Interview With Mary Mary
Being Who They Are

There are not words explosive enough to describe the way Mary Mary has burst on the scene. Touring the nation, taking the name of Jesus into urban radio programming and mainstream media, these ladies are making us proud. Their story starts Mary Maryout with the same ol', same ol'. You know it well. They grew up in the church, singing in the choir, but the typicality of it ends there.

Tina and Erica Atkins' voices took them different places to sing background for some of the hottest R&B acts out there, and taking the Gospel play scene by storm, "God has given us so much favor. It's like stuff has just come to us." Tina says.

She adds, "We were traveling with R&B artists and singing background vocals. And of course we were very selective about the people we would travel with, because we have certain standards that we had to uphold. [However] sometimes you don't know what goes into the whole production or show and all of that stuff, and some things were making me uncomfortable. I was like, 'God you have to make a way for me to sing what's in my heart. I want it where everything is God-driven, so I don't have to be worried about certain things making me uncomfortable, or feeling like I shouldn't be in a certain scene, or one word in a song making me cringe.' He knows my heart. Shortly after that it really started coming together."

"What I learned by being in that arena is that itís a very thin line, and it is not something that I would prefer to do on a regular basis. [As] a Christian and loving God, I couldn't be an R&B artist." Erica remarks.

Having worked with many of those in that camp though, Tina and Erica obviously demonstrate that they don't shun everything that is not Gospel.

Tina explains it this way, "My opinion is there is a whole lot that has to do with the world, and secular music specifically, that has to do with us just all being human. There's a whole lot I can relate to. I can relate to love songs. I can relate to situations talking about the kind of upbringing that I had, or the violence in the world. I'm not against music that isn't Gospel. I listen to all kinds of music. All of it is a part of my life, but there are some things that are inappropriate. If you consider yourself to be a Christian, there are some areas that you should limit. There are types of music that we shouldn't be singing because it might affect our witness, so for that reason, you have nothing to worry about it. [Now, as Mary Mary] we are singing about Jesus. But [when working with other people] you may be singing with someone who, you like the artist and you like the music, but they have one song that's super sexual [that makes you uncomfortable]. You're like 'What am I doing singing this? I'm not married. It doesn't even apply to me.' For that reason we have had to be selective of the kind of music we involved ourselves with, but I'm not against all of it."

"Yes. It's like, let's balance this out." clarifies Erica. "You can't do everything, but everything that is not inside these church walls is not wrong. And the people that will not come in the church, how will you ever talk to them? How will you let Mary Marythem know about God? Not just who He is inside the church building, but let them know about who God is —His greatness and all that He can do for you— if you never go where they are?"

Though we would all like to pretend to be super-sanctified, Tina sheds some light. "We're first natural, then spiritual. So there's a lot of natural things that people have that don't have anything to do with promoting the message of God that we can all relate to, and we have to address that part of our lives."

Erica reflects, "From a child we heard that anything that's not talking about Jesus is a sin. If it's not going to church, and all that good stuff, then you're going to hell. But as you get older you learn that there's no way to get the message to the people if you don't take it there. I think that my purpose for singing with secular artists was not only to work, learn the business and make money, but to also let them see that there are normal people who live for God and serve him with their whole heart. You can do this and stay true to your relationship and morals. Everything is not a sin. There are a lot of love songs that are very beautiful that people sing in weddings all of the time. But outside of the [context of the marriage], it's a sin."

She continues carefully, "One thing [though] that we all must remember; whatever you sing, wherever you go, whatever you do. God has guidelines and He has rules, and He does not make exceptions. His law is His law, and in the end, I would hate to be one of the ones to find out that I was wrong because I decided to do my own thing. I don't want to find out the hard way. I'll keep my nose in my bible and go according to His guidelines and His rules. Because nowadays everybody's making their own rules. (mocking tone) 'Well there's nothing wrong, with that? Well think about it, it's really nothing wrong.' Hey! What does God say? That's the bottom line."

Tina and Erica grew up in a large churchgoing family with parents that kept them mindful of that bottom line. Like many of us, they seem to share a loving and respectful relationship with their parents that experienced a challenge when the time came for them to embark upon and answer the call of God for themselves. When their talented daughters first began to spread their musical wings, Tina and Erica's parents chose to trust and adjust.

Producer Warryn Campbell

Credit Warryn Campbell with the musical ingenuity, creativity and producer talent that makes Mary Mary's music hit so hard. He's the voice you sometimes hear speaking on some of Mary Mary's songs, like in "Shackles (Praise You)".

Warryn Campbell recognizes his God-given gifts this way:

"Right now I know God has placed a calling Warryn Campbellon my life, through my music to touch people. Right now I'm not a preacher but I realize there's a message, especially when doing Gospel. There's a certain standard that He's set. Right now my ministry is to make hits. That's my ministry! To make as many hits as possible."

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"At first my parents were strongly against it. The first artist I sang with three years ago was Brandy, and she was still young with the bubble gum image. But still my mom was like "Lord Jesus! Those people they be drinkin' and cussin' and sleeping with everybody!" I was like 'Mom, Brandy is sixteen. Her mom and dad and her little brother [are there.]' She still wasn't comfortable with it. But after awhile she started to pay attention to me. And I [asked] my parents one day if they believed they raised me well and taught me what I need to know. And they both said yes. So I said to them, 'Then trust me to make the right decisions. Just know that I'm not going to go and make you look bad and for one, I don't want to go to hell or do anything displeasing to God. Trust that I'm doing the right thing.' After that they started to look at things a little differently" Erica shares.

So from backup roadwork to the present reality as Columbia's first Gospel artist since Tramaine Hawkins, it's been an interesting path for the twosome.

"This [record deal] was a major blessing because we didn't really go out seeking one. We had been writing for about a year, and were moving in [the direction of doing a project]. We had about five or six songs written and recorded. We weren't really shopping it, but our producer, Warryn Campbell knows a lot of people in the business and was able to play the music for different people who were interested. A lot of companies were like 'We don't really have a Gospel department, and we don't know what to do with it. We wish you the best, but we don't know what to do,' reflects Erica.

Having already penned tracks for R&B act 702, a song for Robin S on the Dr. Dolittle Soundtrack and then a couple on Yolanda Adams' recent CD on Elektra (see review), Tina and Erica were establishing themselves as writers. How did they know it was time for Mary Mary?

"It just kind of felt right. It wasn't like a big message from on high saying 'Now's time.' As it evolved into this, it was like 'Okay Lord, I'm going to follow this. I'm going to go with this," says Erica.

So now, with their debut project Thankful (see review), the deal is done. The first released single "Shackles" is blazing its way up the charts, both Gospel and R&B. With slick packaging and a masterfully complex sound, their music is hard to classify. Erica says, "To me it's Gospel. It has been called a lot of things, but to me it's Gospel music. It's my Gospel. It's our Gospel. It's what we have grown up on. The John P. Kees, the Commissioneds, and The Winans. It's always been current, and I feel like we're taking it to the next level."

Tina expounds, "It's definitely contemporary. It's music that everybody in any style of music can relate to. It's universal, but the lyrics are undeniably Gospel. You're not confused about who were talking about. I don't think Gospel or being a follower of Jesus dictates a certain chord, or a certain kind of instrumentation. I think your words define where a song goes."

Not at all uncomfortable with the Columbia's effort to reach the masses outside of the Gospel community, Erica says, "Our audience is the world. Anybody who doesn't know God. Anybody who knows God. Our music is for everyone. It's universal. It crosses age, gender, race lines. We try and tell of experiences that just people in general can relate to. You don't necessarily have to be a Christian, or Mary Maryolder or younger or whatever. [Even] at our performances we have people of all backgrounds. The message of God is universal. It's worldwide. It's for everybody."

Erica remembers a defining moment for her, when she realized that the advent of Mary Mary was really on divine order. "We had an R&B showcase for Columbia in New York, at a club. We were singing and we got an extremely good response. We were leaving and everybody said we were good, and I was happy about it. But of course us being very critical [of ourselves], I was thinking [of all the things I should have done differently] when this girl came up to me. She said, "Before I heard you guys, I had given up on God. But after I heard you sing, I changed mind.' It brought tears to my eyes. And that right there is the sole purpose of Mary Mary. That's all we want; to change lives. I don't want people to listen to [a run], or what we look like, or whatever. None of that is important. If we don't change lives. If no one comes to God. If no one realizes what God can do. It's a waste of time."

And the power that comes from what is arguably the sisters' greatest gift —writing— is unmistakable on Thankful. A power that comes from divine inspiration and personal experiences makes it difficult to choose a favorite.

"All of the songs, we either wrote or co-wrote, so [the project is] very personal for us because it's our story, told from our hearts, from our mouths —our words. There's a song called 'I Got It', and it was so personal because everything we're talking about in the song we were going through at that time. Even now, sometimes we have to turn it on to encourage ourselves [and tell ourselves] 'Look, we wrote these songs saying God can do it all. Stop tripping! This little situation you're going through it's going to be alright. Just like God worked that one out He'll work the next situation out.' I can listen to this record that should be old to me, and I should be tired of, and get encouraged. I just pray to God that happens when other people listen to it" says Tina.

Dawkins and Dawkins

Mary Mary...Dawkins & Dawkins. See the similarities? So does Anson Dawkins:

"Some of our good friends tout them as our counterparts, they're two sisters, we're two brothers. We've known them forDawkins and Dawkins a long time. Their producer, Warryn Campbell, he produced 'Rhythm and Praise' and 'I'll Always Be Around' on our latest record [Focus].

"Warryn was introduced to Erica and Tina by Eric [Dawkins], because they were all in that Gospel play together ('Mama, I'm Sorry'), so that's how that connection kinda got started."

"We're listening to their new ['Thankful'] record a lot!"

She continues, "We want the platinum sales and all, but we want people to see that they can live saved. You can be young. You can be cool. But you can still praise God. We can still pray and give God the glory and honor for all of His blessings. We can still try and clean some of the things in our lives that aren't right. This is what we want. You don't have to have a turtleneck on, a long dress, clear nail polish and no makeup on with a bob, carrying your bible around to be saved. You may not be able to go to church every Sunday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, but that does not mean you can't have a relationship with God."

"But if you have relationship, if you do love God, you will want to be around other Christians and involve yourself with things that are glorifying God. We may say you don't have to, but if you love God, you'll want to" clarifies Erica.

Tina quickly co-signs, "Right! Donít get me wrong, on the flip side if you consider yourself a follower of Christ, certain situations should make you uncomfortable. It may not necessarily be a sin to wear a miniskirt, but you're realizing every time you come to church people can't focus on God because their looking at your body hanging out, you won't want to do this. It's all about relationship and being in tune with God."

It seems both the honor and the burden are great when it comes to the gift of writing music, possibly because of the vastness of the audience that the medium supports. With Gospel music in particular, there is an added consciousness of putting God into words, a gift that arguably none of us is humanly worthy of. Erica concurs, "You're forever questioning yourself. Am I good enough? Do I know enough? Will it touch people? And then when you write something and it's like 'Wow! I'm in awe'. Most of the time, scared and nervous and surprised at all of this, cause God is so awesome. Because it did not have to be us. Somebody else could be writing this music. I am so grateful that He chose us."

Tina confides, (laughing) "Honestly, [Sometimes I think] 'Dang God, You think I'm sweet like that?' You Mary Marythink I'm dope enough to just put your message into my own words and bring it out?! But we know it really has nothing to do with talent or who you know or whatever. It has to do with God's favor."

Though they can really both sing and write with remarkable impact, it seems as if Mary Mary's greater charter might be to remind us of the virtue and power of just being who we are in Christ, and not some contrived projection of a "Christian".

They offer hope to prove that some Gospel crossover success is not a fluke —nor a sin— and that God's promise that our gifts will make room for us, is true.

ó interview by Melanie Clark ó

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