- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

NEW YORK — Sisters Tina and Erica Campbell, better known as the gospel act Mary Mary, admit you won't find them in church every Sunday.

And they prefer slinky, funky street clothes to the loose-fitting choir garb worn by some of their gospel predecessors.

"Church was a part of our life, but also the ghetto and hip-hop culture and all that kind of stuff was part of our lives," says Tina, the younger of the two.

"We wouldn't come out having choir robes on and holding Bibles up with the angel halo, because that ain't who we are."

The sisters come across as fun-loving twentysomethings which partly explains their crossover appeal. Their first album, "Thankful," has sold more than 750,000 copies, according to Nielsen Soundscan an unusual feat for gospel music. The single "Shackles," with an infectious dance hook, became a Top 10 R&B hit and even got play in clubs.

Mary Mary's latest album, "Incredible," also marries radio-friendly, uptempo hooks with uplifting messages about faith and Jesus Christ.

"It's got people dancing, and it kind of enveloped the youth spirit that has taken form in gospel over the last decade," says Lisa Collins, a gospel columnist for Billboard magazine.

"Gospel is kind of a hip thing now."

Mary Mary, named for the two Marys in Jesus' life, is part of a revolution in gospel music, which is no longer considered just church music. Artists such as Yolanda Adams, Kirk Franklin and Donnie McClurkin have helped spread the gospel, so to speak, to urban music fans who wouldn't normally listen to religious music. While their songs talk about Jesus, they tend not to be as scripture-specific as traditional gospel songs, and they are coated with slick, R&B grooves.

Josh Washington of Souljahz, a new gospel trio consisting of two brothers and a sister, says the Campbell sisters have helped bring gospel to the mainstream.

"People realize that they are real people living life, dealing with the same issues as everyone else," says Mr. Washington. "I think they have set an example for a lot of artists who have come up, like us."

Erica and Tina Atkins were born to a Pentecostal family of eight in Los Angeles (they both ended up marrying men named Campbell Erica's husband, Warren, is one of their producers).

The girls' parents kept a strict watch over outside influences in their home. Secular music was off-limits, though the girls would catch it in the streets or at friends' homes.

"We loved Michael Jackson and Whitney (Houston) and those kinds of people growing up, but we couldn't listen to it in our house," explains Tina. Their parents also kept a close eye on partying and boys.

The sisters say now that although it was frustrating not to be able to do what other youngsters were doing, it helped save them from some pitfalls other teens went through.

"I used to say that I'm gonna party, I'm gonna smoke and I'm going to drink, and I'm going to do whatever I want to do," says Erica. "But as I got older, I was like, 'I really don't want cancer, so why smoke?' And I don't want to get drunk because I don't want to be in a position where I can't totally control my actions."

The women actually began their career in R&B, singing background for stars like Brian McKnight and penning songs for others. But gospel music remained their first love.

"There's music other than gospel that we enjoy because we just love music for music," says Tina. "But when it came to being an artist and just having a music that represents you and what you're about, gospel is it."

They soon began writing for themselves as well as others (one of their recent projects was the gospel debut of Destiny's Child member Michelle Williams) and eventually won a recording contract not on a gospel label, but on Columbia Records, home to such artists as Marc Anthony, Lauryn Hill and Destiny's Child.

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