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Heart & Soul
Danny Gokey on his foundation, future in music and why he thinks he was voted off ĎAmerican Idolí

By JORDAN DECHAMBRE-CHILDERS

August 17, 2009

Danny Gokey isnít your average celebrity.

You wonít find him dating a supermodel, fighting with the paparazzi or heading to rehab for "exhaustion."

The soul-filled 29-year-old Milwaukee native is doing something many singing sensations donít ó heís taking his time in the spotlight to further a cause thatís close to his heart, and become a positive role model for children.

Hollywood, take note.

Home Ties

Thereís little doubt Gokey is a born entertainer. The son of a construction worker dad, who at one time worked three jobs to support his family, and a "house mom," who baby-sat the neighborhood kids, Gokey was one of six musically inclined children.

"My dad would sit around and play the guitar and we would all sing," remembers Gokey. "All my brothers and sisters are singers."

But it wasnít until he turned 20 and joined Faith Builders International Ministry, where Gokey served as praise and worship leader at both locations (in Beloit and on Howell Avenue in Milwaukee), that he saw music as a career.

"That was a turning point in my life," he says. "They have a great music program. The people who did it were serious about it, which makes a huge difference."

But his life took an unexpected turn in 2008 when his wife of four years, Sophia, died of a congenital heart disease. Unable to cope, Gokey left Faith Builders. "I couldnít work anymore," he says. "I just couldnít pull myself together."

Gokey met Sophia years earlier when they were both members of a youth service group at a local church. And it was Sophia who gave Gokey the push he needed to try out for "American Idol."

"People would always talk to me about it. Sophia was a big fan of the show," he says. "Then I got DVR, and I got interested in it. We dreamed about it together. Finally, I made up my mind to try out."

On Aug 8, just four months after Sophiaís death, Gokey made the trek to Kansas City with friends, including fellow "American Idol" hopeful Jamar Rogers, to make his dream a reality.

The ĎIdolí Journey

Nothing Gokey had seen on TV could prepare him for the auditions in Kansas City. With nearly 12,000 people in attendance, and Gokey near an emotional breaking point, he leaned on his friends for support.

"Itís really different from what you see on TV. First, the judges werenít there. I went through three auditions with producers and executives before I even saw the judges," he says. "I just remember it being a really emotional day; not knowing what to do. I was crying one moment, then OK the next."

When he finally stood before the judges, his first thought had nothing to do with music. "They looked smaller in person," he laughs. "The TV made them look bigger. Randy is my height, 5-foot-9."

After Gokey and Rogers breezed through Kansas City with Golden Tickets in hand, it was on to Hollywood week ó and another emotional roller coaster for Gokey, who was still coping with his wifeís passing.

"You are crushing yourself. Youíre confused, understanding what life has done to you. Then you are trying to find hope and purpose," he says. "It was probably the hardest week of the whole ĎAmerican Idolí experience for me. I wasnít sleeping. I hit a three-month depression that lasted into December. I didnít want to be on the show. When I was in front of the camera, I did what I had to do, but I was a wreck."

But in December Gokey began "seeking answers from my faith" on a personal trip to Nashville. "Thatís when I let it go. Thatís when I felt free."

But Gokey suffered another blow in January when his friend, supporter and fellow Season 8 "Idol" hopeful Rogers was voted off the show.

"At that point, I was prepared to handle what was to come my way," says Gokey. "I was mad at first. I didnít want him to go."

Show Stopper

With a spot secured in the top 36, Gokey breezed through the competition. He forged new friendships and immediately bonded with roommates Michael Sarver and Anoop Desai, as well as fellow contestant Matt Giraud. "We had a lot of fun," he laughs.

But as the season wore on, Gokey found himself at a serious disadvantage from his fellow contestants ó spending his life singing Christian music meant he didnít know a lot of mainstream songs.

"I probably had the hardest time of anyone choosing songs each week," he says. "I would choose songs Iíve never heard, then narrow them down, choose a song, learn it, then try to rearrange it. There was a lot of pressure."

Looking back, Gokey says if he could have done one thing differently, he would have spent more time studying all the genres of music. "That was my biggest downfall on the show."

High points of the season for Gokey include his renditions of "P.Y.T.," "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "What Hurts the Most." He also credits guest mentor Jamie Foxx for "bringing awareness to things I needed to be reminded of. He told me, ĎNo matter whatís going on, youíve got to sing. Youíve got to meet the challenges ahead.í"

Low points? His performances of "Get Ready" and also "Dream On" after he failed to hit Steven Tylerís iconic scream.

Gokey admits what goes on behind the scenes of the show is a lot more than just music.

"It felt like singing was one of the last things we did on the show," he says. "There was always something else going on: interviews, shopping, meet-and-greets, photo shoots. Music was a small part of the competition, but also the main part. Thatís what makes the show successful. It all comes with the territory."

Another "Idol" insider secret: "Simonís actually a little nicer in person."

And though the nation was in shock at Kris Allenís come-from-behind win to become this yearís American Idol, Gokey, for one, was not surprised. "If you would have asked me at the beginning of the season, I would have said the front runners were Matt Giraud, Lil Rounds, Adam Lambert and myself." Many credit Gokey for Allenís win thanks to the possible influx of "Gokeheads" who turned their votes to Allen after Gokey finished as second-runner up. "But between him and Adam, no, I was not surprised. I knew Kris had grown and had a large fan base. Things were moving in the right direction for him."

Man on a Mission

Today, in addition to performing in the "American Idolís Live" tour, which will rock the Bradley Center on Aug. 28, Gokey is focusing his energy on building and promoting Sophiaís Heart Foundation. He is president and founder of the nonprofit, which helps disadvantaged children. The foundation also includes a program to provide donated musical instruments to children.

"The foundation is going to be married to my music. I donít know if people see what I see, but I see it in my heart. Thereís a bigger plan in my life for music. I want music to be the message and my foundation to be the action."

He says he "wouldnít rule out" becoming a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars," which would give him a chance to address Cowellís incessant criticism of Gokeyís dance moves and lack of rhythm.

Gokey plans to split his time between Milwaukee and Nashville, but says heíll always have a house in Milwaukee. "I love my city," he says. That affection for his hometown is why he chose to locate his headquarters for Sophiaís Heart Foundation in Milwaukee, where he believes it will serve as a source of hope and encouragement for those in need.

"I want it to be a place that facilitates any need," he says. "In my darkest hour, music gave me hope. I went on ĎAmerican Idolí and it gave me a whole new reason for living. If I can became a part of childrenís lives with music, then I can find out what their struggles are. Entertainment is getting to be so indulgent and so all about yourself. I donít want to be that person.

"I think people will respect my music more when they see what Iím doing," he says, "because I just donít talk about it, I do it." M.

Did you know?

Ö Gokey plans to start recording an album as soon as possible.

Ö Known for his many pairs of eyeglasses, Gokey may start an eyewear line to help raise funds for Sophiaís Heart Foundation.

Ö He was nominated for a 2009 Wisconsin Area Music Industry Award for "Best Christian/Gospel Artist." He lost to Chad James.

Ö Gokey graduated in 1998 from Vincent High School in Milwaukee.

How to Help

A donation to the Sophiaís Heart Foundation helps children in need by providing food, clothing and shelter; giving medical relief; creating scholarships; and providing money or used instruments. Log onto www.sophiasheart.org for more information.

 


This story ran in the July 2009 issue of: