Sisters Erica and Tina Atkins make up the gospel duo Mary Mary, which has broken the gospel barrier and found mainstream success. After working as backup singers and songwriters for leading R&B acts, the Atkins sisters struck out on their own. Their first album, Thankful, won a slew of awards for the duo, including a Grammy. Their second album, Incredible, was released in 2002. "Music has been in my heart for long time, so I knew I'd have a career in it," Erica said in an interview with GospelCity.com. "I just never knew I'd be doing it at this level."
The Atkins sisters grew up in Inglewood, near Los Angeles, in a large familyhey have five other sisters and one brother. Their father, Eddie Atkins, was a preacher and their mother, Thomasina, played piano and was a choir director in their church. "We're preacher's kids, born and raised in church, basically seven days a week," the sisters said in an interview on the Trinity Broadcasting Network website. "When we weren't in church, we were at school, and when we weren't sleeping, we were at church." The family didn't have much money, but they were very religious and musicalhe Atkins children made up most of the choir's soprano section. Gospel music was the only music allowed in the house, and both women cite gospel acts like Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, and the Clark Sisters among their leading influences. The sisters weren't always on the same page about their singing aspirations: Erica first dreamed of being a singer at age two; plagued by shyness, Tina was a little slower to pursue the dream.
In 1995, after a turn singing on the Bobby Jones Gospel Showon Black Entertainment Television (BET), the sisters joined Michael Matthews's traveling gospel show called Mama I'm Sorry. They toured the United States, performing as many as eight shows per week. That tour led to parts in Matthews's Sneaky, which kept them on the road for more than a year. They both returned home and tried to hold down retail jobs and attend college, but music soon had them back on the road.
Both Erica and Tina worked as backup singers for such R&B acts as Eric Benet, Brandy, Brian McKnight, Ray J, and Kenny Lattimore. Watching from behind the scenes and experiencing the demands those artists had to deal with prepared the sisters for what they would be up against once they went out on their own. When they did set out as Mary Mary, both sisters agree, they had a better understanding for what an artist has to deal with; beyond making it onstage every night, there are endless interviews, rehearsals, band conflicts, and management, lighting, and stylist issues to contend with, among countless other details. "I'm glad we were able to sing with those people," Erica told GospelCity.com. "It did prep us for knowing how to deal with these audiences, how to bring your message to them, on their level and all that kind of stuff It's amazing how God plans your life out for you and you don't even have a clue how all these pieces connect. God has a plan."
The sisters formed Mary Mary after meeting producer Warryn Campbell in 1996. The name Mary Mary is taken from the two Marys in the Bible: the first Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ, and the second is Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who is changed by Christ's love and compassion. "The name represents the fact that no matter who you are or where you come from, [Jesus Christ] loves us," Erica said in a CMCentral.com interview, "and we can all be changed by His love." The partnership with Campbell resulted in two Mary Mary songs landing on high-profile soundtracks two years later. "Dance" appears on the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack, and "Let Go, Let God" appears on the soundtrack for Prince of Egypt. The two also became songwriters for hireheir material was performed by such acts as Yolanda Adams, Woody of Dru Hill, and 702.
The sisters attracted many record company offers, signing with Columbia Records in 1999. They released their debut album, Thankful, in 2000. The single "Shackles" became a top-ten hit in the United States, United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and Australia. The album earned a Grammy Award, two Dove Awards, three Stellar Awards, and a Soul Train Award. Although their lyrics are decidedly devotional, Mary Mary's music has a more urban sound, with a hip-hop feel. Their songs are inspirational but also contemporary and danceable. "Shackles" was played on mainstream radio, an unlikely place to hear a gospel single with a clear, God-driven message. "I think they play that song because that song uplifts," Tina said in an interview at Crosswalk.com. "I think that everyone wants to get uplifted[,] Christian or non-Christian. I think that's why that song has mass appeal." Erica told David Nathan in Billboard "Our music is for everybody. It's especially for the people who may not come to church. That's who we want to reach." Mary Mary's second full-length release, Incredible, came out in 2002.
When asked if they thought that gospel music had changed over its history, becoming watered-down or more secular with the ever-changing times, both sisters adamantly agreed: "No, gospel still means the message of Jesus," Tina said on Crosswalk.com. "It did way back when and it still does now." Erica concurred, "I think people's presentation has changed, but the word itself, I don't think it has changed." If the message has remained the same, its fashion sense has nothe sisters of Mary Mary are attractive women who are always dressed stylishly. "We want people to know that people who love God are not old, fat, and boring," Tina told Billy Johnson Jr. of Entertainment Weekly.
Mary Mary were part of a gospel crossover that included Yolanda Adams and Trin-l-Tee 5:7. Record companies invested heavily in these artists, hiring the best producers and making high-impact music videos. Columbia spent $600,000 on the video for "Shackles," but it seemed like a wise investment: backed by hip hop and R&B-influenced music, the group's inspirational songs broke onto R&B charts and reached a broad audience on mainstream radio. "Today's gospel music is a far cry from what you may have grown up listening to," Jazzy Jordan, a record company executive, told Lisa Collins in Billboard. "The thing that's driving this is that young people want music that's praising God but is closer to what they hear on the radio." The bigger audience, the better, say Mary Mary. "My dream is singing in front of people with my eyes closed, and then opening my eyes and seeing people worshiping [God]," Erica told CMCentral.com. 'This is the only reason I want to sing If people get saved and come to truly know God, if my singing brings change to people's lives, if I can bring somebody to Christ, then that's it. That is the only reason we're here."
Thankful, Columbia, 2000.
Incredible, Columbia, 2002.
Billboard, March 11, 2000, p. 29; May 6, 2000, p. 27; June 3, 2000, p. 51; July 29, 2000, p. 23.
Ebony, September 2000, p. 100.
Entertainment Weekly, May 26, 2000, p. 15.
Essence, February 2002, p. 78.
"Mary Mary," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 2, 2002).
"Mary Mary," GospelCity.com, http://www.gospelcity.com/interviews/0207/mary_mary_int.php (July 2, 2002).
"Mary Mary," Jamsline, http://www.jamsline.com/b_mmary.htm (July 2, 2002).
"Mary Mary," Trinity Broadcasting Network, (July 2, 2002).
"Mary Mary Interview," CMCentral.com, http://www.cmcentral.com (July 2, 2002).
Mary Mary Official Website, http://www.mary-mary.com (July 2, 2002).
"Mary Mary Talks about Success, Ministry, and Racism on Radio," Crosswalk.com, http://entertainment.crosswalk.com/partner/Article_Display_... (July 2, 2002).
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