KNAGUI : True Love

He is not Kirk Franklin.

And while newcomer KNAGUI (pronounced NUH-guy) has mad love for Kirk and his pioneering work to diversify today’s urban music scene, he wants to make a name for himself in a Franklin-dominated market.

Knagui’s debut album, The Meaning of Love, with its high quality sound and notably risky covers of gospel classics, has caught the attention of a veritable who’s-who in the music industry. He has worked alongside such well-known artists as Donnell Jones, Deborah Cox, Counting Crows, and MeShell Ndegeocello, and the result is a sound that’s surprisingly “unpreachy” and groove-plenty.

In an age when urban gospel tends to levitate toward watered-down versions of secular tunes and rap, Knagui says he is determined to show listeners of all backgrounds that flavor and inspiration can go hand-in-hand. He isn’t trying to out-sing anyone, and his isn’t the hellfire and brimstone gospel that your grandma played on Sunday mornings. According to Knagui, it sounds and feels good because it comes from the place where joy originates – the soul. In fact, he says he’s more concerned with tapping into the joy in your soul, than scaring you into repentance.

A native of York, Pennsylvania, Knagui now resides in the “not-so-Dirty South” of Dallas, Texas, a place where gospel is just as boisterous as rap. Truth be told, a lot of today’s hottest hip hop and R&B acts got their start in the very same Texas churches that he now performs in. With the odds for achieving fame and wealth being far greater in the secular industry, some have said that his talent and looks are going to waste.

So what keeps this young schoolteacher, father of two, and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity brother’s “eye on the prize?” AllHipHop Alternatives sits down with Knagui to find out more. Alternatives: Knagui, your lengthy bio makes it seem like you’ve been performing and writing forever. Was music always your path in life?

Knagui: Pretty much. I didn’t start writing until I was in college, and even then it was late in my matriculation; but my grandfather was a Church Of God in Christ minister so he would always take me with him to sing before he preached… and he paid me, so that was good! [laugh] And like anyone my age who liked to perform, I went through a serious MJ [Michael Jackson] phase… hair and all! [laugh] I can remember my neighbor’s daughter beating the mess out of me and making me sing and dance for her cousins… I guess I can thank her for teaching me how to perform under pressure.

AHHA: That’s classic! Were you the sole writer on The Meaning of Love?

Knagui: Basically I was in the beginning, but when you have a team of writers, musicians and producers like I had with me in the studio, things are definitely bound to change. The first to come onboard was my bassist, Mark [Walker]. He plays for everybody - Will Downing, Gerald Albright, Richard Smallwood, Yolanda Adams, you name it… He’s a vet and I really didn’t realize how beneficial his experience would be to the sessions, but he saved me a lot of money. Beyond that, he’s a beast on bass.

The next primary player was Shawn [Smith]. He’s got hits with Gerald Levert, Dru Hill, Ginuwine, and his list goes on, too. Shawn helped me to make my tunes more universal. He has the biggest studio ears in the business in the way of vocal production. He also played set throughout the album. Shawn brought in Kenny Bell, who is one of the hottest young unsung producers in Cleveland. Kenny’s interpretation of my songs was just ingenious at times. Most times he went with what I had already tracked and sent, but on some stuff he would say all humble and timidly… “Alright Knagui, I didn’t do that song like you had it, but tell me what you think of this.” And it would bang… like on “You’ll Never Find a Love,” which was one of the songs that I actually didn’t write. He played the track with these crazy cowbells and we all went ba’noodles! They both brought Tarshá in and she’s a crazy vocalist in her own right. Then I had Paco [David Cruz] on guitar who’s worked with Kirk [Franklin] and Bishop Jakes, a mad horn section and… aww man, I almost forgot Cheese [John Williams] – he is a hip-hop track burner! As a matter of fact he’s about to do some stuff with you guys for a compilation or something. At any rate, he produced a couple of tracks, too.

AHHA: You’ve gotten a lot of exposure for someone unsigned to a major deal. How did you end up at the right place at seemingly just the right time?

Knagui: Well, I’ve always been really aware of the industry because of my Godmother, Twinkie Clark and her mom, along with Aunt Karen, Renda, Niecie, and Jackie [gospel ’s legendary Clark family]. And after high school I moved to DC, and while I was there I would go to jam sessions over at Howard University and vibe with cats like Kenny Lattimore and the dudes from Shai. I even ran into the great Mr. Diddy [Sean Combs] a couple of times. It was there in DC that I began to get into production and more behind-the-scenes stuff, and learned very valuable lessons about the “music business.”

AHHA: The tracks on the album are very fresh, very neo-soul meets gospel at times. And I can tell that you were influenced by secular music from all the hip hop and R&B flavor. The cool thing is you’ve brought this sound to the streets – ‘cause frankly, not everyone is in the church.

Knagui: Neo-soul is cool and I love a lot of the artists who have been placed in that category, but we like to call what I’m doing “original soul music.” I have this whole thesis on music and why people are so moved by it. In a nutshell- music was the first thing that God created. Before the earth, man, and all the angels, He created his chief musician, Lucifer, who was an orchestra and choir all by himself and his only job was to minister to God through music. So music is a very special part of God and since we’re created in His image and likeness; it’s the tool we have to most easily feel our connection with Him. How many times have you heard musicians say that they feel like they’re in “another place” when they’re performing? No matter what the genre of music, secular or Christian, God has the ability to strip it down to its purest essence and receive ministry. So as a musician I have a mandate, a silent Hippocratic oath, if you will, to invoke the soul so it will ring the alarm of the conscience and cause someone to move toward God. After all, the only thing that’s He’s coming for is our soul.

AHHA: Does the modern sound trip people up sometimes? Are people rocking and then saying “oh wait, this is a gospel song?”

Knagui: Absolutely, but it’s my belief that integrity is a personification of character, so I’m singing about the life I’m trying to live, which has a daily grind like anyone else’s. That’s what they’re breaking their necks over. But I think the fact that we didn’t go with a bunch of pronoun usage is the integrity that the listener is hearing. There is no way of believing that I may be talking about a relationship between a man and a woman. Even though the track may feel like I should be, the bottom line is that you get Jesus, you get God, and that’s were you get this very positive pause like, “whoa!” – because they’re also sensing this feeling of real worship.

AHHA: The track “…More Today,” it was just so funked out. You know, you get caught up with the music that’s playing on the radio, the HOT97s and such, but why can’t this stuff get play there, too?

Knagui: First, let me say that this is the other track on the record that I didn’t write - I added some lyrics, but I didn’t write it. Walter Hawkins wrote and recorded it back in ’78. I’m just trying to do it justice! [laugh] This is just a joyful song about loving Jesus more today when you thought you couldn’t love Him any more the day before. It’s pure like a kid who just got some ice cream singing If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands, and they’re clapping so hard their hands are blood red. It feels good because like you said, it’s funky. The band was hot! Mark laced that bassline and KB “kilt” - not killed – but “kilt” the Rhodes [keyboard]. It feels great because it’s talking about loving the Creator. It won’t get play because it’s too much Jesus and we’ve politically corrected ourselves into a corner of fear and shame.

AHHA: You’re real old school. The fact that you covered “Blessed Assurance” and “It’s Me” – those are two really old songs. But you’ve taken them and redone them so they can crank in the CD changer…

Knagui: Yeah, I think I am a pretty old school cat. I love God, I love church, I love gospel music. I always have, and it’s always been a part of me. There are many people who can sit and tell you about pioneer secular artists, and give you a history lesson on their songs and can sing all of them. I can’t necessarily do that because I was raised not being allowed to listen to that. But I can do all of that in reference to gospel music. So I think overall when I write, there is that influence of old school gospel running through my veins and coming out of the pen.

AHHA: On “Give Us This Day,” I’m still making the link between the old and the new, a secular sound but with a spiritual message, and I keep getting these connections to old school things. I was like, he’s the new school Marvin Gaye.

Knagui: Marvin Gaye? Whoa, that’s deep. [smiling] You messed me up with that one, but I really think that it’s important to bring the message of Christ to the people. I believe it’s important for me to bring a message of hope and enlightenment, a message of spirituality, and we as a country have moved away from that. September 11th helped us, as a country, to see that void. The worst part about that day was the lives that were lost, but the best part was the spiritual awakening that we experienced. In our quest for normalcy, we’ve again deviated our focus from Him. I just wanted to say a universal prayer for our world, and particularly my country, and help them to remember that we were most unified when we turned our eyes toward God. Like I said before, my whole premise behind writing is to say what God has inspired me to say. It’s not my job to get anybody saved. That’s Jesus’ job, and when the time comes for Him to make that move on souls, He will! My job is just to plant the seed, and I believe that I’ve done that with my music.

AHHA: What if you sing and nobody listens?

Knagui: [singing and laughing] ‘Is my singing in vain…’ [old song by the Clark Sister’s] Like my label partner once said to me, “you’re successful because you have a degree – this is only going to add to that success.” So if this doesn’t show me the money, I can still teach [music]. That’s my “living in the world” answer, but I feel successful because I’m being obedient to what God has told me to do. And the album?… it’s just plain hot, every track. You will listen to it again and again. Then you’ll tell your friends and family to buy this new “Gui’s” album, because he’s got the recipe for love.