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How the church helped Erica Campbell become a legendary singer

How the church helped Erica Campbell become a legendary singer
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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

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The Black church has long been a critical incubator for Black singers. So many of our iconic singers got their start in church. That’s why I love hearing people who’ve come up through the church explain how growing up singing in church helped them as a singer. Gospel legend Erica Campbell from Mary Mary is my next guest on “Masters of the Game” and she spent her formative years going to church five or six days a week. She was a preacher’s kid. I was eager to hear her talk about how the church made her the singer she is.

Campbell went to the Evangelistic Church of God in Inglewood, Calif., and she says it was extremely important to her development as a singer. “Christ is definitely part of the reason I’m successful,” she said. “The pushing, the nurturing, the constant singing in the various conditions, good microphones, bad microphones, knowing the song, not knowing the song, not feeling well, singing anyway.” Multiple times a week she had an audience that she had to entertain no matter what. There was a demand for her to sing as well as she could in spite of how she felt on a given day. That was great training for her professional career — just because you have a concert doesn’t mean you feel like singing, but you’ve still got to go out and give it your all. Campbell was doing that day after day as a kid.

Campbell’s mother was a talented singer, too, and she coached her daughter through her church performances. “When I was still very shy,” Campbell said, “I’d be standing behind the pulpit and my mom would be in the back of the church. … I’d walk just on the side of the pulpit and I’d be singing my song, just rocking back and forth, and then she’d do like this. That means walk. And she would say, if you’re talking about God is great, like, you point to God, and you say, God is great. My mom’s so sassy. But I learned all that watching her in church and her teaching me.” Campbell was learning to perform as she sang and to give a bit of theater to the lyrics.

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One of the biggest reasons why singing in church helps build professional singers is that in church you’re communicating with an audience and learning how to move them. “You’re singing in front of 100, 300, 500 people,” she said. “People who want to react to you, right? So you’re learning like when I do this, this happens. And that prepares you for being a professional singer.”

That church audience will usually be polite whether or not you’re good. “Some people are cheering, Go ahead, baby! If it’s not so good? That’s all right. Bless her heart. Now, if you mess up the words or sing the notes wrong, there’s like, church shade. It’s cold-blooded, but it teaches you that you still have to stand there and sing the song. You can’t run off crying.” You have to be professional no matter what.

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Having an audience that will sit there and listen to you sing, whether or not you’re killing it is fantastic training. Sometimes, on the road to success, you fail. When Campbell made mistakes as a singer the church audience didn’t walk out or demand their money back. They listened and let her mess up and grow. 

Now, Campbell isn’t totally telling the truth when she says you can’t run off crying because she once did get flustered and ran off crying. After that, she didn’t sing solo again for years. How did she get back to it? For that you have to watch Erica Campbell on “Masters of the Game.” It premieres at noon on Saturday on TheGrioTV.  


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of Masters of the Game on theGrioTV. He is also the host and creator of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and the animated show “Star Stories with Toure” which you can find at TheGrio.com/starstories. He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.

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