Erica and Tina Atkins have a lot to be thankful for. A safe, solid upbringing. Nurturing parents. Strong singing voices. But perhaps they should reserve their highest praise for Kirk Franklin, the Texas native who brought gospel music out of its isolated niche with his canny "God-hop" sound, selling millions of records to plenty of listeners who haven't attended church in years.
Franklin's success warmed radio programmers to dance music that laced spirituality and referenced religion in its grooves, enabling the Atkins sisters, who collectively call themselves Mary Mary, to connect with secular music fans.
"I was in Harlem yesterday, and I went into a record store to check out their gospel section," says Tina, sitting down for breakfast with her sister at a Studio City restaurant near their home. "I thought it would be this tiny section, but it was really huge. They also had a large poster of us overhead, which I guess helps us a bit."
But marketing doesn't deserve all the credit in this case. "Shackles (Praise You)," the first single from the sisters' debut album, "Thankful," is what's driving Mary Mary's success.
Like Franklin's hits and the handful of spiritual songs that have crossed over as pop hits, "Shackles" veils a religious undertone with uplifting lyrics that don't alienate nonreligious listeners and enough hip-hop flavoring (snatches of rap and a bumptious beat) to make it a dance-floor natural. "Shackles' " message doesn't hit nearly as hard as the music, which is why the song recently climbed into the pop Top 10 and has become a No. 1 R&B; hit.
"People are scared of music that gives reverence to God," says Tina, 25. "We don't want to force this goodness on everybody. We just want to give people the option, and just put it out there for them to hear."
"Shackles" is so far removed from any traditional notion of what gospel music is supposed to sound like that to call it gospel is a stretch. The Atkins sisters, like so many contemporary gospel artists, borrow liberally from secular music sources to cast the widest net possible. Market forces may dilute the intent behind the music, but the result brings larger record sales. "Shackles" could be the latest single from, say, Destiny's Child.
"We try to take from everybody," says Erica, 28. "Not just gospel artists, but rock, country and R&B.; I think Shania Twain is great, and Eminem and Dr. Dre write the catchiest hooks. We're not gonna change our beliefs, but we want mass appeal, and that encompasses a whole lot."
"We wrote 'Shackles' in about 30 minutes," says producer Warryn Campbell, 24. "I pulled up something that I had worked on to play the girls [while I took a shower]. But listening to them through the shower, I heard it as something completely different, and I started singing the hook . . . 'take the shackles off my feet so I can dance.' I sang it to them, and they just freaked on it."
To hear the sisters in Mary Mary tell it, their feel-good gospel is as much about spreading the good word as it is an antidote to the feel-bad nihilism they hear in so much contemporary music. "We're trying to bring positivity to the industry," says Tina. "Gospel has been only in the church for too long. Christians hear it, but hip-hop and R&B; fans don't."
As kids growing up in Inglewood, Tina and Erica weren't permitted to hear much besides gospel. The offspring of a schoolteacher mom and a father who served as a minister in a Pentecostal church, the Atkins sisters are two of nine siblings--seven girls and two boys--all of whom had to abide by their parents' iron-clad rules of conduct. That meant no secular music in the house.
"There were certain things we could not do, but it was an urban neighborhood, so we were very aware of what was going on," says Erica. "We learned as we got older that it's important for kids to have bylaws and some rules."
All of the kids sang in the church choir--they made up the entire soprano section--but Tina and Erica wanted to sing professionally. The two enrolled at El Camino College to study singing but chafed at the restrictions the curriculum placed on them. "We had to study classical and sing arias, which was fine, but the teachers would tell us if we sang anything else it would damage our instrument," says Erica.
So the two dropped out in 1995 and were cast in producer Michael Matthews' traveling gospel shows "Mama I'm Sorry" and "Sneaky." Fairly didactic morality plays that use humor and music as theological tools of persuasion, Matthews' gospel shows enabled the Atkins sisters to hone their performance skills. "We had to find the things that would make the crowd go, 'Awwww!' " says Tina. "We had to act and sing and cry in a heartbeat."
While on tour with Matthews, the Atkins sisters met Warryn Campbell, a bassist who was touring with the show. Campbell had worked with spiritual and secular artists, and encouraged the sisters to try their hand at secular music. Campbell eventually secured a publishing deal with EMI, and the Atkins sisters, who had been writing songs together for a few years, found themselves placing songs on albums by the female trio 702 and gospel artist Yolanda Adams. "All this 'who ya know' stuff started happening," says Erica. "We started singing backup for Brian McKnight and Brandy, stuff like that."
As the only gospel artist on Columbia's roster, Mary Mary has become the label's standard-bearers for pop virtue, but if the Atkins sisters can provide succor for a few, they will feel fulfilled.
"People are searching for answers," says Tina. "They call Psychic Hotline and spend all this money on seeing psychiatrists. We just want to do our part."