KEEPING IT REAL: Tina Campbell and Erica Campbell attending last month's New York City premiere of their new WE tv reality series, "Mary Mary." (Photo: Newscom)
Since gospel duo Mary Mary burst on the music scene with their crossover hit “Shackles (Praise You)” in 2000, sisters Erica and Tina Campbell, who named themselves after Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, have defied what it means to be gospel artists. And now with the arrival of Mary Mary, their new reality television show, the duo have another vehicle to appeal to audiences outside of the traditional gospel realm. The show recently debuted on WE tv, the same network that brought us the runaway reality TV hit Braxton Family Values.
However, outside of being network mates and powerhouse vocalists who happen to be sisters, that is where the similarities end. There are no dead-beat husbands, sisters on the verge of alcoholism, or sisters vying for breakout status by creating catchy one-liners which all end in “dot-com.” Their show is decidedly tame in comparison — which may be both good and bad. In the first episode, we get to see what goes into being a three-time Grammy Award-winning gospel act. For Erica and Tina (who happen to be married to unrelated men with the last name Campbell — now that’s some reality TV for ya), this means balancing their career ambition while being mothers to almost eight children between them (as Tina is pregnant with her fourth child) and wives to men who also have thriving careers. Warryn Campbell, married to Erica, is Mary Mary’s producer. Teddy Campbell, Tina’s hubby, is the drummer for Jay Leno’s Tonight Show band.
The duo is invited to perform at Macy’s “Great Christmas Tree Lighting” concert (a signature event for true ATLiens) on Thanksgiving Day in Atlanta. Their high-strung manager, Mitchell Solarek, appropriately frames this invitation as a good decision professionally and bad decision personally. Nevertheless, Solarek urges them to miss spending Thanksgiving with their families in Los Angeles because the Atlanta concert would give them exposure to 100,000 people and potentially garner new fans. And Atlanta is already Mary Mary’s number one sales and media market, Solarek points out.
Erica is excited about the concert and convinces her husband to forego their traditional Thanksgiving plans with extended family and pack up their kids and head to the A on Thanksgiving. Tina, who seems to be the more outspoken sister, is not as sold on the idea because her oldest daughter, Laiah, will be performing at a glee concert during that time and her husband’s work schedule may not allow him to travel with her.
In spite of her misgivings, Tina decides to perform in Atlanta and tries to explain her decision to 8-year-old Laiah. Their conversation yields the most real and tender moment of the show, as Laiah weeps on her mother’s shoulder and chides her for missing out on important family events. In the commentary, Tina admits feeling “guilt for having this lifestyle that I have.” Still, she also admits to loving her lifestyle and wanting to find a successful balance between career and family. She takes red-eye flights to her gigs to be able to tuck her children in at night, saying, “I can function on no sleep but them kids can’t function on no love.” I found it interesting that the sisters referred to themselves as Mary Mary when it came to career and Erica and Tina when they discussed their families. They appear to understand the difference.
Another opportunity for drama presents itself in the introduction of Goo Goo, Erica and Tina’s younger sister and the group stylist. Solarek readily admits that Goo Goo would not be his first choice as stylist but is forced to accept her anyway. Styling gospel artists is a tricky endeavor, he explains, as female gospel artists are either criticized for dressing like a church lady or like Jezebel. And Solarek’s confidence in Goo Goo getting it right — not to mention her reliability — is severely tested. We also get to meet Honey, Erica and Tina’s mom, who was their first choir director at their childhood church, Evangelistic Church of God in Christ in California.
By the time they arrive in Atlanta for the concert, Tina is in funky mood and reveals her resentment at being alone in a hotel room on Thanksgiving, particularly since her family seems to be having fun without her and Erica’s family are in a hotel room down the hall. “This freaking sucks,” Tina declares. I won’t reveal what happens next, in case you still have the episode on DVR, but let’s just say the show is clearly interested in affirming the positive.
What I like about Mary Mary is that it’s a real-life depiction of successful black women, who are married to good men and trying to do right by their families. It also helps that, though we see their faith expressed, the show — like Mary Mary’s music — isn’t too churchy or preachy.
A potential problem for future episodes? I fear the show may not have enough mayhem and dysfunction to satisfy today’s reality show audiences, who have been fed a steady diet of the raucous dealings of Braxtons, Kardashians, and Real Housewives. In fact, I checked my social media sites during the airing of the premiere and was dismayed to see little to no chatter. But, then again, Mary Mary’s signature hit “Shackles (Praise You)” broke the traditional gospel mold, so maybe their show will catch fire by flipping the script on the typical reality TV formula.
New episodes will air in the show’s regular timeslot, Thursdays at 9 p.m. Eastern Time, beginning April 5. If you’ve watched the show already, what do you think?
As fans get ready for the eagerly awaited Michael Jackson concert film, an African American pastor reconsiders the Black church’s dubious embrace of the King of Pop.
This week a new single by the late Michael Jackson arrived on the Internet, no doubt signaling the launch of a marketing blitz for This Is It, the forthcoming film documentary about Jackson’s ill-fated comeback concerts. Hearing the news of Jackson’s posthumous song and its curious lyrics, which include the line I’m the light of the world (see the video below), reminded me of the intense outpouring of grief, adoration, and praise that the singer’s death inspired this past summer.
A couple days after Jackson’s death, I watched the last hour of the BET Awards, a show I had never previously bothered to watch. Compared to what I have seen on other awards shows in the past, somewhat expectedly I found the BET show very much affected by the passing of Jackson. There were many tributes given to the King of Pop. They ranged from snippets of his music before commercial breaks, to words of tribute from the various artists and emcees on the program. Some of the tributes honored the enduring nature of his race-transcending music. Other tributes virtually deified him.
For example, the legendary Soul Train host, Don Cornelius, referred to the artist as the “immortal Michael Jackson.” To this my oldest daughter immediately retorted, “Well, I think this week we found out, clearly, that he was not immortal.” Yet many in the BET audience expressed agreement with Cornelius.
The artist Wyclef Jean, who received a humanitarian award, spoke of a long hoped-for meeting with Jackson. He said he had planned his words for this exciting meeting, but “when [Jackson] showed up, I shook his hand and lost my voice completely. That is the effect this man had on people.”
Other artists remarked that “[Jackson] meant so much to us and to the whole world,” and that he was “often imitated but never duplicated.” One artist referred to him as “a musical deity.” Never mind those suspicions surrounding children, the dangling of the baby out of the window, the constant changing of his facial appearance, and Jackson’s other self-destructive behavior; Jackson was an entertainment god.
There was a very odd moment in the television program when one of the members of the O’Jays used some very foul language while honoring Michael. The award show’s technicians attempted to mute the word, but were about a half-second too late, so the entire listening TV audience heard the word. The foible produced roaring laughter among the audience and some momentary blushing on the part of the entertainer who made the mistake. I was wondering if anyone had noticed that only a few moments before, when the O’Jays stepped on stage to receive an award for lifetime achievement, two of the men began with words of praise like, “I would like to give honor to God, to whom be all the power and glory,” and “First, we would like to thank God for all the blessings bestowed upon the O’Jays.” The member who slipped with the curse word ended the acceptance speech with “God Bless …”
I guess Michael can be honored while foul language is used, and this can happen to the praise of God. This is not simply gray. This is where you wish you had not made the switch from analog to digital.
“Syncretism” is a fancy word used to describe the blending of different, and often incompatible, systems of religious and philosophical belief. The syncretistic practice of Christianity within the traditional African American church is well known, and in some settings cherished. The line between Christianity and secular African American culture is not blurred; it does not exist.
On the positive side, some sociologists and historians have suggested that, historically, this is due to the inseparability of the slave church and slave culture. African American slaves were able to survive the brutality of antebellum slavery due to their Christian faith, and the slave church was the rallying and unifying point of the slave community.
Negatively, however, the gray matter of African American Christianity is most evident in the democratic process of presidential elections. Consequently, last November the thinking probably went something like this: My Christian position on the life of the unborn and the biblical teaching on marriage have no place in my decision-making when it comes to the election of a President. He is African American, I am African American; nothing else matters.
The blurred nature of what is distinctively Christian and what is African American is commonly displayed at our national, non-Christian music and video award shows. It would be typical for an African American artist, who is receiving an award for a song or video full of lyrics and/or scenes completely contrary to the moral standards of the gospel, to receive the award with the words, “First, I would like to thank my Lord Jesus Christ for …” giving something related to the talent of the singer or the award itself. The thanksgiving, though obviously hypocritical, is received with great acclamation, seemingly without the hosts or audience being put off by the references to the Lord among the secular throng.
I think, however, the telltale sign of African American Christian syncretism was revealed at the BET award show in a different manner. The vast majority of artists did not mention God at all. Instead, where you might have expected thanks to be given to God, thanks was given to Michael Jackson. It is not that Jackson was being thanked for empowering the artists, but simply that a great amount of the thanks being given at this year’s show was given to Michael. Thanks to the King of Kings was eclipsed by thanks to the King of Pop.
Christianizing an Idol
I can only imagine how many words of honor were given to Michael Jackson from African American pulpits on the Sunday after his death. It would be my hope that Michael’s death would have provided many opportunities for African American pastors to point out the errors of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For Michael, along with the artist once again known as Prince, are the Watchtower’s two most well-known members, both are African American, and the Witnesses love to prey on African Americans.
Many African Americans equate the Jehovah’s Witnesses with a Christian denomination. Christ’s name would be honored by pointing out that Michael’s hopes did not rest on God the Son, and that there are many like him within the African American community who are in need of the message about God the Son coming into the world to save people from the wrath of God due to their sins. I suspect, however, that much praise was given in the name of the Lord for Michael Jackson. Prayers might even have been offered from pulpits for the comfort — rather than salvation — of Jackson’s family members, who also are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Unsubstantiated rumors that Jackson had converted to Islam made the rounds but were never confirmed. And another big rumor speculating that Jackson had accepted Christ days before his death, during a visit from Andrae and Sandra Crouch, was immediately squashed by the Crouches. But many people tried to keep it alive as truth anyway — no doubt a reflection of their desire to “Christianize” their late idol.
Many African American churchgoers are fine with Christianity as long as we, as African Americans, can bring our cultural gods with us. We see no problem with our secular artists, their words or their behavior, as long as our fellow church members see God’s blessings as being consistent with our entertainers’ debauchery.
I’m still hoping that the untimely death of Michael Jackson will help awaken the Black church out of its syncretism — that we will view the lives of entertainers with discernment rather than with bliss, and give worship to the King of Kings alone. Only one King is immortal, and He is to be worshiped. This should not be a gray matter. This should be a no-brainer.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared at Rev. Eric C. Redmond’s blog, A Man From Issachar.