Russell Leonce: minister of music

Gospel music is hugely popular in the region. But Laura Dowrich-Phillips finds singer Russell Leonce is a reluctant star

Gospel singer Russell Leonce. Photograph by Kibwe Braithwaite, courtesy Russell Leonce

Russell Leonce’s life hasn’t changed much since the day in 2008 when he blew away the audience at the Copyright Association of Trinidad & Tobago Music Awards, performing his hit song “Troubles Won’t Last”.

But if life is much the same, that’s because he has made a determined effort to keep it normal. He wakes up at 5 am every morning for prayer and devotion – and exercising, on occasion – before going back to bed.

Leonce, one of Trinidad & Tobago’s rising gospel stars in a thriving industry, is a devout Christian who uses his music to minister and heal. The son of George Leonce, the Nazarene District Superintendent of the Windward Islands, he was born and raised in the Nazarene church, and sang in the children’s choir. Today, he is the worship minister in the church, responsible for the music at services.

After reawakening at 9 am, Leonce spends the day attending meetings at church to prepare for upcoming services. He may also head out to the studio or stay at home to write new music. He’s working on a new album, which he said would focus more on his relationship with God.

Before his first album, Culture of Love, Leonce sang backup for notable artists such as Nicole Ballosingh and for a gospel group called Word. One thing he couldn’t do was write his own lyrics. But then, one day after chapel at the Caribbean Nazarene College, where he was studying for a degree in theology, an entire song came to him. The floodgates open, he went on to write other songs, including his hit “Troubles”, which he wrote when he was going through relationship drama. Ironically, that was his least favourite song, until he himself found comfort in the lyrics.

“After we did a rough recording and I listened to it, tears came to my eyes. It brought calm over me and I prayed everyone who heard it got healing. The song ministered to me first.”

Culture of Love, produced by his friend Cleon Richardson, debuted in March 2009, and won the gospel album category of the Independent Music Awards in January this year. It also received no fewer than ten nominations for the Caribbean Gospel Music Marlin Awards, which are being held in October in the Bahamas.

Leonce’s life is most hectic when he’s preparing for events such as these, or performances such as the R3 show that he headlined, together with fellow Trinidadian singer Rizon and Guyanese-born jazz singer Ruth Osman.

“Around that time it’s busier because there is a production pending, but I try not to make it so hectic,” he said.

On a typical day, though, he has time to hang out at the mall with friends or goes to the movies.

Though he looks forward to increased opportunities to travel and spread the word of God through song, Leonce does not revel in the adulation he receives, particularly for the startling similarity of his voice to that of American R&B singer John Legend. In fact, after his performance at the 2008 COTT awards, he went into a depression when the accolades poured in.

“I was pretty hard on myself. But I learned that praise will come – but it’s what I do with it that matters,” he said.