir man. He’s another one that comes from the choir; he knows the sound so I had to use him. He did a phenomenal job with the music. With our collaboration we made it so that when you hear it, it’s relevant. It’s not something that would make you go, ‘Oh my God they sound so old-school.’ We made sure it was relevant.
ESSENCE.com: You’ve said it’s hard to stay relevant.
WALKER: I think it’s only hard if you’re not keeping your ear to the street, and keeping your ear to what the church actually needs. That’s one of the good things about me not doing a CD in the last four or five years. My last album really kept me on the road to the point where I really forgot that I didn’t record. During that time I was able to keep my ear to the streets and to the tides of the season that we’re living in. I was able to come up with songs to help people transition from one season to the next. It’s hard to stay relevant when you don’t keep up your ear to the heartbeat of what people are going through. I like to put CD’s out that when people listen to them they go, ‘Wow, this song encouraged me.’
ESSENCE.com: So what do you think has fueled your 20-year longevity in this business?
WALKER: To be honest with you I would have thought a few CD’s back it would have been over for me because I’ve been out here so long. I must say that my longevity is predicated upon the fact that God can trust me. What I mean by that is that you have people out here who have talent, but God can’t trust them with his people. A lot of times we go out and we mistreat people, we take from people instead of giving. I always keep in mind that I am this vessel that God is using to bless people, not to abuse them. All of us have shortcomings. But if God can trust you with his people, then he will give you longevity. I have purpose in my heart not to damage people of God.
ESSENCE.com: What is your advice for the next generation of Gospel newcomers?
WALKER: I would say stay relevant by keeping your ear to the heartbeat of the church and of the people. Tend what people need. Tend where they are. Tend where the church is and always stay dedicated to your purpose. Don’t ever stop dreaming, and don’t become selfish because everything you have inside God has put it inside of you to give it out. And if you can go into like that, God will give you longevity.
Hezekiah Walker’s Azusa: The Next Generation is available on June 11