Everyone knows that Danny Gokey, Milwaukee’s favorite idol, has faced his unfair share of adversity and loss. He rose to fame in 2009 on "American Idol" while struggling with the untimely death of his young wife, Sophia, who had passed away the previous summer. The bespectacled young performer’s vocal talent and personal charm always carried with it a deeply tragic dynamic.
But some stories that Gokey shares in his new book, "Hope in Front of Me" (NavPress), will be new even to his biggest fans. Even before Sophia’s death, the Gokeys faced plenty of heartbreak and hardship – especially financially, with Sophia deferring her dream of attending college to work full-time as a nanny while Gokey took on a truck-driving job in addition to his duties as worship director at a Milwaukee church.
The newly-wed couple moved in with Sophia’s employers and struggled to get out of debt and achieve financial stability.
"The hardest part about going through this season of life was feeling like we were so far behind other people," Gokey writes.
The Gokeys struggled to make ends meet as Sophia battled her congenital heart defect; Gokey reveals in the book that money concerns compelled him to work a shift at the Cheesecake Factory during the surgery that would eventually be Sophia’s last. When she succumbed to her illness in 2008, her widower was emotionally exhausted and embittered.
"I am a person of faith. I believe miracles do happen...but I was tired of believing with nothing to show for it," he writes.
But through his personal faith and strong sense of determination, Gokey overcame the loss of Sophia and found love again with his current wife Leyicet, who is the mother of his nine-month-old son Daniel. Together they run Sophia’s Heart, a foundation that assists at-risk and disadvantaged children and families.
Gokey just signed with BMG Records, and expects to release his next record in early 2014. He sat down with OnMilwaukee.com to talk about his new label, his new baby, and how to see the light in the darkness.
OnMilwaukee.com: Give me some background on this project. What made you decide to write a book about these experiences?
Danny Gokey: I just wanted to give people perspective. I just wanted to give people my story because I felt like I came through so much. You know, I feel like sometimes our stories can help other people, so just by sharing what I went through and the steps ... I wanted my story to become a vehicle of hope for someone else.
I’m hoping that people can read it, put their situation in perspective, but then let my story become the hope that they cling to and maybe help them get to the other side of their brokenness or the other side of their situation that they don’t understand right now. Because a lot of people give up at this point, and that’s the worst thing you can do, is give up and think that it’s over and nothing else good is going to come your way.
OMC: How did you come up with the title, "Hope in Front of Me?"
DG: I was just talking to my publisher, I was just sitting down talking to him and I said, "I needed to focus on hope. ‘American Idol’ became the hope I was looking at." You know, I shared in the book that my wife passed away and I just didn’t want to live anymore, I was having suicidal thoughts. All of a sudden ‘American Idol’ became a focal point that I could focus on. And when I focused on that and not the situation I was in at the moment, it put things in its right place and helped me see, well, maybe something bigger can happen out of this.
And you know at that time it was just a thought. But it became reality, because instead of looking at the depression, I was looking at my future that was good. It’s like I shared in the book, it’s almost like if you take your eyes off the point you’re going to, you’ll go in another direction. I kept my eyes on the show, I kept my eyes on my music career, I kept my eyes on how my story could help others. It pulled me through that darkness and I saw my purpose.
OMC: Do you see the sharing of your story as a continuation of the ministry you did as a worship director before your music career?
DG: I really do. I feel like God has given me a message for people and my life is that message. I’ve always been a person of faith, and I want to share it with people, and this is definitely, almost, in a sense proves that faith works and proves that – you have to take a step even when you don’t see nothing happening.
That’s the beauty of it all. That’s where it starts, is when you take that first step, even though the situation hasn’t changed. I do see it as a continuation of my ministry.
And that’s what I implemented with Sophia’s Heart. families are coming to our program, you know, they’ve lost their dream, they've lost their home, this is really what I give them. How do you get a family restored who’s been broke and had a lot of disappointment? You restore the dream, and that’s what we do.
OMC: Was it painful for you to relive those memories of Sophia’s last days, and even to talk about your parents’ divorce, which you mention was a heartbreaking thing for you?
DG: It’s bittersweet in a sense that talking about Sophia, there’s been such a healing process. When I look back at that part of my life, I look at it as man, look at what happened. Almost like wow, even though it hurts a little bit, there’s more of like, man, this situation almost killed me, and I overcame it and it’s providing hope to so many people.
As far as my parents are concerned, when I talk about the divorce, that’s one of those situations that is a continuing thing. I’m 33 now and I still want my parents, I still want my mom and dad together, and we don’t have that, but it’s almost like now instead of trying to go back and pressure my family to get their stuff together, it’s almost like I can be a part of that healing process of my family. So when you change your perspective and your view, you just become love where there is brokenness, and that changes the dynamic of the people you work with.
OMC: How does it feel to be a dad?
DG: It’s funny, I think about my dad a lot, because my dad really invested a lot into me, and I’m remembering that with my son. I was with my son this morning and I was thinking about like, I’m going to love him so much, but he’s going to replicate that with his son. It’s one of those weird things, like my dad probably loved me so much and yet I love my son so much.
You pour so much into this person that’s going to give it away to someone else. But it’s worth every moment. I can’t get enough of him. I travel so much that I just try to take advantage of every moment I have with him.
OMC: How is your music career going?
DG: I just signed with BMG records. When I signed my contract with BMG records, and this is kind of a cool story that didn’t get into the book, but it just so happened I ended up signing on the anniversary of me and my first wife’s wedding date, nine years later. To me, it’s not that I’m revisiting it all sad – it just shows me that there’s still things I don’t see.
This part of my story, it’s just not done yet. I thought it was the coolest thing – it could have fallen on any other day – we were supposed to do it the day before and the lawyers had to get all the papers right, so on the fifteenth of May we signed. It was just kind of like heaven winking down on me saying, you know what, there’s still so much more.
OMC: You talk a lot in the book about the financial troubles you faced when you and Sophia first married. Did you feel like, in this economy, it was a good time for people to hear that side of your story?
DG: Oh yeah. And you know, I probably didn’t share enough about that. I just think, it’s just all how you look at it. We are in a troubled economy, but we don’t have to be subject to that troubled economy. We can look at things differently. I just know that no matter what your basis financially, you can still reach your financial goals. You’ve got to think differently.
I just know, I was in that closet ... You’ve just got to discipline yourself.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.