Jovonta Patton made a tough call this summer.
The budding 26-year-old gospel star was set to release his third album, Finally Living, on July 22. The biz-savvy Patton understood that as an independent artist, strong first-week sales could bring him nationwide attention.
“Everything was in place,” says Patton, who pronounces the final vowel of “Jovonta” not as an “a,” but rather like the accented “é” that ends the name of his idol, Beyoncé. “I had given myself enough time to promote the album and line up the pre-orders.”
Then came the news: Hezekiah Walker had chosen the same date to drop his new album, Azusa: The Next Generation 2 – Better. Walker, the flamboyant, high-rolling “hip-hop pastor” who put his Love Fellowship Tabernacle in Brooklyn on the gospel map in the early aughts when celebs like P. Diddy and Lil’ Kim worshipped there, would be the week’s big story. Even a strongly selling runner-up from a north Minneapolis up-and-comer would hardly be noticed.
“We wound up pushing the album up to July 15,” Patton says, speaking as warmly, theatrically, and deliberately as he sings. “I was really scared to do it — a week can really make the difference in pre-sales. But I sat down with my team and I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I have to take a risk.’ I didn’t want to wonder, ‘What if we could have been number one?’”
And now Patton doesn’t have to wonder. The gamble paid off, and Finally Living debuted at the top slot on the Billboard Gospel Chart, bumping the previous chart-topper, the compilation WOW Gospel 2016, down to No. 2. Patton became the first independent artist to hit No. 1 on the gospel chart, and the album also landed at No. 12 on Billboard’s Christian & Gospel Albums sales chart and at No. 21 on the magazine’s Independent Albums chart.
Stylishly casual in a colorful bucket hat and crisp white T-shirt, Patton meets for an interview at a downtown Minneapolis Dunn Brothers. Through the window you can see the condo he and his wife, Symone, purchased recently, a home so new that the building’s still going up around it — a work in progress, like Patton’s career.
Despite his downtown address, Patton remains a fixture on the North Side, where he was born and raised. He still sings most Sundays at the Shiloh Temple International Ministries on West Broadway Avenue, and hosts a radio show on KMOJ, Wake Up and Praise with Jovonta, very early on Saturday mornings. And he’s active in his community’s anti-violence campaigns as well, an effort that Gov. Mark Dayton’s proclamation noted when his office declared July 31 to be Jovonta Patton Day. (An honor, it should be noted, that drew far less irate backlash than Beyoncé Day had in May.)
It was in north Minneapolis, at Berean Missionary Baptist Church on 30th and Lyndale, where Patton first started singing, joining the church’s children’s choir at age 4. Patton recalls getting all dressed up and boasting to his siblings about what he’d hoped would be his debut performance. But a mild childhood trauma instead ensued: The director noted that little Jovonta had missed a rehearsal and wouldn’t be allowed to sing that Sunday.
“At the Baptist church at that time, you would march down the aisle to sing, that was a big deal,” he says. “I remember watching everyone pass — my cousin, all my friends at church — and I wasn’t singing, and I was crying, thinking, ‘But I’m the most passionate about this.’”
A minor setback, to be sure. Patton would go on to direct Berean’s youth choir, and at 16 he successfully auditioned for a slot with the Nu Friends Community Choir, the latest project of renowned gospel artist James Grear. The following year, Patton founded his own community choir, Deliverance for Youth, or, DFY, as it’s less formally known. Before he turned 20, Patton was making albums, having recorded a live CD with his group at Shiloh Temple.
“The place was jam-packed with over 3,000 people, a whole bunch of young people under 21,” he remembers. “I didn’t know what I was doing, to be totally honest with you. We actually had someone say they were going to pay for our album and show us how to do everything. They dropped the ball, and I had to step in and do it myself. God led me to really figure a lot of stuff out by experience.”
One thing experience helped Patton figure out was how to sell records. Lacking national radio airplay, the singer had to develop a marketing strategy, and what he arrived at was a mix of the old and the new. He sold CDs after church service, as gospel acts have always done, but he also took Facebook orders from farther-flung fans. Finally Living sold a little more than 1,500 units in its first week — not quite Beyoncé numbers, but better than many locally acclaimed indie bands. “It’s really just family and friends,” he says modestly of his fanbase.
As for the music itself, the album may not shepherd secular passersby into the flock — Patton doesn’t swagger with the hip-hop style of his hero, Grammy-winning gospel force Kirk Franklin, let alone scale the pop heights of Beyoncé. But it’s a winning modern gospel album modeled after another big influence on Patton, Donald Lawrence, and anchored by Patton’s personable presence, with the singer exhorting in a conversationally pastoral tone one moment, grandly elevating his voice in praise the next, with the support of a choir and a sleekly jazzy backing group.
While speaking with City Pages, Patton occasionally (and apologetically) stifles a yawn, and pauses to talk on the phone with his wife. He has a good excuse to be exhausted and distracted: Symone is pregnant. So pregnant, in fact, that the Pattons’ year-old daughter, Ella, will have a little sister, Zoey Jo, less than a week after this interview.
“I am having a crazy year,” Patton sighs. “And the biggest part of it hasn’t even happened.”