American Idol Finalist Danny Gokey
Danny Gokey: Making an Impact with His Music and Opening His Heart to Help Others
Written by Patti Gillespie
A dream and desire to sing led Danny Gokey to a final spot in the popular competition of American Idol. But the journey getting there was woven with the sudden death of his first wife and more heartache than he thought he could endure. Through it all, Gokey captured the hearts of millions of Americans and he’s quick to say that he did it through his faith. Now nearly five years later, with a second album soon to be released, this talented singer sat down with Risen to talk about his foundation that helps homeless families and reaches out to youth with after-school programs, the joy of finding love again, and becoming a father. All exemplified with a humbleness rarely found in the music industry.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in Rocklin, California
Risen Magazine: Let’s go back to your childhood. You are one of six kids. What was your house like growing up and when did you develop a love for music?
Danny Gokey: My dad would play the guitar a lot and write. We grew up singing together, sitting around the living room and the kitchen table. He would write songs and make things fun. For instance, if we didn’t want to go to bed or school or do something, he’d make it fun with a song. [Imitating his dad on guitar Danny singing] “We’re going to bed right now, bed right now, (beat…beat…shsh shsh…)why? Cuz we got school tomorrow, school tomorrow…early.” And when my sister didn’t want to learn how to turn the shower on… “I wanna learn, I wanna learn…how to turn…the shower on…,” and by the time music was involved it helped motivate us. Dad would do it like that for things we didn’t want to do to help motivate us. That’s where we got started and all eight of us [including mom and dad] sang in front of the church.
Risen Magazine: Did your dad work in some music capacity at the church?
Danny Gokey: Nope. He was involved because we liked to sing, or tried to sing. I have no idea how we sounded, but everyone said they liked us.
Risen Magazine: Like the von Trapp family!
Danny Gokey: [Laughter] Yes. I would love to see a whole family sing too. I also sang in my youth group a little and at about age 20, I [moved] to another church and it was there that I really started to use my voice and develop it.
Risen Magazine: Did you watch American Idol (AI) for the first seven seasons and think, “I’d really like to try that?” How did your auditioning come about?
Danny Gokey: Actually, it was the seventh season that I watched. My first wife was really into it and watched it all the time, but I couldn’t because I was working a lot. I was doing praise and worship at two churches on Sundays and week nights, and drove a truck during the days. When we finally got a DVR and could record it, I got into it. It was during that time that Sophia [wife] and I agreed that I was going to go on it… it was going to be my chance.
The insurance money was the seed so to speak to get the foundation going to where it is today. I just wanted it to be used to help people.
Risen Magazine: What was the process of competing on AI like for you? Do you think the competition is the same today or what has significantly changed?
Danny Gokey: I think it is the same in a lot of ways. But you know, after watching all of the newer shows that have come out, there are some in better formats, like The Voice, which allows you to work with the judges one on one. We didn’t get to work with the judges, we had voice coaches, [and worked] mostly with people in the industry; those who were behind the scenes. But the show [AI] is very popular and very good…I think it is the same.
Risen Magazine: Ok let’s go back a bit. When you were on American Idol, the show highlighted the then-recent death of your first wife, Sophia, which was obviously very difficult for you. You made a decision to compete before she passed away, so was your audition before she died?
Danny Gokey: No. I had made up my mind In February-March of that year  to go for it. I talked to my pastor and other parishioners, because I was very committed there [the church]. He [pastor] gave me his blessing. We were ready to go and Sophia went into the hospital in the end of June and ended up passing away July 9, from surgery complications. So there I was, it was very unexpected. I was faced with a choice, do I go or not? Because you know, if I had had another year to recuperate I would have done it, but at the time I was 28 years old and that was the cut-off age; but it was a good place for me to be and the show really helped me. Sophia passed away one month before the audition which was on August 8th.
Risen Magazine: I did watch the show that year and there was a lot of press and focus about that story on it. You did an amazing job.
Danny Gokey: Only by the grace of God.
Risen Magazine: While on American Idol, you got to work with a lot of artists. Who would you love to collaborate with?
Danny Gokey: Well, maybe Brian McKnight or Michael McDonald, and there are so many good female singers out there.
Risen Magazine: Tell me about the non-profit foundation you established called Sophia’s Heart?
Danny Gokey: Well, when Sophia passed away she had an insurance policy, but it wasn’t one that we had started. I didn’t even know it was there until the principal of the school where she taught told me there was insurance. I asked, what he meant. He explained that when employees pass away they [the survivors] receive a death stipend from the insurance company. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that money, it wasn’t a lot by any means, but I knew I just didn’t want to just go buy a car or something, I wanted to use it to keep her legacy alive. So that is how it began because I would have not had any way to start an organization. 501 (c) non-profits are very expensive. I couldn’t go back to work after everything that happened and I had no income coming in. The insurance money was the seed so to speak to get [the foundation] going to where it is today. I just wanted it to be used to help people.
Risen Magazine: What has it evolved into now?
Danny Gokey: It is in two locations; Milwaukee and Nashville. There are three things that it encompasses. One is that we fund scholarships to kids who have gone through traumatic situations, and have persevered. Another, and our biggest focus, is for homeless families that we take into our facility. Last year we were able to help 27 families.
Risen Magazine: What do you provide for them?
Danny Gokey: Each family is given a room and shower. We have classrooms where we do classes such as team building…we have family night and kids classes about God.
The third thing we do has an emphasis on youth and arts [music]; about 300 kids are in a dedicated program for middle school and high school. It is really flourishing in our Milwaukee location. The kids do shows all over the state and I join them when I’m in town.
Risen Magazine: Do you personally work at the shelter?
Danny Gokey: Well it’s kind of a role like being a father, the visionary, the work never stops, and it’s always coming. In the beginning I was doing a lot more, but I have to focus on my music. I had a lot of things happening this past year [with music] so I’m trying to raise my team and be like a father to the organization. I try to spiritually father people coming in by giving them love and trying to be an example. One of the [areas] I am very involved is teaching them about the Lord, and also through praise and worship.
The space for families fluctuates [referring to the Nashville facility]. We’ve had 17 children living in there, including single moms and dads with kids. We recently graduated two families and will have more coming in.
Risen Magazine: What a tremendous thing you are doing. How did the Nashville facility come about?
Danny Gokey: I got a building for free…well $10. It’s a 77,000 square foot facility that was previously a rehabilitation hospital so it had a kitchen and bathrooms.
Risen Magazine: Was it donated from a business person?
Danny Gokey: It was after the national flood and Sophia’s Heart had helped with youth and relief efforts. That’s how they heard about us, it was someone looking to get rid of the building and they called and I went and saw it and thought it would be great. But it looked like a hospital and we want it to look like a house. So we’ve started to renovate it and make it a beautiful place where people would want to stay. We look at it like in the Bible where Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,“….we look at each person as Christ who says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” So we’re trying to revamp the facility and also raise finances to make it better. It’s better than [living on the streets] but we want it to be beautiful.
Risen Magazine: Wow, did receiving the building give you a confirmation that you were heading in the right direction?
Danny Gokey: Yes. I wanted to reach out to homeless and had a vision, and when the building came about it was right to do something with it. The Bible says [about the house] that unless the Lord builds it, you are doing it in vain and we know he’s building this house.
Risen Magazine: It’s so touching to hear and also know that people want to help.
Danny Gokey: Yes! We praise God for it. It has been a beautiful experience, of God working.
Risen Magazine: Looking at your personal life, you recently found love again and remarried. Congratulations. How did you two meet?
Danny Gokey: It was through a mutual friend. I actually reached out to her. We talked a lot. I knew very quickly [about my feelings] and didn’t need much time. I knew my second marriage would be quicker, I had taken about three years off, and she loved the Lord, I loved the Lord and we got married.
Risen Magazine: And now you are expecting your first child? (Since the interview, Danny and his wife, Leyicet, welcomed their son, Daniel Emanuel Gokey, born on January 20, 2013.)
Risen Magazine: Well you certainly have a lot of change coming this year, what are you looking forward to about becoming a father?
Danny Gokey: I just want to be a good dad. I know it’s a lot of work and that makes me a little scared.
Risen Magazine: But you’re going to be right there helping with it all?
Danny Gokey: Yes, I do help now…clean house…unlike my generation where my mom did everything, my dad just worked, it was hard, he was involved, but mom mostly did it all.
Risen Magazine: You had mentioned earlier that you did praise and worship at a church. Were you actually on staff?
Danny Gokey: Yes, but they couldn’t pay me enough so that’s why I did the semi-truck driving full time. The church had two locations that were 75 miles apart. To give you an idea of my schedule, we did three services on Sunday, so I would drive 75 miles to Beloit and do two services and then drive 75 miles back to Milwaukee and do another service there. Then on Monday I did truck driving and Milwaukee rehearsals; Tuesday I’d drive and work a full day, then drive 75 miles for rehearsal and all through the week I would work full time truck driving but continue back and forth for rehearsals at both churches.
Risen Magazine: As a result of all that you’ve been through, you do have a platform now; people look and listen to you. Do you feel a responsibility to share?
Danny Gokey: My faith? Yes. You know, I feel like in America everyone has heard the name of Jesus so I feel it is very important that we live it out first. That we don’t necessarily have to talk as much. I do talk, but to mostly encourage people. One of the ways that I can share the Gospel is through my social networks. I have a lot of followers on my social networks. I will say encouraging things like, God understands you – and also funny things – that lets them see my love for Christ through my works. The Bible says to let your light shine and I try to let my light shine.
Risen Magazine: You have mentioned that music has gotten you through some difficult times. Your lyrics are so powerful. Do you write your own music?
Danny Gokey: Now I do personally. The First CD I didn’t, we did it so quickly and I had to pick songs up that I didn’t write. But my second CD which is coming out in the fall is going to be all written or co-written by me.
It means keep righteousness before you… It means grab it and keep it right in front of you…it just doesn’t stay there by itself… it’s a very purposeful mindset that today I will serve the Lord. These are things I think about constantly. If you don’t, they fall to the wayside.
Risen Magazine: So, in addition to a new album coming out, what does 2013 look like for you?
Danny Gokey: I don’t have my tour schedule set up yet, but I will also be writing a book.
Risen Magazine: A memoir?
Danny Gokey: Some of it, of what God is writing as my story. But also to raise awareness of Sophia’s Heart.
At this point, Danny leans forward removing his glasses and says, We also have eyeware with a big following. It was launched in March of 2012, so that is growing.
So yes, 2013 is a really big year and we are also talking about releasing Christmas music.
Risen Magazine: One of the things that is really powerful about your story is that you were able to get through some very difficult times and you did it with your faith. Is there one verse or a devotional that has helped you get through it? Because most people wouldn’t have handled Amercan Idol like you were able to.
Danny Gokey: You know it’s a mix of things; I can’t just narrow it down to one verse. There’s a song called, Love Came Down and that song is kind of my story, it says that when your heart is overwhelmed and you can’t hear God, those are the times to remember all he has done…and the second verse goes on to say that I’m staying desperate for you God, humbled at your feet.
I’m in a good spot in my life and it’s good to remind ourselves that [like in Romans 8:28] all things work together for the good. There is another verse, when God tells us that when he does give us a good land, and the house to build, remember him. Also David [in Bible]…one thing I love about David is found in Psalm 119 when he is desperate and asks God to help him love his commands. David stayed hungry and desperate…but even more so, you know in [the book of] Matthew it says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.” You know it doesn’t mean that God is going to appear visibly in front of you, although he can, but a person with a pure heart who stays humble can enjoy the good things in life that God gives him, more than a person who walks away from God. The person who stays humble, well that’s just a beautiful place to be and I really strive to stay pure and humble before God.
We are nothing and in him… we live, move, and have our being, so it’s so important to have God in it; if he’s not in it, we have nothing.
Risen Magazine: From knowing scripture, to sharing and giving back, what provided the foundation where you are now living from?
Danny Gokey: I’ve had so many experiences with him [God] that really changed my life. When you have that moment when you experience exactly who he is, when you really know who God is, that’s the moment that really sealed who I became…and who I was. I look back on it and realize that you don’t know everything that is in front of you, but when you look back and see that God made himself very evident, that’s when you ask, how do you stay humble? You have to, because you can lose it all. Jesus says you can gain the whole world, but lose your soul, and like the song [Love Came Down] says staying desperate and remaining humble at his feet, you gotta stay desperate, you gotta stay humble. The Bible says keep it ever before you. And what does that mean? It means keep righteousness before you… It means grab it and keep it right in front of you…it just doesn’t stay there by itself… it’s a very purposeful mindset that today I will serve the Lord. These are things I think about constantly. If you don’t, they fall to the wayside.
Risen Magazine: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Danny Gokey: I see my music making more of an impact. Definitely a much bigger impact than it has already. I see Sophia’s Heart in multiple locations, many cities. And I see more kids for me and my wife. But the biggest vision of all is that I want to see myself more in love with Christ… that’s the biggest thing.
Connect with Danny:
Sophia’s Heart Foundation exists to help mend and heal the hearts of children and families who have been touched by poverty, sickness, disease, broken homes and broken dreams. For more information visit: www.sophiasheart.org
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Spring 2013