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Mary Mary: Pop-Gospel Disciples

When Erica and Tina Campbell — the two sisters who make up the gospel duo Mary Mary — were growing up in Inglewood, Calif., they were forbidden to listen to anything other than gospel music in their house. Outside of the home, however, the sisters were heavily influenced by popular music like hip-hop and R&B.

"We were born and raised in urban communities — ghettos, if you will," Tina says. "What happened in the community — the sounds, the look, the lingo — we were exposed to that."

The Campbells say God gave them music to tell his truth creatively, when and wherever they can. Their earthly father, Eddie Atkins, was a Pentecostal pastor. Erica says he lugged his nine children along as the choir when he brought the love of Jesus to seemingly godforsaken parts of the inner city.

"[He would minister] at one of the roughest parks in L.A., where there was nothing but people doing drugs and homeless people," she says. "He would take all of us with him [to] share the love of God. We learned really early how to relate."

Casting A Wide Net

Now Mary Mary wants to cast its net as wide as possible with its music, stepping beyond the walls of the church to reach people who wouldn't receive an altar call otherwise.

"We had a publisher who was like, 'What are you guys talking about? Goosebumps?' because we were using words like 'the anointing' and 'presence and power of God,' " Erica says. "They didn't get it. That was great for us to hear early on, because it allowed us to write music from then on out that would translate to people who were un-churched."

You won't hear music from Mary Mary's latest CD at most churches on Sunday mornings, but the duo's sound still resonates with "the churched." Gospel media pioneer Dr. Bobby Jones says that even if gospel has a hip-hop flavor, the essence of Mary Mary's music remains within the bounds of the gospel genre. Gospel is about not only the lyrics, he says, but also the spiritual expression of the person performing.

"In every dimension, [the performance] has to be done in the spirit and the element of the givers," Jones says.

Putting Music Everywhere

Even with this expression in mind, though, Tina maintains that the church wasn't Mary Mary's target audience. Columbia Records placed its first CD, Thankful, in R&B bins.

"We told them, 'Put our music everywhere,' " Erica says. "Put me on the stage with anybody, and it'll work."

They also push religion's fashion envelope. On the cover of The Sound, the Campbells aren't adorned in choir robes; they're confidently wearing sexy black dresses. Tina argues that the dresses aren't tight, just form-fitting.

"Sometimes, people think we're a little bit sexy. I don't have a problem with that," she says. "I would like to think that I'm sexy. I have a husband who I would like to think that every time he sees me. Truth be known, I'm a woman. I would love to be appealing to men. It is not my endeavor [to] entice, to cause anyone to lust."

The pair recently became spokeswomen for PZI jeans, designed for women like them — women who don't mind flaunting hourglass curves. They got that gig because of their music and an image that is appealing to the urban masses. Yet within the music industry, Mary Mary still gets pigeonholed sometimes.

"Some people will hear a song, love it, find out it's a Christian song, pull it. Now, to me, that's insane," Tina says.

"You have to push a little more," Erica says. "Listen to this song, and they say, 'Oh, it's gospel,' so they push it into this category until they listen."

That drive has kept the Campbell sisters rocking night clubs and churches, inspiring fans on all sides of the spiritual divide.

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