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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

The duo Mary Mary has made its name singing music with R&B sounds and gospel spirit. The group's name comes from the two women named Mary in the Gospels. Mary Mary is on tour right now, but don't look for them in churches. They're playing venues more known for secular music. The duo's powerful voices belong to a pair of sisters, Tina and Erica Campbell. Mona Austin reports.

(Soundbite of music)

MONA AUSTIN: Some gospel music makes you want to shout. Then there's Mary Mary. Their music makes you want to dance, dance, dance.

(Soundbite of song, "Shackles")

MARY MARY: (Music Group) Take the shackles off my feet so I can dance. I just wanna praise you, What'cha wanna do? I just wanna praise you, yeah, yeah, You broke the chains now I can lift my hands, feel me? And I'm gonna praise you. What'cha gonna do? I'm gonna praise you.

AUSTIN: When they were growing up in Inglewood, California, younger sister Tina says listening to anything other than gospel music was strictly forbidden. Still, they were heavily influenced by ghetto life's musical score, rooted in hip-hop and R&B.

Ms. TINA CAMPBELL (Mary Mary): We were born and raised in urban communities.

Ms. ERICA CAMPBELL (Mary Mary): Ghettos, if you will.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. T. CAMPBELL: And so what happened in the community was that the sound of the community, the look, the lingo, all of those things - we were exposed to that.

(Soundbite of song, "Shackles")

MARY MARY: (Singing) I'm gonna, I'm gonna, I'm gonna praise you. Been through the fire and the rain, bound in every kind of way. But God has broken every chain, so let me go right now.

AUSTIN: They believe their heavenly father gave their 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.

Ms. E. CAMPBELL: He would go and minister at the park to…

Ms. T. CAMPBELL: One of the roughest parks in L.A., actually, where there's nothing but like, people doing drugs and homeless people doing all sorts of things. And he would take all of us.

Ms. E. CAMPBELL: Yep.

Ms. T. CAMPBELL: And he would be ministering, and we would be singing. We would just share the love of God. So we learned really early how to relate.

(Soundbite of song, "Dirt")

MARY MARY: (Singing) Funny thing about a garden, beauty lives within its gates. Bugs and thorns and weeds, they grow there, but they all help to create vivid color variations, sweet aromas and sensations, realize under it all, something not so beautiful, but we all need a little bit, need a little bit, need a little bit of dirt to grow…

AUSTIN: Now, as ministers of music, Mary Mary wants to cast their net as wide as possible beyond the four walls of the church, to people who may never be extended an altar call.

Ms. T. CAMPBELL: We had a publisher who heard a song and he was like, what are you guys talking about, like goose bumps? Because we were using words like the anointing and presence and power of God, so they didn't get it. So it allowed us that was very 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 unchurched.

(Soundbite of song, "I Sing")

MARY MARY: (Singing) Back when I was a little child it wasn't easy, Mama didn't always have a job to take care of me. But I love her 'cause she tried so hard to do her best, but when she fell short God did all the rest. That's why, I sing about what he's done. For me it's been so much that I couldn't even tell it if I tried…

AUSTIN: You won't hear music from Mary Mary's latest CD on Sunday morning at most churches, but their sound still resonates with the churched. Gospel media pioneer Dr. Bobby Jones thinks even if gospel has a hip-hop flavor, the essence of Mary Mary's music remains within the bounds of the gospel genre.

Dr. BOBBY JONES (Gospel Media Center): As long as we keep this music sacred, as long as we use it to lift him in every dimension, that has to be done through the spirit and the element of the givers.

AUSTIN: For Dr. Jones, gospel is not just about the lyrics but the spiritual expression of the person performing. Tina says the church wasn't initially their target audience.

Ms. T. CAMPBELL: We told them, put our music everywhere. Put me on the stage with anybody and it'll work.

(Soundbite of song, "Get Up")

MARY MARY: (Singing) What are you afraid of? Don't you know what you're made of? One of God's greatest creations, take this invitation now, get up, 'cause you can't stop. Get up, got a lot to do, 24 hours, almost gone. Get up, don't sit there. Get up, if you wanna give back. Clocks don't stop and time won't wait…

AUSTIN: They also push religion's fashion envelope. On the "Sound" CD cover, they're not in choir robes. Erica and Tina are confidently wearing sexy black dresses. They look like they've been poured into them. Tina argues that the dresses are not tight, they're just form-fitting.

Ms. T. CAMPBELL: Sometimes people think we're a little bit sexy. I don't have a problem with that. I would like to think that I'm sexy. I have a husband who I would like for him to think that every time he sees me. And truth be told, I'm a woman. I would love to be appealing to men. It is not my endeavor…

Ms. E. CAMPBELL: To entice.

Ms. T. CAMPBELL: …to entice, to cause anyone to lust.

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

Ms. E. CAMPBELL: Some people may hear a song, love it, find out that they're Christian artists and pull it. We've had that happen to us. Now, to me, that's insane.

(Soundbite of song, "Believer")

MARY MARY: (Singing) I'm a believer, look at my life and you will see, I'm a believer, how can you not believe? I'm a believer, every word he says to me, I'm a believer, 'cuz he gave me my liberty…

Ms. E. CAMPBELL: You have to push a little bit more. Listen to this song. Sometimes people's first thing is, Oh, it's gospel, so they place it in this category - until they listen.

AUSTIN: That drive has kept the Campbell sisters rocking nightclubs and churches, inspiring fans on both sides of the spiritual divide.

For NPR News, I'm Mona Austin.

SHAPIRO: To hear full songs by Mary Mary and discover more new music, visit nprmusic.org.

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