BET’s Sunday Best Finalists Talk God, Music, and Ministry

SundayBest

If you’ve been watching BET’s Sunday Best, you know this season is unlike any other. There’s been amazing talent, and we’ve caught up with some of our past season favorites. However, this year there are three finalists and they’re all anointed men of God. They were so gracious to take time out of their busy schedules to speak to Gospel Today.

GT: Your bios read like a “Who’s Who” of not only the Gospel industry, but in the industry period. You all have done so much. How did you feel when Sunday Best asked you to come back for the All Stars season?

Dathan: For me, it was very interesting. We were all working when this option came. We were already doing things and very busy in our individual lives, and so for some of us, we had to stop what we were doing to be a part. But because we know about Sunday Best and what it’s done for our careers and how we love it so much, of course we couldn’t say no to do it. So the idea to do it was amazing. But the bigger thing about it [Sunday Best] is we know. Hindsight is 20/20. When you’re on the show and you get eliminated you say, “I should have done this. I could have done this.” But to get a second chance to come back, and we were on the earlier seasons, so we’ve analyzed this thing for a very long time. We can say, “Oh no! We know exactly what to do now.”

Zebulon: Being called to come back meant another opportunity to reach even farther. To launch out deeper and to reach some people who may not have been watching our season. Ours was six years ago in Season 2. Me and Cliff were six years ago, and Dathan was on Season 3. But like he said, we were on earlier seasons so there are some people who have now joined the bandwagon of watching Sunday Best who were not watching before. I think the important part in ministry and in artistry is to just reach as many people as you possibly can. So that’s a great advantage we have about coming back. I was thrilled to come back. It means I get to reach more.

Clifton: I feel the same way that they do. After you get eliminated, you have to go through a process. You have to heal. No one enters a competition and not want to win. And so when you don’t win and you get eliminated, you are going to have some feelings. Now you can either mask those feelings and you can throw them away. But, I think the healthiest thing you can do is to actually deal with them. So I dealt with disappointment, and then I figured out that it wasn’t necessarily my time. So, I’ve spent the past six years just working on me, evolving, working on my craft and working on Clifton as a person. And literally just growing and growing. And I’ve been serving under different people, different artists just to learn and to get myself together. So, just when I was about to release my own music, I got called to come back and do the show. I was already satisfied with the fact that I already recorded music. I paid for it myself. I was happy. The psalmist says, “God if you don’t do anything else for me, you’ve already done enough.” I was satisfied with my “enough,” and then when I got asked to do this, it was like more than enough. So everything that I’m operating in on this Sunday Best reaching the final three is the “more than enough” from God – like way more than enough. So, I’m totally in a grateful moment. So I’m just happy to be here and to share this moment with Zebulon and Dathan.

Zebulon: Yeah!

GT: I enjoyed listening to Clifton and Zebulon go back and forth while we waited for Dathan to join us. You have a great rapport. This is the first time in Sunday Best history that there are three finalists and you are all men. What’s your relationship like with each other?

Clifton: I hate them all! Sike! I’m just playing. (All laughing)

Zebulon: No, he doesn’t!

Dathan: I was just saying this the other day sharing with one of our contestant coordinators who drives us around. I said honestly if I could handpick the people that I would just want to hang out with out of this group, and this is no lie, it would be these two. They have amazing personalities. They’re the funniest people in the world, and when we get together, it’s just really a great time. It’s so funny because we’re in a competition and we know that. We even throw jokes at each other about the competition. “No I’m going to win,” “You’re short” and “You’re this…” But, at the end of the day, I truly love Zebulon and Cliff. They’re great guys. We have different personalities, but their genuineness is what brings us together.

Zebulon: One of the things that makes ministry easy is always having someone around that you can relate to. So, going through a process like a competition which involves ministry and involves artistry, these two gentlemen know exactly what I’m going through right now. And even though we have our different lives and everything is going differently in each of our lives, we trust each other. We understand that ministry calls for the attack of the enemy even, and you set yourself out there on the front line and you’re going to be attacked. So, we’ve been able to share some of the things that we’ve been going through with one another. And so it always makes perfect sense to have people around you who know what you’re going through at that time. So when you get up on stage, you’re not holding everything in. You get up to minister. You’re not holding everything in. You can vent to friends, and that’s what these gentlemen have been to me.

Clifton: It’s been fun. Once the last elimination happened, we got a chance to just exhale because we knew there were no more eliminations from the judges. And we knew that it was like “Just perform.” At this point, just sing. Just minister. By this point in the show, people that connect with you have already connected with you. So, we’ve just been enjoying each other. We laugh. We encourage each other in our low moments. I think all three of us have had several low moments, and instead of walking away, we encourage and empower each other as brothers. And that means a lot. All of this is a decision. We could decide to be nasty. We decided to choose love. Yes, this is a competition and we know that at the end of the day only one person can win, but even in our blending moments when we’re singing together as a group, people are like, “You guys should be a group. You guys should record together.” And we’re like “Okay. Cool. Maybe we will do a song or something” because we genuinely enjoy being around each other. As Dathan and Zeb said, it’s nothing but good times and laughter, and we just want to see what the last card will be, but I love them.

GT: Let’s talk about Ms. Kim Burrell. The viewing audience has displayed their love/hate relationship with her on social media, but she’s a Gospel legend in her own right. What’s the greatest lesson Kim Burrell shared with you as your coach?

Zebulon: I will say this. You’re going to stand up and be who you’re going to be and let that be it. Let your “Yays” be your yays and your “Nays” be your nays, and that is kind of what Kim is and what she embodies. “I am who I am. You either hate to love me or you love to hate me.” Kim is a great joy and a laugh to me. I always laugh when I’m around Kim Burrell because I love her. She’s very genuine. She doesn’t pull any punches. She doesn’t hold nothing! She’s going to say what she means. Kim Burrell taught me to stand flat-footed and sing. Be who you are, but know who you are first. You can’t be everybody else. You can’t be Kim Burrell, and that’s what she says. She says, “You can’t be me. I can’t be you and you shouldn’t want to be because there’s something in you that the world needs.” So, I just love Kim. We always get a good laugh in. I love it.

Dathan: For me, it was weird because when I got eliminated in Season 3, everybody said, “It was Kim’s fault you got eliminated because she was telling you all of this extra stuff and you were confused. And you should have just stuck with what you knew. That’s why you got kicked off.” That’s all I heard, and I remember one of the few things she said to me right before the mentor session for the song I did right before I got eliminated. She said, “There are like 11 sides to Dathan, and we’ve only seen one. You need to explore those.” And so, I didn’t get that, but like I said, hindsight is 20/20. When I got off [the show], I got it. I got what she was saying, and she was right. I was in this box as this praise and worship guy, which is cool because that’s what I am, but that’s not the only side of me. She was trying to get me to see that I needed to show everybody the different sides and not just this one side because you want everyone to see your fullness and your essence. And so, I didn’t get that until I got off the show. So, when I got the opportunity to come back, I shared with her and I don’t even think she remembers. I said, “You’re so right,” and maybe it was spoken prophetically. [I told her], “I want to use this opportunity to do exactly what you said before I got kicked off the last show.” And I think on this season, I got to do that. She helped pull that [out of me], so I’m forever grateful to her for that. I believe taking her advice is what got me to the end. I respect her and the anointing on her life. I respect the prophetic gift. I respect her discernment. Everybody doesn’t always get the way she handles things, but if you understand the person and understand their character, you know they’re not doing anything to hurt you. When you understand that, you can receive it better. I get it. I love Kim Burrell and what she’s imparted in me.

Cliffton: During Season 2, we had Donald Lawrence. We didn’t have Kim Burrell, so all of my dealings and my relationship with Kim Burrell was outside of Sunday Best. As a vocal coach and artist, Kim Burrell is someone I’ve looked up to since I was 12 and 13 years old when her album “Everlasting Life” came out. I discovered things in my voice I didn’t even know I could do just by listening to her and trying to mimic what I heard. So I’ve always had the highest respect for Kim Burrell. So coming on the show and getting to work with her was such an experience. However, the first show she said the infamous, “I wish you the best.” She was blatantly honest with me, but after the second song, I fell in love. She was like, “Wow. This guy can sing.” She immediately believed in me, and she fell in love with my heart, but she didn’t get a chance to experience my heart until we started working one-on-one. It was a joy to actually stand with her and for her to sit and have a conversation with you, and then ultimately believe in you. So that’s kind of like “Whoa! Kim Burrell!” One moment that stands out the most for me was when I did “War Cry” around maybe the fourth episode. She told me on this song you need to be the general. You need to think about how a general would act and how a general would think. Do that as if the general was singing. How would he command the audience? How would he command his army to stand up and fight? So, I was like “Oh, this is like Holy-Ghost acting.” So let’s get out there and command the people. She helped connect the musical theater, if you will, in the Gospel moment where you could really embody the character of the song that you’re singing. She helped me pull out the performance in me.

Dathan: Shout out to Cliff. That was my favorite performance of Cliff! (all laughing)

Clifton: Thank you!

Zebulon: The truth of the matter is at some point in all of our careers, we’ve all tried to study Kim. And not just because of her riffs and runs, but she was something different. She was something different that Gospel music hadn’t experienced, hadn’t heard, hadn’t felt. It came from a different place. It came from a different experience. She’ll always tell you that Jazz is one her biggest backgrounds. So being able to make it a different interpretation of Gospel, I think that’s something we all dare to look for. We all want to bring a different kind of experience. No one has the same testimony. No one has the same experience, and I think that’s the greatest gift of Kim Burrell.

GT: What’s it like sharing the stage with powerhouses like Kim Burrell, William Murphy, Donnie McClurkin, etc.?

Clifton: It’s an honor to stand on shoulders of great people. If it wasn’t for the Kirk Franklins or the Kim Burrells and Yolanda Adams, who stepped out and said, “You know what? I’m going to be different. I’m going to reach more than just [those within] the walls of the church,” I don’t think institutions like Sunday Best would have ever taken place had those people not made the decision to be different. So, it’s an honor to stand on this platform getting ready to launch out. All three of us are getting ready to launch out. [Sunday Best] is such a great launching pad. Even when I got eliminated in the second season, I never talked bad about Sunday Best because it was a great launching pad then. It was almost like a trampoline. Now, I’m back down on the trampoline, and I’m about to launch again. I’m honored to do it.

Zebulon: If you think about standing in a ditch, a very deep ditch, and you just stand up and you’re trying to get help, you want someone to see you. If you just stand up, it’s possible no one will see you. No one will notice you. No one will hear you. But because we stand on shoulders of greatness, people who already tried this, people who already succeeded in being heard, people who have been successful in thriving in God music, we stand on their shoulders. So, we’re able to be seen at a higher level and someone will get from us what it is God intends for us to give to them. Down in the ditch, there’s a lot of work that goes on before you stand on those shoulders. The people who’ve done the work whose shoulders you’re about to stand on don’t want you to stand on their shoulders if you’re not prepared to holler out, if you’re not prepared for something to change. They don’t want you up there if you’re not ready in your spirit to tackle what the enemy is going to send your way. So, we’ve had to do a lot of ground work before we got back up here. I’m glad that the Lord gave us five or six years to mold us into what it was He wanted us to be. The truth of the matter is six years ago, I wasn’t the artist or minister I was going to be now. I wasn’t ready to be Sunday Best. Now, whether I win or lose, I’m ready to carry it at a maximum potential because I’ve done the groundwork.

Dathan: It’s surreal. We may look young and fresh, but we’ve been in this game for a very long time. The very people we look up to are now our peers. The very people we look up to, we now share the stage with and it’s a little surreal because these are the people who we grew up singing their songs. I remember being young and saying, “One day I can’t wait to meet Donnie McClurkin,” and now, we know each other on a first name basis. I remember being younger and saying, “I can’t wait to work with Kirk Franklin” and to be on the stage not once, but twice as an All Star, him knowing my name and exactly who I am and respecting my craft is really surreal. It’s also a blessing that the things God has promised, and there are some things God’s promised all of us a long time ago, we’re now seeing it come to fruition. God works in seasons, and last time wasn’t really our season. We got to touch some stuff and be a part of it, but this indeed is our season, and I feel like God is really going to elevate us. This time jumping on that trampoline, we’re going to go further than we’ve ever gone before.

GT: Many viewers don’t know about all you’ve done. They view this season as your second chance on Sunday Best to share your anointing, gifts and talents. What words of encouragement do you want to share with those who want to pursue their dreams?

Clifton: One thing that I’ve done in the past six years is I worked on me. I think you have to really work on yourself. You have to learn to love yourself. There are so many of us who are operating around “We hate what we look like. We hate what we sound like. We have body issues. We have so many things dealing with ourselves. And I think the closer you get to falling in love with yourself, the closer you get to God. The more you fall in love with yourself, the more you’ll figure out what your purpose is. A lot of times we hit brick walls because we’re not operating in our purpose. The first step is you have to find out what your purpose is. Be inspired to chase after your dreams and not give up especially when you know you’ve been called to do something.

Zebulon: People don’t know what we’ve been doing so they see this as our second chance. Ever since we’ve been on the show, all three of us have been working. Dathan and I have been doing stuff with Tyler Perry. Clifton has been doing DVDs. They’ve been calling him, asking for him by name to do specific work. And so with that, this is like a third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh chance. And I think as long as you stay working, God will give you as many chances as you need. If you feel like this is your call and purpose, until you feel like God says yes and amen, keep working and God will give you as many chances as you need to make you successful.

Dathan: I agree with him on that. A lot of it [us being in the final three] has to do with God trusting you. God will put people in places because He can trust you with it. It’s kind of like the Parable of the Talents. The one who hid his talent, God took it away and gave it away to the one who duplicated his. So there are people out here working like us. We were on our grind. We had to stop some work to do the show because that is how God uses people. God says, “They’re working in my Kingdom already. Of course, I can put them on a platform. They’ve been faithful over a few and now I can make them ruler over many.” I’ve been grinding for a very long time, but I will say this as a disclaimer. There was a season in my life where my marriage was struggling and I decided to stop. No traveling. No moving on. No gigs. No nothing because I did not want to see my marriage fail. It was very difficult because I’m a very driven person, so to just stop something I’ve built for several years was very difficult for me. But, I knew this was very important. I knew family is very important to God and it was important to me too. It was messing with me because I made the decision not to travel and not to take any more dates. I said why would I continue to go on the road and neglect my family so I stopped. I remember moving to Atlanta and saying “Lord, I was gaining so much momentum. I don’t want to stop the grind.” I knew in my heart He knew that, but I also knew in my heart I was doing the right thing. You have to be sensitive to the Holy Ghost and what He’s saying to you and go with that. I stopped for three years. I said, “Lord, what about the momentum?” and God said, “I got you.” I remember getting a phone call that said John P. Kee is on Twitter looking for you. So, I went on and found his number, and I gave him a call. He had been trying to work with me for two years to do a song on his project. I said “Wow. This whole time I’ve been trying to make sure my name was out there. God said, “No.  You need to take care of your family, and I got you.” I wasn’t doing anything. My face wasn’t out there, and people were looking for me waiting to do work. When I decided to get back out there and do work, this door [Sunday Best] was opened. It was perfect timing because I wanted to get back out there because I took a three year break. But I said all of this to say, you have to be sensitive to the Holy Ghost because we can have a way and think this is what I need to do, but God could have a whole other way for you even if that means going home and sitting down and taking care of stuff at home. He will redeem that time you felt like you lost!

The final episode of Sunday Best airs this Sunday, August 30th at 8 PM on BET. You can vote for your favorite until 12 PM on Saturday, August 29th here.

Lauren Jones (@revlaurelj) is an Itinerant Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and serves in the Columbia, SC metropolitan area. As a widow, she balances ministry and motherhood to two rambunctious children. She blogs about her adventures at www.throwupandtheology.com. When she’s not preaching, writing, or changing diapers, she raises awareness about epilepsy and the devastating effects of drunk driving as a volunteer speaker for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). She self-published “I’m Singing This Song to You,” a letter to her children in honor of her late husband available for purchase on Amazon.

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