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Interview: Tamela Mann – Singer, Songwriter & Actress

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Tamela Mann is one of the most-recognizable names in the contemporary Gospel music industry. Her tremendous success story and long string of accolades are even more impressive, however, when one considers the difficulty religious figures often have in attracting and maintaining secular audiences. Even so, Mann has captivated the hearts and minds of countless Americans for more than a decade — juggling time between her music ministry, as a solo artist and former member of Kirk Franklin and the Family, as well as her acting and singing performances in several Tyler Perry productions, which include stage plays, feature films and recurring roles on TBS’ House of Payne and Meet the Browns.

At the same time Meet the Browns became the #1-rated show in African-American households, Tamela Mann was hard at work on crafting her sophomore solo project, The Master Plan. Released via Tilly Mann on November 3, 2009, the album showcases four songs that she co-wrote: "I Trust in You," "Here I Am," "Anything for You," and "In Him.” In addition, Tamela has an executive producer credit alongside her husband of 21 years, David Mann.

In support of the Master Plan’s release, Tamela Mann managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on the generational divide in Gospel music, “The Lord’s Prayer,” and the lasting influences of Kirk Franklin, Tyler Perry and a host of others.

I still get goose-bumps whenever I think about the time I saw you perform “You Deserve My Praise” during John P. Kee’s benefit concert a few years back. Even though I was a fan of the studio recording, Lord knows that the Spirit nearly knocked me off of my feet during your live set. What’s the back-story behind that particular song? Did Demarcus Williams approach you with the song?

Oh, Demarcus is such a wonderful talent. With that song, I asked if he had anything, and so he submitted that song and another song. When I first heard it, it was just a little rough draft with the music, so you can remember what it is — the lyrics and the harmonies. My husband, [David Mann], and the album producer – Myron Butler – heard it, and they were like, “I don’t know.” But I was like, “Y’all! You have to hear beyond what’s here right now.”

And it has really become one of my favorite songs. I just fell in love with it and I asked Demarcus if I could tweak it and make a few little changes. And he was like, “Sure. Sure.” It’s really one of my favorite songs, because the lyrics really taught me that God deserves the praise, you know? No matter what. He protects us, in all things, from dangers seen and unseen, and He keeps us, in the midst of the good and the bad, even when we want to just do whatever we want to do and think it’s right.

For God, you know, He still covers us in so many different areas: of where our parents, our grandparents, pray for you and even just other people just praying for you and you’re not even knowing it, how God still gets the praise. He deserves the praise, and we should give it to Him because of who He is. And that’s just kind of how that song came about.

Your mother served as a psalmist in church. Growing up and seeing her perform, in what ways did she knowingly or unknowingly encourage you to pursue your love for music?

By her pushing me, unknowingly, I guess. You know, you kind of fight it when you’re young. It’s like, “Why do I have to go to church all the time?” [laughing] But I think by her encouraging me — well, it wasn’t encouragement. It was like, “You just gotta go. You gotta go.” [laughing] When I saw her in the choir and leading songs, it was just such an encouragement. I really didn’t see it then, but I thank God for it now. At the time, I didn’t see it as an influence. I was thinking: “Wow, she making me go and she’s not making anybody else go.” But it turned out that that’s really how I fell in love and saw that singing was my passion.

You closed this particular album, [The Master Plan], with “The Lord’s Prayer.” Since it’s a very traditional song, is there a reason you wanted to close with that particular song?

Well, with David being one of the producers of the project, he really wanted it. I had done it at a lot of weddings and other little gatherings, and he thought I should do it over. He felt like it would be the perfect closer for the project and a good prayer for the people of God. Thankfully, it wound up being a blessing for so many people.

On your previous album, you co-wrote a lot of tracks. This time around, however, I noticed that there were two songs on which you had sole songwriting credits: “I Trust in You” and “In Him.” What life events inspired these two songs?

Wow. This entire recording experience has really been a blessing for me, especially the writing of “I Trust in You.” We were out on the road for What’s Done in the Dark, and things had kind of got a little rough. So we had a big meeting.

It wasn’t a blowup, necessarily, for me. You know how things happen in our lives? I just didn’t like how a few things were going. And while I was getting ready to go on stage, the words came to me. “I trust you, Lord. When friends are few, bills are due.” It sounds so singsongy, but it was truly how I felt. I had tears in my eyes, and I was standing backstage getting ready, listening for my cue to walk out on stage, and the Lord just kept bringing it back to me, more and more.

At the time, I hadn’t shared the song with anybody. I had just been singing it to myself. And then, something happened with my son, where a guy had pulled a gun on him. After that happened with him, it made me go ahead and just finish the song. When I sang it to him, he started weeping, and he was like, “Mama, I really needed that.” His response just kind of led me to use it on the album, and I hope that it will be a blessing to somebody, especially in this day and time that we’re in now.

This is a trying period for so many people — with the economy and everything. Right now, all we have to rely on is the Lord, because so many other things are not going like we think they should go. Thank God for the President and all that; but, it’s really not all in his hands. You know, we tend to forget that he’s human and that God has the last say-so.

I guess it’s just because of my belief, because of my faith. But I believe that God is just and I really trust Him to see me through all of this. So many people are in need and I’m just really trusting God to just see us through this. “In Him,” the other song, came to me while I was flying! [laughing] It’s a really fun song, and it gives you that old-time, hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’ kind of vibe. Bobby Sparks produced it with me and put a little spin on it.

Although you consider yourself a traditional gospel singer, you’re also open to incorporating a lot of contemporary elements as well. Going back to your son and you being a mother, as well a gospel singer within the modern music industry, how challenging is it to reach out to younger audiences? Have the two of you ever debated the best possible way to reach his generation?

Well right now, we must try to reach the youth. There are a lot things people in my age don’t see and sometimes we don’t seem to be on the same page as the youth, but we must always be encouraging. When our kids were growing up, David and I always wanted to hear their opinion and gave them an open door to where they could come and talk to us about anything, to hear their opinion, to hear them out. And I just want them to hear me out.

So I carry this into my music, where I will do something that will reach both generations — the older crowd as well as the youth — and let them know that there is still a message for them in song and in gospel music. We can’t do this thing alone, really, because it’s all about the ministry at the end of the day. You can’t go out there and just take the world on by yourself. There is a higher power that you need, beyond just yourself, to get through these things. Even when people turn their backs on you, there is something that you can rely upon, a higher power that you can call upon. And that’s the message that I’m really trying to send, especially to the youth, that they can still be in the world but not of the world.

When people think of leaders within the ministry, they often think about the pastor first. The music ministry, however, has the ability to reach those who might not even step inside the foot of a church. When I look at your career, one of your greatest accomplishments, in my opinion, is that fact that you have had several of your gospel songs featured on mainstream movie soundtracks. With Tyler Perry’s assistance, I really applaud you for bring gospel to the mainstream. How difficult has this journey been for you?

Sometimes it is hard, because everybody doesn’t want to hear this part of the good news. One thing I have learnt about myself is that I can only do what I do. And that’s one thing I appreciate about Tyler Perry. He didn’t try to change me and make me into something that I was not. He has never said, “Well, you’re too deep or you’re too churchy,” or that kind of thing. It was like this is what I brought to the table, and he respected me and brought so many other people into the fold, from all different angles, to give people a taste of the whole pie, just not one piece.

I just think it’s great. But the journey still isn’t easy. Even with this project, we reached out to certain outlets and the said, “We don’t do gospel anymore. Or we don’t have gospel artists on any more.” So it’s like, you have to get in where you fit in, when the door opens. I can’t try to preach it all the time, but I just have to live it. Hopefully, in my life, people can see that there is a difference, and that there is a change in me, and that there is something different about this lady. Styles and sounds change. But even though you listen to different genres of music, you still need this.

This still needs to be a piece of your pie. There’s something about gospel music that makes you feel whole. It gives you hope. It’s not all booty shakin’ music… [laughing] Gospel music pricks the heart and makes you realize there is a different road, a different choice that can always be made. That’s what it’s all about.

Over the years, you have collaborated with Myron Butler a great deal. What aspect of your professional relationship do you love the most?

Myron, he is younger than David and I. But he is so well-rounded. He’s able to give me the opinions of the youth, of the younger adults, because he is like thirty something. So it’s like I can get the pulse of people in their early twenties and the mid-thirties. And then I’m forty. So we bounce ideas off of each other.

On top of all that, Myron just has such a good ear. Lord knows he was anointed to do music. Just listen to his vocal arrangements! [laughing] He’s gifted to do that. I just believe in him so much that I’m pushing him to get where he’s trying to go, just as he is pushing me to get where I’m trying to go. It’s a beautiful thing and he is very helpful, which is the main reason I use him a lot. I just feel really comfortable with him in the studio. Everybody does things differently, but I’m very comfortable with him.

As you mentioned, you are blessed to have the ear of the youth, as well as the older generation. Do you ever wonder why God blessed you to be such a wonderful mediator within the gospel music world?

Yes, Lord! [laughing] I’m still in awe. Even with this project, I can’t help but give praise back to my Creator. He is the author and finisher of our faith, and I want people to know that. I’m the youngest of fourteen, and out of all my mom’s kids, I’m the only one that finished high school. We’re not even talking college. It’s just high school. And for God to choose me among all these people growing up and give me such a divine purpose in life, it’s just amazing.

I feel like this other friend of mine is more talented than I am. But God saw fit to just use me for such a time as this, to reach so many people, because we’re reaching them differently. Earlier, you said that when people think of ministry, they think of pastors. But we’re all ministers, because we all have a purpose. We have a calling to do things. Now, I couldn’t say that I could go lead 2,000 or whatever amount of people, but to just be able to reach one soul, to be able to reach one person, to encourage one person that they can make it – I just know that God has put that mantle on my life to be an encourager to so many people.

In the past decade, you have accomplished so much, and your life story is truly an inspiration. I know that you got your professional start in the gospel arena with Kirk Franklin & the Family. So when you start there and look at all the years in-between, what do you think best prepared you for managing a career as a singer and an actor?

Oh, wow! That’s a deep question. To be honest, I can’t pinpoint one thing. I learned some great things from Kirk Franklin, even just the basics, with going out and standing before the people. During those years, I learned that everybody doesn’t worship the same way. You would think that when people pay their hard-earned money and buy a ticket to come to your concert, they want you to get into it, on your feet and jumpin’ all around. But as I traveled to different cities and countries, I learned that some people could be completely into the music and simply sit in their seat and wave their hands.

I learned that from Kirk Franklin. With Tyler Perry, I learned how to address people. And even working with my own husband – at all times, people are lookin’ at you and you have to make sure that you’re doing things the right way. You never want to offend anybody. It’s just all a part of the journey that I’ve had. Even with my mom, you know – you treat people like you want to be treated. So many different people have touched my life, and helped me become the woman that I am: the mother, the wife, the minister of music.

 I’m not sure if you consider yourself an expert on relationships… [laughing] …but considering the marriage statistics within the African-American population, you and your husband are really a shining example. What advice and words of encouragement do you have to people who are currently in a relationship and, perhaps, experiencing a rocky patch?

Well, the first thing is, you have to keep the love there. You have to keep your love alive. Sometimes we get so caught up in our lives. One thing about me and David, we include each other in everything. There’s no division of “this is yours, this is mine.” Everything we do, everything we have accomplished, has been together. First and foremost, we are truly in love with each other. We value each other’s opinion. We don’t try to cut each other out of whatever we’re doing. There is a learning process. This April we’ll be married twenty-two years.

Congratulations!

Yes, it’s great! And without any separations either! [laughing] So we learned how to work through storms, and we’ve learned to agree to disagree. One thing that I always try to share – when I get an opportunity like this – is that I always pray that God keeps my love burning for and yearning only for David Mann. And I call his name out in that prayer. I don’t want my eyes seek or yield or go any other direction but just on him. That is my prayer: to keep my fire burning for him.

When you reach a certain point, you do go your day in and day out, and things can get like, “Okay, it’s the norm. We just go out to eat. We go to the movies.” But we try to do things differently. Maybe we may do a movie here at the house and have something nice, even if it’s making sandwiches. You have to keep that excitement in your relationship. And to be perfectly honest, if you quit and if you give up on it, then you’re going to have to start all over with somebody else. And it will be a non-ending cycle.

But when we said our vows, we meant our vows. You can’t just be saying something to just say, “I’m getting married,” and plan a big wedding, and six months later, you’re calling it quits. It has to get beyond that. Marriage is ordained by God. It’s something that He blessed. Before I got married, it was the hardest struggle. Sir, you just don’t know. I was having it so hard. But once I got married, and I did it the right way, the struggles just became so much easier to handle. But that’s it. Just keep the love and pray and desire that you will always keep the candle of love burning.

For more information on Tamela Mann, visit her official website.

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About Clayton Perry

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos/ Christine

    Great interview; I love Gospel music.