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Interview: Mary Mary – Gospel Music Duo

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Erica and Tina Campbell are pioneers in the contemporary gospel movement. Together, as Mary Mary, they have “pushed the envelope” in redefining the boundaries of Gospel, by blurring its ties to hip-hop and R&B music. Make no mistake, however, God is present in every song they produce.

From the groundbreaking success of “Shackles” to the genre-defying production of “God in Me,” Mary Mary has the rare distinction of finding a welcome home on secular and religious radio stations. The duo’s latest offering, The Sound, debuted in the #7 spot on the Billboard 200 and has remained on the chart for fifty-two weeks—a solid year! The album also remained in the #1 position on Billboard’s Gospel Albums listing for over sixth months.

As “God in Me” made its historic climb up Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, Eric and Tina Campbell managed to squeeze some time out of their busy schedules and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on “Shackles,” contemporary criticisms, and Proverbs 3:5-6.

I want to thank you for bringing gospel to the mainstream. Has there been a particular Bible verse or piece of inspiration that has served as the pillar of your music ministry?

Erica Campbell:  I won't say that there's one particular thing. I thank God for little bits of things that I get. I may see some encouraging emails from a friend or the memorable portion of a message. My favorite scripture, however, is Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding, but in all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths. I've held onto that. I look forward to God speaking to me through so many different ways and so many different people. I think that's what's kept me going. That and working with my sister and having my family so close, keeping us grounded and knowing that it's really about God and not about us. That's what pushed us. It gets a little rough at times, but knowing who you are – and whose you are – and what you're supposed to be doing, it keeps you focused. It keeps you moving and going.

Tina Campbell:  Exactly. Knowing that you're actually here for a purpose. It's not just a hobby. It's not for the hype. It's not for the fame, but you're literally here serving a purpose. You're pursuing your actual purpose in life. I think this is part of me and Erica's purpose in life — to spread the message the way we're doing it to the audiences that we're reaching. I just think that's what God made us for, so, when you get discouraged and scared, just say, “This is for the birds. They can have it. I was born to do this. This is my responsibility here on earth. I've got to do it, until God says stop it.”

On a thematic level, all of your albums revolve around the concept of restoration, whether it be on an individual, spiritual or communal level. When you think about the future, what do you perceive to be America's greatest challenge?

Erica Campbell:  Greatest challenge? Wow, that’s a pretty heavy question!

Tina Campbell:  I think that I would say to be real and honest with who we are and who God is. If we realize that we were all made by God, we were all made in His image, and our life's purpose is to praise Him. That's what He said. That's what the Bible says. That's what we were made for. He said, “I'll make the wind blow and the flowers bloom and everything else that I've made I will make it honor me and glorify me with what it does.” So He made humans to praise. And if we realize that that's what we were made for and that He is the creator of all life — if we make sure we do what He has made us to do and make sure we let everyone know that we can — that this is why I do this, because He gave me life and He gave you life and perhaps you should, too. I think that is one of the things that can impact the world in the most profound way – more than all of our doctrines.

Erica Campbell:  Another thing that we should keep in mind is that our feelings are fickle. So we should walk our fates on God's word. How do we feel this now? There's a lot of things we don't feel, but it's still what we are supposed to do. A lot of people are like, “I'm not feeling church these days,” or “I'm not feeling this,” “I'm not feeling that.” It's messing us up as a people and as a nation. You feel one way this day, and the next day . . . One thing we know is yes, we were created to praise and to glorify God, and that we should devote our faith to stand on God's word.

I still remember the first time I saw you ladies perform in concert. At the time, I was living in Charlotte, North Carolina, and you were part of the bill for “Sisters in the Spirit,” along with Yolanda Adams, Shirley Caesar and Angela Christie. As you have traveled across the world, what do you consider to be the ultimate reward of the touring experience?

Erica Campbell:  Well, the most rewarding things, for me, are the testimonies and the stories that we hear. I will never forget the girl that we met in Alaska that is paralyzed. We kept in touch with her through a social networking site. She said the only time she could move her feet was when she was listening to “Shackles.” And that just has blown me away and continues to blow me away every time I think about it. It just shows how great God is. He chooses to use you and your gifts for music or your song or your message, whatever it is, He'll get the glory out of it. I thank God for the awards and the sales and the exposure in the mainstream. That's really, really great. But if lives aren't changed, if nobody's getting to know who He is, then we’re wasting our time.

Tina Campbell:  I remember this guy had some devastating situation happen in his life. He was sitting up in a dark house for a month. And the song “Shackles” is what caused him to realize, “I can live again. If I let these chains bind me, that I'm going nowhere. Life is going nowhere, but I'm still here, so it must be for a reason. Let me get up and live my life.” I remember a girl's mother telling us after a concert that the song “Can't Give Up Now” inspired her daughter. She was having all this peer pressure at school to get involved in stuff that was just dead wrong. She was having so much pressure because everybody at her school was doing this and involved in this stuff, and it's because of the song that we had that said, “I can't give up,” so she wouldn't give up. We've heard countless people say that the song “Yesterday” is what pushed them to keep on moving, keep on living, keep on dreaming, keep on believing. And with “God in Me” – we've had people who were atheists saying, “Who is that? I want to buy their record.” It’s great to feel validated by knowing that the world loves our music. And yes, we want to sell millions of records. We'd love to win all the awards. We'd love for the world to feel like Mary Mary makes great music, and we love for everyone in the gospel and the mainstream to hear our music. But it's more important to make an impact that's lasting and I think that's the thing that we find out through the testimonies. And nothing can compare with that.

Earlier in the year, you collaborated with Israel Houghton on “Every Prayer,” Which is featured on The Power of One. Since Mary Mary collaborations are rare events, what gravitated you to that particular project?

Erica Campbell:  A lot of collaborations aren't done simply because of scheduling and that type of thing. But when we heard the song, we loved it. Unfortunately we weren't in the studio with Israel, but hearing the demo, I loved the song.

Tina Campbell:  We love Israel and love his songs. And his ministry. He is a wonderful producer as well. And we're happy to have the time to do it because many of the times, time is where the conflict is. But because we had the time, we were available. It was great!

Throughout the ages, every new generation of contemporary Gospel musicians inevitably suffers some form of criticism from traditional listening audiences. Although your music is typically categorized within the “contemporary gospel” genre, I'm curious to know what traditional elements you strive to keep intact.

Erica Campbell:  I don't really break my neck for the traditionalists. I'm just me.

Tina Campbell:  Exactly.

Erica Campbell:  We are who we are. Some days we feel like singing “Yesterday.” And another day we feel like singing “God in Me.” Even in my personal music library, you can see a Shirley Caesar song, but then you'll see “Kiki” [Kierra Sheard]. I'm a human. We're singers. We're songwriters. We are engaged by the world with our music in different things. So I don't have to break my neck and go, “Oh, we're traditionalists. We have to remember this and do this like this.” I love Him, and therefore…

Tina Campbell:  …I have to chime in. On the same token, I have to say we’re not trying to break our necks trying to make sure, you know, we're contemporary, or that we have to make this profit. We just do us. At the end of the day, that's how you end up with the music that you get from Mary Mary. We just do us. It’s not contrived. We don't think out all of this stuff. We go in. We write what we feel. If it comes out traditional, so be it. If it comes out hip-hop, urban, young, whatever – however it comes out that's how it's supposed to come out. And that's who we are. All that stuff makes us who we are.

Erica Campbell:  It's not coincidental or accidental. We're aware of the industry that we're in. I think you have to be very smart in business, so it is organized in that respect. We know that it is a ministry. But it's also business, and we want to sell records and we want to be effective and we want to be marketable. But there are some other things that go in line with that. But at the bottom of it all, we're just being true to who we are.

Tina Campbell:  We don't try to go into the studio and fit into a specific classification.

When you look back on the recording experience The Sound, what memory immediately comes to mind?

Erica Campbell:  Recording “It Will All Be Worth It” was definitely, by far, one of the most moving, wonderful, memorable experiences, because we were in a room full of people that we've listened to since we were little girls, and they were there to sing all of our albums. Even though Marvin Winans wasn't there, he wrote the verses to the song, so it was just — it felt like a full-circle moment for me. I think every singer dreams of singing with your favorites — think of being on stage with your favorites, and having them all to yourself in a room. I felt like, “God, you really made my dream come true.” And a lot of times we ask things of God and we give the devil a way in like, “God, I want you to do this. I want this.” But if you don't get it, it's okay. You know what I mean? That was something we wanted, probably in our subconscious mind, but we didn’t just stop and say we’re going to sing with the Clark Sisters. So to have been there in the studio singing with them for my album, it was amazing. And it did something for me as a singer. It did something for my faith and knowing what's possible when you do things, when you work hard, and you do it at an excellent level.

Tina Campbell:  I have to say I agree. That was just an amazing moment for me. I just jumped in there with [Andrae Crouch, Daryl Coley, Tramaine Hawkins, Walter Hawkins, Dorinda Clark-Cole, Joe Ligon, Karen Clark Sheard, and Rance Allen]. I didn't know if I should talk, or smile. I was in awe. Like, “We're in here with legends.” I don't know how the world views them, but all of them in our eyes, they're big and great and wonderful because their music has helped to shape who we were growing up, who we were musically, vocally, on stage, naturally and then on the spiritual side. It's like, “I'm sitting here with all of you who've impacted me this much, working on my CD. It's crazy. It's great.”

Although it’s hard to choose, I think my favorite song on The Sound is "I Worship You." When you sing the lyrics from the chorus — “You took everything I was / made what I am / and with all I am / I worship you” — does a particular experience come to mind?

Tina Campbell:  Everything comes to mind. There're so many people that have dreams and that have gifts and that have talents, and would like to be in certain places and achieve certain things and see these dreams and these goals, or whatever it meant. And so for us to look at our lives and see the place that we're in and what we're able to do and how we're able to write our own music and put it out in a secular world in a positive way to make an impact — you cannot take credit for that. It's like I was just a young girl with a dream. I was just writing songs. I thought I was just making up songs, but I didn't even really know I was a songwriter – which is something that came naturally to me. You took my little bits and You took my little dream, You took my little skills and my little talent and You blessed it and You've made it wonderful. I can't take any credit for that. You took what I was and made me who I am today. I can't give no praise or no glory to nobody but God for that.

Another one of my personal favorites – and I think it's everybody's favorite now – is “God in Me.” I found out recently that the song has gone on record for having the longest climb to the top tier of the Billboard R&B chart in its sixty-seven year history. As the song made its steady climb, did you employ any special marketing strategies to crossover to urban radio?

Tina Campbell:  I feel like we were so busy working that it just happened. The more people see you, the more they hear you, the more they want to hear you. In that respect, I wish I could give you a strategic, “We did this. It happened one day in August…” It really wasn't like that. We wrote the song and we perform the song as much as we can.

Erica Campbell:  It's amazing. When you make a record, you never know. You never know what is going to happen. In fact, I'd say, “I think that people are going to like this. I think they might gravitate to this.” But you never really know. You just try to make great music and I think the music just started to have an impact on the people that were hearing it. Of course, our record company – got to give Sony love and My Block Records for putting the push behind it. I think if you make something that the world loves and you have the vehicle to get it out there and let the world hear it, they'll decide how they want to respond after that. And so I think it was just time for a record like this. The world was just ready for it. We try to make good music. Got a good push behind it. God did the rest.

What other projects do you currently have in the works?

Tina Campbell:  At the top of the year, we will be releasing our book. It's called Be U. The book basically encourages people to be honest, be intentional, be strong, be beautiful, be your best self. We also have our Be U Collection apparel line coming as well. We will do a soft launch at first, then we go full-out summertime, around back-to-school time. So we have our hands in a lot of different things besides music. We're trying to make an impact in the world, and sometimes you have do it in multiple ways.

For more information on Mary Mary, visit the duo’s official website.

[WRITER’S NOTE: Shortly after this interview, Tina and Eric Campbell received two nominations for the 2009 American Music Awards: “Contemporary Inspirational – Favorite Artist” and “Soul/Rhythm and Blues Music – Favorite Band, Duo or Group.” They also received three nominations for the 2009 Soul Train Awards: “Song of the Year,” “Best Gospel Performance Male or Female Group” and “Best Collaboration.”]

"God in Me" (3rd Single from The Sound)
"I Worship You" (2nd Single from The Sound)
"Get Up" (1st Single from The Sound)

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About Clayton Perry

  • Clayton Perry

    “Seattle” has been confirmed as THE SOUND’s fourth single!

  • doug m

    If god is so great, ask yourself why is he only allowing the young girl to move her feet to one song.

  • Irene Wagner

    Thanks for the interview, and for the videos on the last page. I loved one of the responses: That’s what we were made for. He said, “I’ll make the wind blow and the flowers bloom and everything else that I’ve made I will make it honor me and glorify me with what it does.”

    PS Doug m– I asked myself. And the answer was: I think that young girl with the “praising feet” could probably answer best.

  • Zania

    Keep the faith. Always remember when people talk about you all. That they talk Jesus, and he still bless them.