In the music video for South London singer Samm Henshaw's ecstatic, radiant "Church," the first time we see him, he's floating down the street aboard a cloud. Before long, he glides his way to an actual church, proclaiming the exultant chorus en route ("Wake up and get yourself to church!") and continuing in front of a lively choir once he arrives. As the former Chance the Rapper tourmate told MTV News recently, the scene recalls his own story finding his voice inside places of worship.
"It all kind of happened in church," Henshaw, 25, said over the phone. As a preacher's son, he unleashed his voice in front of people for the first time ever at church youth camp as a kid at a friend's urging. "He said, 'You should go up and sing,' and I was like, nah, I don't want to do it. But I found the courage."
His courage extends beyond just his voice, a raspy, elegant wail that anchors his soul- and hip-hop-inspired confections. A typical Samm Henshaw track sounds like a gospel-tinged pop tune — "Church" and 2018's "Broke" boast a lively, loose slickness with plenty of sky-scraping vocal moments — but he's not a fan of the "gospel pop" label. "You'll know when I make a gospel joint!" he tweeted in March. Still, a gospel energy flows through Henshaw's catalog, a collection that snagged him a spot as one of the inaugural artists to perform at The Shed, New York City's latest cultural performance center, for its Soundtrack of America series in early April. (Its official description labels it "a five-night concert series celebrating the influence of African American music with a new generation of groundbreaking artists.")
As much as Henshaw's textured voice is his moneymaker (indeed, he can deploy it for both aching Usher covers and smoky R&B originals), he's a songwriter at heart. He commands piano and guitar. His process involves hammering out a solid chord progression, then singing on top to find the melody. Working on "Church" specifically, he found some resistance to what became the song's actual subject matter. "I remember being in some sessions... and people would be like, 'Oh, don't do that; it's too gospel-y or too church-y,'" he told Noisey.
"'Church' as a word can instantly make [people]... be put off by that," he elaborated during our conversation. "[But] when it comes to mainstream music, it's going out to everyone, not just one specific audience. With 'Church,' there's no agenda. I'm not trying to promote anything. I'm just telling a story."
That story involves a sweet memory with his mother. "My mum became like my personal alarm clock on Sundays waking me up [to go to church]!" he wrote in a Genius annotation of the song. "I wanted to try and replicate that feeling in the lyric, without actually shouting or screaming over the song." The end result is a recreation of pure elation, the same kind he still gets from his trips to weekly service. "It's still very much a part of my life at the moment," he revealed over the phone.
Even as his songs and videos rack up millions of streams and as his crowds grow larger, Henshaw knows it could all disappear in a moment. He likens himself to an athlete one injury away from early retirement. That's why he made sure to finish school before committing to music full time a few years ago, a decision he also attributes to the prodding of his diligent, hardworking Nigerian parents. "I always have to think about the fact that this is everything going according to plan, and that one day, God forbid, my voice could turn on me," he said. "I could've dropped out of university and ended up not getting a deal, and things could've not gone the way I wanted them to."
Such an outlook places Henshaw in an enviable position. He's an honest songwriter with a luminescent stage presence and brawny vocal cords — and he's got a plan B, should his situation ever require it. What that is, though, isn't important to his immediate plans, which are to keep pumping out music throughout 2019 in anticipation of an eventual album. The release plans, he said, are "strategic" and, as of now, undefined; he doesn't want a collection of new material to get "lost in the rubble."
Based on his Twitter presence, Henshaw could always pivot from art to arts criticism if he needed to. His unvarnished quips on Captain Marvel ("meh"), The CW's Arrow ("it lost the sauce"), and Green Book ("fantastic movie") prompted me to put forth a few queries about 2019's upcoming blockbusters, beginning with the Todd Phillips-directed Joker. "I think it's gonna be really good 'cause Joaquin Phoenix is a genius, but I just don't really know how I feel about DC [Comics] at the moment," he said. Back in the MCU, meanwhile, he's even less optimistic about his emotional state after Avengers: Endgame wraps: "Something's gonna happen and we're not gonna see Captain America in any more films, and that's gonna suck."
As for the epic conclusion of Game of Thrones, his "favorite show ever" that's he's "gutted" about? "I think it could go either way," he said a few weeks ago. Since then, he's declared for House Stark (or is it technically House Stargaryen?). "Jon Snow for the Throne..." he tweeted Sunday night after the Season 8 premiere. "Or [Tyrion]... either way I think Khaleesi has lost it."