They sing about taking the shackles off their feet so they can dance, but earlier this month, sisters Erica and Tina Campbell (better known as US Gospel music stars Mary Mary) trod the red carpet at the 51st Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

Nominated for three Grammy awards (for Best Gospel Song and Best Gospel Performance for their song Get Up, and Best Contemporary R & B Gospel Album for their latest release, The Sound), Mary Mary won the Best Gospel Performance award. 

Mary Mary 000

SISTER ACT: Erica and Tina Campbell aka Mary Mary.

 

"I hope people who think God is irrelevant will hear our music and understand He is relevant, He’s real and that He reigns."

- Tina Campbell

The sisters are no strangers to the music industry’s equivalent of the Oscars. The girls have been singing out about their faith and reaping the...ahem...awards since their debut album, Thankful, picked up the Grammy for Best Contemporary Gospel Album in 2000. 

Ever since, the sisters have enjoyed significant success, singing their way to the top of the gospel and mainstream charts. They’ve contributed to the soundtracks of the films Dr Dolittle and The Prince of Egypt and appeared onscreen with Beyonce Knowles and Cuba Gooding Jr in The Fighting Temptations.

Thankful sold more than one million copies in the US alone and Shackles (Praise You), one of the singles from that album, was a top 10 hit in Australia and the UK. Subsequent albums have sold millions of copies in the US and Europe. 

The sisters’ success is self-evident, but, given that neither one is called Mary, the origin of their name is a little baffling. Take into account that the sisters are committed Christians and things start to become clearer. 

They decided to name themselves after two significant women of the Bible: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and one of his closest followers, Mary Magdalene. Mary Mary say their aim is to reach people who wouldn’t otherwise give Christianity a thought.

"I hope people who think God is irrelevant will hear our music and understand He is relevant, He’s real and that He reigns," says Tina. 

Aside from prestigious Grammy nominations, Erica has high hopes for Mary Mary’s latest album, The Sound.

"I hope we will sell millions," she laughs. "But more than that, I hope we win a lot of people to Christ." 

The album took 18 months to put together and Erica explains that she and Tina have a very specific way of writing and recording their songs.

"When we’re making a CD it’s an organic process," she says. "We pray and ask God to bless it, we read the Bible, listen to some great music and say, 'God, you do what you do and say what you want to say through us?'

"That way we hope that whatever we write is inspired by God. We’re not ashamed of our faith and we never try to compromise it in any respect.

"We were born and raised in a church family," Erica continues. "Our father was a preacher and our mother was in charge of the choir."

It was under their mother’s direction that Erica and Tina first started singing together with the choir. The church has had a big impact on their lives.

Looking back, the pair describe their upbringing as strict: they weren’t allowed to go on dates with boys, parties were banned and the only music allowed in the house was Gospel.

"But I definitely feel privileged to have been brought up in a Christian family," says Erica. "Our mum used to say it is better to be saved from things rather than to be saved out of things. A lot of what our parents taught us kept us from drugs, alcohol and being promiscuous - although we weren’t perfect." 

Tina agrees: "Our parents held us accountable. We didn’t want to let them down and I was more scared of my mamma than my friends!"

Today mum, dad and the whole family - Erica and Tina are two of eight children - are proud and supportive of the sisters’ music career. Once The Sound was finished, it had its first airing at a family reunion.

"They turned our mum’s living room into a dance floor," remembers Tina. "We were so excited. I thought if this was any indication of how it might be in other people’s homes we might be in a good position here."

Now with children of their own, Erica and Tina reveal their lives have changed dramatically as they’ve discovered new priorities.

"I am ridiculously and insanely in love with my kids," admits Tina, who has two daughters. 

"It is so important to me to be a good mum and wife. If you have good, confident and loving homes you build great people. You build great people, you have a greater world."

Erica also has a young daughter and recalls: "She was in the back seat of the car singing, 'Oh, how I love Jesus'. It is one of the first songs I taught her. I was in the front seat of the car just bawling my eyes out because those are seeds being planted. 

"The Bible says to train up a child in the way they should go and when they are older they will not depart from it.’

However, being a mum and an international recording artist does have its setbacks.

‘It is challenging,’ admits Tina. ‘Right now the children are at home with nannies and aunties and grandma and we want to be at home with them.’

"I believe He gave us our ministry and he gave us a family. So I believe He is going to give my family the grace to adjust to what my life is. It is a delicate balance and sometimes I’m sad. But I know what I am called to, so I make it work."

- Erica Campbell.

‘But God gives you grace,’ adds Erica. ‘I believe He gave us our ministry and he gave us a family. So I believe He is going to give my family the grace to adjust to what my life is. It is a delicate balance and sometimes I’m sad. But I know what I am called to, so I make it work.’

That balance was severely tested for Erica and her family in April last year. 

Erica’s husband (and the duo’s record producer), Warryn Campbell, was diagnosed with a form of kidney cancer that required immediate surgery.

Warryn has since made a full recovery and the experience inspired the writing of the song I Trust You (which is featured as a bonus track on the new album).

"Everything’s fantastic now," says Erica. "There were moments when we shed a tear or two, but what’s great was God’s ability to take care of us."

The singers have also had to trust God when it comes to sharing their faith with the public. They have found that following a call to speak about their Christian faith can be challenging.

"The press and television allow people to talk about, be excited about and celebrate anything except Jesus," says Erica. "When it comes to Jesus, they want us to shut our mouths. Our songs are a response to that."

Undeterred by the problems they sometimes encounter when talking about their faith, Mary Mary are diversifying by venturing into new areas. One such enterprise is the launch of a range of bath products and candles called Be-U by Mary Mary. 

"In today’s world everybody wants to look like somebody else," explains Erica. "If you’re light you want to be dark, if your hair is kinky you want it straight, if it’s straight you want curls. Nobody is happy with what they have, so we are just encouraging people to be themselves.

"God didn’t make a mistake (when He created you), so you should accept who you are and what you are and live on purpose and not by accident."

Tina hopes that the product range will reach those who haven’t heard their music.

"If we serve a great big God we should be doing great big things," she says. "We started with the music and now we’re starting Be-U and then we will move on to other things. We all want to succeed and make the greatest things of our lives."

"Christians don’t just sing in churches, wear choir robes all day and read the Bible 24/7," adds Erica. "I hope we can change misconceptions and attract new people to Jesus."

Erica’s high hopes for changing people’s attitudes towards Christianity and for the success of all of Mary Mary’s ventures are founded on the positive messages she received growing up in church.

She explains: "I grew up in a church where they preached encouragement and that 'God can' and 'God will'; you don’t doubt or fear. I heard that so often it stuck. I believe it with all my heart."

With the new CD, product range and seven songs already recorded for their next album, the sisters believe that God will work through everything they are doing together. 

As Tina says: "Mary Mary is moving into big and great and wonderful things for God. We hope He will be glorified."

This story was published by the Salvation Army's Warcry Magazine. It was first printed by Warcry UK.