Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mary Mary, Quite Contrary

Sisters Erica and Tina Campbell, better known as Mary Mary, have long been accused of creating music that walks both sides of the line between contemporary Gospel and R&B.

My sister Joscelyne is an ardent Mary Mary fan, and has been since their first album "Thankful" came out nine years ago. It was her constant playing of that CD (by constant, I mean endless... I still have the words to their duet with Destiny's Child in my head nearly a decade later) which led to me becoming a fan.

So you can imagine my shock when Jos, halfway through a late breakfast at Denny's a couple of weeks ago, announced her deep displeasure with the Gospel duo's latest hit "God in Me" off their album "The Sound," which was released a year ago today.

"I don't like that song... nope. What message are they sending? How is that even really Christian? I mean, come on, people will listen and tie all the "bling" to God... and that's not right. Do you think it's okay???" She asked that last question rather pointedly. And surprisingly, I had to answer with, "I don't know." Jos, halfway through her omelet looked at me incredulously. Alisha, little-miss-music-critic, had not a single word of critique for this song.

While I have struggled to come up with a definitive opinion, others have taken to the internet to broadcast theirs. I found this video on YouTube:

So what exactly, is so scandalous about "God in Me" anyway? (By the way, you can check out the fashion show-themed video here, complete with a cameo from speech interrupter/ controversy courter/rapper Kanye West and his latest paramour.) The problem seems to be all the talk of material things:

"Everything you wear people say they got have it/From the sweat suit to the white tee to the Gucci/ You can probably say people wanna get like me... You see her style you think she nice
You look at her whip you say the whip tight/You look at her crib you thinks she's paid/You look at her life you think she's got it made."

But in all fairness, the sisters' give credit for all the worldly blessings to God:

"But what they don't know is when you go home/And get behind closed doors man you hit the floor/And what they can't see is your on your knees/So the next time you get it just tell em/It's the God in me...You think I'm so fresh you think I'm so clean/You think I'm so sweet It's the God in me

To Jos, though, the song is merely paying lip service to God. "The Bible talks about the hard times you'll go through as a Christian. It's not all good times. The song makes it seem like following Christ means you'll be blessed with all this stuff, and that's not necessarily true... it's not that it's wrong to be rich but... you know what it sounds like? Like the Prosperity Gospel!"

My little sis might have a point. According to Wikipedia, the prosperity gospel is "a religious belief centered around the notion that God provides material prosperity for those he favors. It implies both that people who are favored by God will be materially successful, and also that materially successful people are successful because God favored them." Basically, the song is saying incur God's "favor" and in no time at all, you can be "sweet", "fresh" and wearing Gucci, just like Mary Mary, too.

Or maybe not. When I played "God in Me" for K over the weekend, he had a totally other point of view. "I think the song is saying that people look at the outside and are so impressed by that, but if it weren't for God, who's in her heart, she wouldn't have success at all. It's about going deeper." So, to Jos, it's shallow. To K, there's a certain level of depth. So which is it? To me, it's both. Or maybe, neither. The thing about Mary Mary's music (or Kirk Franklin, or over on the rock side, POD or Flyleaf) is that depending on the listener, the song's meaning will vary. Ever since their debut album, the ladies have enjoyed success on the Gospel, Pop, and R&B charts. Their songs have been sung in churches and (admittedly questionably) played in clubs. Instead of lamenting over their worldliness, I have always praised Mary Mary for putting out music even the world has stopped and listened to. It's been my hope that people who wouldn't dream of listening to traditional Gospel (James, Shirley and Mahalia aren't for everyone) will hear it's young urban baby and will be drawn to learn more about the God we praise.

As we wrapped up our meal, Jos asked me if I think "God in Me" is truly a Gospel song. "Honestly? No. I'd put it in the same category I'd put India Arie's "God is Real" or Mary J. Blige's "6 AM". It's Inspirational." And considering it's managed to raise the ire of some while simultaneously being so fiercely defended by others, I think most can agree, it definitely inspires.

What are your thoughts on this song? How about Contemporary Christian music as a whole? Leave your comment!


Alan said...

very thought provoking stuff you have here. I too agree with K, I think that the ladies are not neccesarilly praising the worldly things that they have, but simply bringing attention to the fact that if not by Gods grace they would not have it. I myself hate hate hate hate hate prosperity teaching. I think it gives people a wrong motive for being a Christian and when they dont receive what they thought they would, they then lose their faith. So if I felt that this was in the category of prosperity preaching I would be the first to say so. But I think that they are probably responding to some critics or remarks that they may have received over the years and just giving God the glory for their success.

As far if they are considered Gospel or not, I dont know. I think the minute someone has announced that they are a Christian we feel the need to put them on that side of the music world, and brand them with our label. I find nothing wrong with artists who are christians just simply making music. In the case of P.O.D. like you mentioned, they are Christians, and yes some of their songs maybe Christ inspired, but they are not a "Christian Band". I dunno I think it is a very gray area that many can argue over for years and years. But when it comes down to it, I love God In Me and bump it every time its on.

One Man's Adrenaline said...

Kudos to Jos for really examining her music and honoring her conviction. That's great, and this is a great example as to how she feels about her relationship with God! I'm not gonna hate on this one tho. I'm not a fan of Mary Mary but I took a look at the video. Alan is right...once an artist claim themselves as a Christian Artist, the industry tries to tie them down and the listeners scrutinize them if the word "Jesus" isn't in every other line. I faced alot of this when I was a solo artist doing gigs in both churches and bars.

I guess a supporting issue is that most believers get so hung up on being broken and death of self, but they forget that Jesus rose from the grave and lives in us ..and therefore we have that resurrection power. So championship, success, and victory does run in our blood. I think what Mary Mary is trying to do is bridge the carnal secular attraction to "vanity" with the righteous honest trust about the root of what they see (at least in their testimony). We cannot help, that it's their testimony. It may be no different than a football player who makes a touchdown and points his finger to the sky...or an actress who accepts a grammy for most outstanding success and thanks God "for without none of this would be possible"(God in me).
I would also defend Mary Mary in the truth that they are not a praise and worship band. Therefore their target audience is not a congregation. The beats are made for the hood and all demographics accordingly. Their methods may appear to be taboo to alot of venues but never the less...they are working the venue the best they know how.
As far as the energy spent on making the youtube video, that energy could have been spent elsewhere making videos that promote Christ rather than scrutinize Christians or defending the Gospel (a.k.a. Christian Apologetics). God doesn't need us to defend Him or His truth. One day every knee will bow, and it won't be because we helped out. I once heard that if you stay busy doing the things of the Bible you won't have time to do the things it says not to. This youtube video does not further the kingdom.

Fun post :) I couldn't resist. Music and Truth are my passion's true loves.

Don said...

Trememdous blog you've created here, filled with great substance, thought-provoking and well written topics. It was my intention to browse upon my arrival, until I came across your excellent Mary Mary post.

I'd heard others speak negatively concerning the nature of the song's urban beat and what not, but I have yet to find anything wrong with the track. Maybe it's just them - the ones who claim there's everything wrong with the gospel song.

Yep, Gospel, I say cause it's definitely a gospel song, still. And the message is as positive and uplifting as ever.

Favorite Mary Mary song? Mines: Yesterday. Again, I am very impressed by your blog.

Alisha De Freitas said...

First, thanks for all the comments. They were all so well-written and well-thought out. And it's nice to have guys commenting as well.

@Alan, full disclosure- I enjoy playing this song as well! It's fun and upbeat, and when my nephews are in the car, it's a relief not having to suddenly flip the radio to another station because of vulgarity. You're right about POD... they are the rockers who are also Christian. But I think plenty of people have a problem with that. I remember back in the day, the "controversy" of Creed. Some of my teachers were upset that the lead singer claimed to be Christian yet made worldly music. It was so silly.

@OMA, I can only imagine the flack you received playing in both churches & clubs (I remember April inviting me to NY a few years ago cause you were going to play in a club). Waaaaay back in the day, my father, who is a musician, managed to combine his love of the Beatles with Gospel. Really. He changed a few lines in "Let It Be" and he'd sing it in church sometimes. Really. :-)

@Don: Thanks so much for your kind words! I really appreciate it. I hope you keep coming back. While my sister is not one to see the Devil in everything, there are some people who do. Some musical chords are evil. So are guitars. Heck, pretty much all music created after 1950 is. It seems funny, but there are plenty of Christians who are so legalistic the only percussion they want to hear in the Lord's House is their hands clapping. So much for making a joyful noise!

Again, thanks for the comments, guys!

Shaun Bass said...

Great article!

Let me preface this by saying, I am a Christian musician., born and raised in church. I am  a music fan… I like long walks in the park and  warm socks fresh from the dryer.

I could also be described as one of those extra deep Christians. (a description I embrace) I pay attention to the writer’s intent, the producer’s beats and chords. I’m not up on a lot of current music for this reason. With that said…

I like this song. I like the beat, the message and I even sing a long when I hear it.  It affirms what I already know- by God’s grace I am able to be an example of God’s love and favor.- and a reminder to give glory to God for any success.  If you’re saved by grace, this could be your anthem!

But for the unbeliever, this may be a misleading concept. No, you’re earthly pursuit and gain of “money, power, respect” should not be attributed to “the God in me”.  Attribute this to the lust of the flesh, of the eye, and pride of life.  Songs like this, sometimes lead an unbeliever into thinking that they are ok on the path they’ve taken- that this worldy success is God’s stamp of approval on their life.  A lifestyle allowed by God is not necessarily a lifestyle endorsed by God. Yes you take a knee every night but there is way more to it and this song doesn’t make that clear.
Without being too long,  I think the success of this songs speaks a lot about a philosophy many Christians have taken on when it comes to “secular “ things. The celebrity cameos are an example of this.  I see this a lot in my area of  ”expertise”.  “God has blessed me to produce for and hang with ‘seculer’ artist so I can reach them.” But this is a very dangerous line to toe. This world is pretty jacked up and getting worse. It is “sinking deep in sin”.  So far this method hasn’t really proved sucessful. (ask Kirk Franklin how R Kelly is doing) Please tell me if I’m wrong but, I don’t know of one secular artist that has been genuinley reached with this method.

Picture quick sand. Someone is trying to make it but the more they struggle on their own strength, they sink deeper. I come over with great idea of getting in the quicksand to pull you out. Great! Now we’re both stuck. Now the only help I can offer is an inspirational word that everything is going to be ok. “Keep yo head up!” No I have not offered you a solution but at least you feel good on the way down.

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