Just as he fought back tears to get the job done at the George Floyd memorial service in Minneapolis over the summer, gospel musician Darnell Davis has kept up a determined and dutiful attitude to get him through all of 2020.
“As gospel artists, we have to position ourselves to always offer encouragement, even if we sometimes feel discouraged ourselves,” said the Twin Cities music veteran. “That’s been especially important this year.”
His new album with his group, Darnell Davis & the Remnant, offers a mega-church’s worth of encouragement.
Titled “Psalms of Revival,” the record bursts at the seams with messages of self-love, trust, and community while also sewing together a patchwork of traditional gospel sounds, ’70s-’80s R&B and modern hip-hop. It sounds like just what the doctor ordered as 2020 winds down and hope builds toward 2021.
Of course, Davis has been filling this healing prescription for 30 years, going back to his mid-teens when his older brother died in a police shooting and he started touring the country with the Minneapolis Gospel Sound choir.
“My mother [Shirley] recognized the gift I had been given, and she not only supported it but she pushed me,” said Davis, who grew up in south Minneapolis and — when not home-schooling to tour — attended Roosevelt High School.
Now 45 and still co-leading services on the South Side at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Davis started out playing drums and then organ at Emmanuel Tabernacle behind late bishop Stanley Frazier. By 20, he had graduated to working as a producer, songwriter and singer.
Since then, he has worked with international names such as Shirley Caesar, along with a who’s who of the Twin Cities gospel scene, including Ann Nesby, James Grear, Sounds of Blackness, Chico Cockrell (his godfather) and Excelsior. The latter group earned Davis a Stellar Award and a Grammy nomination in 2003.
“Excelsior lit the fire in me to start my own group,” he recalled, pointing to Darnell Davis & the Remnant’s 2005 debut “Psalms of Remembrance.” That album title’s similarity to the new title is no coincidence.
“It was almost like going back to the first blueprint,” he said of “Psalms of Revival,” which they started working on this time last year.
“When the songs started coming, they sounded familiar. I didn’t realize at the time that they would be very relevant to the times we’re in.”
One of the new record’s highlights, “He Is” — featuring steeple-rattling vocals by Kennadi Hurst of the Hurst Family Experience — offers up God as a rock-solid defense to a troubled world. And “Healing,” which was written for band members dealing with illness, speaks to both the pandemic and the racial injustice that plagued 2020.
Davis was 14 when his brother, Darius — who now shares a name with one of Darnell’s two adult children — was shot by police in Dallas at age 19 following a car chase.
When Davis saw the video of George Floyd pleading for his life this summer, he said, “I immediately thought of how painful this must be for his family.”
He carried that pain with him to the June 4 memorial service with the Rev. Al Sharpton at North Central University, for which he and the Remnant served as the house band.
“The situation as a whole was an incredibly sad experience,” he said, “but our role in it was to use the gifts that God has given us, and serve as a reminder to put our trust in God. To me, that was a blessing.”
He tried to maintain that outlook through all the other calamities of 2020.
“If we put our trust in systems and leaders, we will usually wind up frustrated,” he continued.
“If we trust in God, he will keeps us balanced so we don’t get so distracted by all of the bad things around us. That really is the essential role of every gospel group, to encourage that trust.”