Heathen. It’s a word that carries with it a heavy connotation. Perhaps you’ve called someone a heathen as a joke for missing Bible study, or have been the recipient of the low-key insult yourself. It definitely caught my attention when I first heard multi-awarding winning artist GAWVI’s new album. Not only is it the album’s title, it’s a term that the artist proudly calls himself. But what is the definition, and more importantly, what does it mean?
The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines heathen as “an unconverted member of a people or nation who does not acknowledge the God of the Bible.” Collins Dictionary adds “a person regarded as irreligious, uncivilized, unenlightened, etc.”
GAWVI has shared the results of his own search for the word’s meaning. “Heathen actually means Ethnos in Greek, which stands for ethnicity and it also means Gentiles. When it is used in the Bible, it is described as a person who was not Jewish or someone with a different cultural background. So it got me thinking, how did this word get lost in translation? And I realized, this is what happens to us as humans. At the beginning God designed us to be who we are meant to be, yet we let labels influence us and shape our identity. So I want to embrace the word ‘heathen,’ and do something different with the Christian culture, and let people know that it is okay to live outside of the norm. When someone says to me ‘what you are doing is not normal,’ my response is ‘thank you.’
It’s a lesson that was instilled in his youth by his biggest fan and supporter – his mom. GAWVI’s mom appears in the short documentary released before the album Heathen hit the air. His love of family is also reflected in his public moniker. “GAWVI” comes from his given name Gabriel, and is a variation of an endearing family nickname. I asked him about his family, his mom, and the obvious impact she’s had on his life and career.
“Ah, that’s a weighty question. That would take years for me to answer because she’s just amazing. Here’s a really cool thing. Growing up in a Latino house – I’m first generation – my dad’s from El Salvador, my mother’s from Dominican Republic. And usually the norm of people that come overseas is usually, ‘Hey, live the American dream. You have to go to college. You have to become a doctor or a lawyer or anything like that.’ Anything outside of that is like a no-no, because it’s just not honoring. And it took my dad a while to understand that concept, but now he’s my biggest fan. He’s always supported me, but for my mother, there was something rooted in her early on in life, that idea of ‘I want to make sure my kids live their dream and I want to support it at all costs.’ And that’s what she’s always done since I was a young kid, which was strange at nine years old. I knew music was all I wanted to do and I would do it all the time.”
GAWVI’s love for music began at an early age, as it grew out of the boredom that often accompanies pastor’s kids in the abundant amount of time they spend in church buildings throughout the week.
“You find stuff to do. My mom told me when I was a baby I would always go crawl into the drum stand and bang on the drums. And then growing up it turned into actually trying to learn how to play it. And I hid in the keys and then I taught myself how to play. So that’s how music got into my life. I always gravitated to it. And then I started playing worship at the church.”
GAWVI counts many artists as influencing his style of electro pop/hip hop/EDM (seriously, it’s difficult to classify his music which successfully crosses so many boundaries), including Hillsong Live albums, “iconic legend” Marcos Witt, and the multi-talented worship artist Israel Houghton. Israel is featured on Heathen (along with Trip Lee) on the track “Who You Gon’ Be,” and was also the first guest on GAWVI’s new video and podcast series “The New Normal,” with “candid conversations centering on shifting the Christian culture.” He even worked as an intern with recording artist Pharell and welcomes the opportunity to collaborate as colleagues.
But it’s when GAWVI mentions one singer that his voice lights up and I can hear the smile on his face – Latina music legend Selena (Quintanilla – not Gomez). He has a special memory attached to her music and it’s one he shares with his older sister, who he describes as “another rock in my life that supported me as I was young. She loved Selena growing up and it made me fall in love with her as well. What the cool thing about that dynamic was, Selena had a brother as well that would produce all her music. So me and my sister would always pretend like she was Selena and I was her brother and I would produce all her music. I would play the keys all the time. That was a fun time growing up.”
The influence GAWVI has on the music industry goes beyond his own albums. He has produced for artists Andy Mineo, Trip Lee, and Lecrae. In fact, his hit single “Fight for Me” featuring Lecrae won Hip Hop Song of the Year at the 50th Annual Dove Awards in 2019.
But he doesn’t want you to focus on where he’s been. Venturing beyond the box he felt confined to, GAWVI is done with making music to please others which fit into a formulaic mold of increasing popularity and sales. His vision for his future and the future of Christian music includes mentoring the next generation.
“Every single album that I’ve come out with, you’ll see I’ve put a new artist on that album that’s never been heard by anybody. At the beginning, it was people that I found off Instagram that had like no following. I just love seeing people getting the support, especially when they’re talented – I love their story and everything. So now what I’ve done, I’ve taken it to a different level. I was like, well, how am I impacting my hometown other than just church community stuff? And so I opened up a creative center with my manager. We have a studio inside of there and [hold] photoshoots there and everything. I took in this artist named Ecclesia and I’ve been mentoring him and doing everything production wise for him. We’ve been creating music on his album and he’s helped with some writing on my album too. So I’m always all about giving back to different artists and producers.”
The gravity of his position in the public eye does not escape GAWVI. He is humbled and intrigued by how easily listeners connect to his music. As a self-described introvert, he is getting used to and is honored by being recognized in his local Florida supermarket. He says that at times it can be overwhelming but he welcomes it as a byproduct of revealing his true self through authentic musical style.
“I definitely don’t work to make myself known. It’s definitely something that happened organically, which is really cool. I love meeting people, so like at shows I do meet and greets and stuff, and just hearing people’s stories and how the music has impacted them… At first it was scary when I became an artist. I was like, ‘Whoa, I changed her life. Whoa, you’re going through this.’ They’re opening up telling me everything about their life. And I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ And then [I realized], ‘Man, I have a platform that has a huge responsibility. Now I try my best to make an experience, especially at shows because I know how much it means to people. I want to make sure that moment is super special, the intimate moments that we have.”
The connection people feel to him might be due in part to how, at every show, GAWVI sets aside time between sets to share his personal testimony.
“Well, I just preach the gospel. it’s my favorite part of the show. I just feel like I can’t do a show without it.”
Amidst the chaos of recording, travelling, show schedules, and collaborations, GAWVI works hard to make sure he stays connected to his home church. He maintains a close channel with his pastor and community of friends in Florida. He also knows when to take time off. Just last year in 2019, GAWVI didn’t release any new music.
“I needed to mentally get myself together, basically feeling like – you get really drained. The artist’s life is draining [but] it’s amazing at the same time. You’re giving so much out to people and then sometimes you feel like you’re not receiving, ‘cause you may miss church on Sunday. I still got to do shows. I still got to keep going, thank God. But it definitely was a year where I was like, ‘God speak to my heart. Also, readjust my mind of how I view the Christian industry, Christian culture. What do I need to learn new from what I’ve received already and everything I’ve seen?’ And I think that is how the Heathen album came out.”
I asked GAWVI if he had any final thoughts, especially for someone who wouldn’t normally come across his music. He is inviting you along to hear for yourself a new definition for the term “heathen” and how that change in interpretation has redefined his music.
“With Heathen, I want to bring culture into the Christian industry. I want to shape the eyes of people to expand more and be open to where things don’t have to always be the same all the time. I remember my dad telling me how it was so hard for rock music to come into Christianity because it was so looked down upon and now it’s the norm. Like, Hillsong has taken over every single church. I’m just thinking through this word (heathen) and how deep and complex it is. We as human beings are so deep and complex. I’m not saying we’re going to champion it, like we’re going to go, ‘Oh, we’re heathens!’ No, I’m saying that heathen is a starting conversation for all of us to really evaluate how we are living our lives. Why are we judging people? Or, if we’re not judging people, are we part of this movement of expanding the gospel of Jesus for the world? I love how in Galatians Paul is talking about that, where he’s like ‘This message is for the heathen. This message is for the Gentile. Basically it’s for the world. So yeah, that’s, that’s my message with Heathen. That’s what I want people to leave off with.”
Check out the single “Climate Change” from the album Heathen below! And don’t miss GAWVI’s new podcast “The New Normal” each Thursday at noon ET.