The Stellar Rise Of Gospel’s Latest Superstar Jonathan McReynolds

After over six years on the grind, it’s time to make room for Jonathan McReynolds in the pantheon of Black music super stardom. The Chicago singer and songwriter found his voice in the church—like many legends before him—but he sounds like no other. His vocals are uniquely soft and saccharine, yet carry pen work that breathes passion, power and purpose into anyone who listens. By way of two Grammy-nominated albums, he’s inspired a new generation of Christians in their spiritual journey. 

McReynolds brings a jolt of energy to gospel, building upon an outstanding discography while collaborating with some of the biggest names in music. So it comes as no surprise that off the heels of his first recording academy statue for the Mali Music collaboration “Movin’ On,” he’s become a leader in his genre. 

The Chicago native headlines the “Greatest Night in Gospel Music” with the 36th Annual Stellar Gospel Music Awards. He leads the field with eight nominations, and is set to perform as the ceremony returns to Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center. EBONY grabbed a few moments with the star to talk about Black Music Month, his creative process, and his affinity for the game of basketball. 

EBONY: Congratulations on your eight Stellar Awards nominations. You also recently won a Grammy. What does it mean to you to have all these honors?

Jonathan McReynolds: It’s crazy. Neither me, nor any of my middle school teachers or my parents ever anticipated this life choice to even be doing this. So, to be successful and to be impactful is really a dream. It’s a dream that I never had. It sometimes feels like somebody else’s dream, but I’m just grateful. And I hope that it is evidence that God is happy with what I’ve been doing.

You’re performing at the Stellar Awards. What’s this been like for you with COVID-19, and now being able to perform in front of people for the first time in a while? 

We’ve been doing a lot a lot more in the past couple months. And you know, it’s a lot of relearning. I think some of it comes real natural, like riding a bike. But when it comes to the “in shape” part, there’s a definite difference between basketball shape and on stage shape. It’s just two different things. I thought I was staying intact, but after a little bit of jumping around with “I’m Not Lucky, I’m Loved” sometimes I realize I have a few more crunches to do.

Can you give us a preview of your Stellar Awards performance?

We’re still deciding what we’re going to do. There’s a lot of new music that we are making now. Obviously, “Movin’ On,” got the Grammy. That’s the incredible thing. And I’m sure Stellar in some way wants to celebrate that. I mean, it’s a gospel family. So I’m sure that they’re proud of us and all of that. But we are still trying to decide what we want to do. I just hope everyone loves it. 

That’s a great song with Mali Music! What’s it like working with him? I’m seeing the videos of you guys together having fun. 

He’s one of the funniest, goofiest guys you’re going to meet. And we’re kind of an odd couple because I’m kind of straight ahead and disciplined, kind of black and white. And he’s extra colorful and abstract. So it’s really funny, man. But we bring the best out in each other. I tighten him up; he loosens me.

Sounds like a nice dynamic. You briefly posted a cover y’all did of ‘Gravity’ by John Mayer. Is he a dream artist for you to work with? 

Definitely. John Mayer is probably number one. Rascal Flatts, we did a song together. He just put it out. I’ve realized that there’s so many people that I actually looked up to and they really formed the way I made music. I’ll add a few more: J.Moss, Kim Burrell, and Stevie Wonder. So once that happens, I’ll just retire. That’d be the end of it.

I can see a Stevie Wonder duet. Your voices would blend well. When did you realize you had the talent for this? When did this journey really start for you?

I was in college, and I was just making music in my dorm room. I had no commercial ambitions for it. I didn’t really expect to do anything I did. It didn’t sound like gospel music to me. So I wasn’t anticipating it being embraced by that world. So when did I feel ready for this? Ask me tomorrow. It’s always been an up and down feeling of, “Oh, I get why God chose me. I don’t get why God chose me. I get why I’m here. I don’t get why I’m here.” It’s just a constant, up and down thing, for sure.

I think people can relate to that. Let’s talk a little bit about the songwriting process. The music you do, like “Make Room,” brings a lot of emotion for me and I’m sure a lot of people. It makes me wonder what kind of space you’re in, as a Christian, when you’re creating what we hear. What is that process like for you?

I don’t try to make any special adjustments to my day or my life to write. They tend to work best for me when they come straight out of life. I mean, people sit at home sometimes and they journal every night. I imagine it’d be something similar to that. It’s not like a special process. It’s just life. And it’s just all about taking the time out to try and figure out what you just said, what you just heard, what you just prayed about. I don’t pray ten prayers, I don’t. I don’t do any blessed oil, or do any kind of weird rituals, anything like that. It’s just I could be in a conversation with you, and if you say something that I think is profound, or I say something that I think is very accurate, I’ll just throw it up in the air and see if it catches music. I’ll try to flesh it out.

You’re living the lyrics. What we’re hearing, that emotion, is a genuine relationship you truly have with Christ. And I think that’s why you’ve attracted the fan base you have because you’re real. We hear that authenticity. We hear that realness and that’s really, I think, what makes the best music—especially the best Gospel music.

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Yeah, I try to keep it very, very me. And, I always tell everybody it’s just like a Google search. No matter how weird your Google search is after you start typing it in the box, not only will Google finish it for you, but there’ll be millions of results. Like even the weirdest thing, like my left pinky toe hurts, you’ll find somebody felt the same way.

So it’s all as honest and as specific as you can be, maybe as weird as you can be, about your own emotion and life experience and prayer. You find out that millions of people resonate with it. We’re all in this game together. 

You often use basketball as an analogy. You’re a pretty big fan of the game. Steph Curry called you the best basketball playing gospel artist of all time

I’ve always said that I have the best jumper in basketball. That’s something I hold over Tye Tribbet, Travis Greene and (Pastor) Todd Lane. And, I think that there’s been enough evidence to that fact. Now, Steph, one night he did an Instagram live—this was the night that he got eliminated out of playoff contention—he just went up and offered the fact that I am the best basketball-playing gospel singer. And you can’t argue with one of the greatest of all time, especially when he’s one of the greatest shooters of all time. So yeah, I feel very validated. I don’t even have to play anymore. He said it already.

You got any Michael Jordan style tape of you and the gospel crew going at it on the court?

Travis Greene should have one. He had a charity game. Listen, I’ve been to the BET Celebrity Basketball Game, with Chris Brown and other people like that. Real talk, I really think that the gospel team could beat them—Quavo, Bieber, all of them. I really do think that we could get a good ten and beat them.

That would be a sight to see, all great Black musicians. We’re in Black Music Month. When you think about the legacy of our music, you’re part of that framework. How does that make you feel when you reflect on that?

It’s an honor to stand on the shoulders of so many incredible people. As Black people, we still have a lot of work to do. But I am in a much easier position, then my predecessors in so many different ways, as a musician, as a professional, but also just as a human, as a citizen. I’m just really blessed that they kept it together that whole time. If I had to come in through the kitchen just to get on stage and entertain people, if I had to deal with some of the ridicule and the vitriol that they had to endure, if I had to be a part of a music industry that absolutely just abused our talent, I don’t know that I would still do this. So the fact that they were able to do all that and create a platform so that we can easily walk up there is amazing.  I don’t want to say it’s similar, but it reminds me of Jesus taking out all that on the cross, just so I can have easy and bold access to the throne of grace. We always have to remember that where we are, the position that we are in right now, whether it was done by the Savior or it was done by our ancestors, somebody had to do something so that we could have it easier. And, so I’m just really blessed by that entire thing. And, hopefully, I can make it easier for a lot of other inspirational artists that want to keep the creativity flowing and do things out of the box.

You can watch Jonathan McReynolds on the 36th Annual Stellar Awards, in national broadcast syndication starting July 30th through September 5th.

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