Article Date: Mar 21, 2016
Author: Shawn Setaro
Keyboardist Shaun Martin is a man of many hats. You can find him playing with Grammy-winning fusion band Snarky Puppy and also performing with the likes of Erykah Badu and Chaka Khan. When he’s not doing that, he’s the musical director for gospel superstar Kirk Franklin (who he’s been working with since Martin was a member of the Grammy-winning group God’s Property while still in high school), and also co-produces Franklin’s records. And in his spare time? He performs in front of thousands every Sunday as the Minister of Worship and Music at Dallas’ Friendship-West Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the country. On top of all that, he just released his first solo album, 7 Summers.
I called Shaun–while he was on tour, of course–to talk about his career, the Dallas scene, and the business of balancing the sacred and secular sides of the music world. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Shawn Setaro: I talked to Dallas music personality Crystal Z. Perry a few weeks ago. One of the things I learned from her is that there’s this whole community of Dallas musicians who have gone to Booker T.Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Can you talk about the atmosphere at that school, and how it contributed to what you do?
Shaun Martin: That atmosphere is very inviting and creative. It invited creativity. Everything from the wacky dress up day and hat day – everything about the school when we were all there was designed to push your creative limits. I think that’s why a lot of us that went, like [renowned drummer] Robert Searight and R.C. [Williams, Erykah Badu’s musical director], [Grammy-winning gospel musician] Myron Butler, even Erykah, [ended up being successful]. Myron and Erykah were much older, we weren’t there at the same time. But the trends that they started back in the 80s carried on for a long time. That’s one thing that made that school very influential. You were taught to live your life without limits. You can do anything, you can be anything you want to be.
S: It was while you were in college at the University of North Texas that you started working with Erykah Badu on Mama’s Gun. What was that like from a music business perspective?
SM: When I started working with Erykah, she had already put out Baduizm and the live album with “Tyrone.” Myself, Braylon Lacy, Eugene Young, and Raphael Iglehart all joined the band at the same time. It was cool because I was still a college student, going back and forth to school and recording sessions.
Erykah Badu is and always will be, especially in my eyes, a mega-star. She’s always had that thing about her. But by the same token, she’s probably one of the coolest, most down-to-earth individuals I’ve ever met. So the sessions were a trade-off for me because I knew the star, but I was getting to know the real person, Erica Wright.
Then a year or so later, [Grammy-nominated single] “Bag Lady” came out. From a music business standpoint, that was a trip, because I was twenty years old, and I hadn’t ever had a chance to be a part of something so huge on that side of the spectrum. Now, God’s Property was a huge success, especially in the gospel world. It went on to sell two or three million records. I was part of the group, but I was just a sideman. But on Erykah’s album, I was able to write and produce, so the business changed. It taught me a lot.
S: What are some of the differences between the pop music market that you’ve seen with acts like Erykah Badu and Chaka Khan, and the gospel market that you’ve spent so much time in? What are the differences between those worlds?
SM: What’s funny between Kirk Franklin and Erykah Badu and Chaka, is that the audiences are actually the same. What I mean by that is, a lot of people who love gospel music also listen to Chaka and Erykah. So that part is cool. It makes everything relatable.
But there is a difference in the outcome, if you will. With Chaka, it’s all about having a good time. Erykah always wants to leave you feeling empowered, that’s her thing. Again, it’s the whole arts magnet [high school] idea: “Go, be, do.” Go anywhere you want, be anything you want to be, do anything you want to do. Whereas Kirk’s thrust is and always will be Jesus. It ends up being power in a spiritual way, in that Christian capacity. Those three outcomes are the differences, but the body of it is all the same.
S: Your position with Kirk Franklin has changed over time, from when you were in high school playing keyboards in God’s Property, to now, when you are co-producing and music directing. Can you talk about your changing role over the years?
SM: I started out as a keyboard player. It was a sideman gig. And then, Kirk approached me with the opportunity of becoming a co-producer with him on the Hero album. I was like 25, 26. I was like, “Okay, that’s fine. No biggie.” I didn’t know what a co-producer entailed. I’d only seen the title. But I was like, “I’ll do it.”
Kirk is a phenomenal writer. His penmanship is amazing. And he’s a player, too. So he’ll present the song, and what I’ll do is take that song and bring it to life, if you will. I went from being a regular keyboard player to this guy who’s helping to give birth to all these ideas. Once I started becoming that producer guy and I was still playing with the band, it just made sense to assume the music director position, because I knew all the records.