There is no mistaking the soulful soprano voice of Tamela Mann. Whether she's sharing the mic with Mary J. Blige and Bono on Kirk Franklin's 90's gospel classic, "Lean on Me," or belting out her #1 hit, "Take Me to the King," off of her latest Grammy-nominated solo album, there is a familiarity and a genuineness behind her powerhouse vocals that make her an irreplaceable presence in gospel music.
But Mann is just as recognizable and successful on-screen as she is in the studio. The actress has been starring in Tyler Perry's plays, films and T.V. shows, along with her husband, David Mann (A.K.A. "Mr. Brown"), since 1999. On the road with the McDonald's Inspiration Celebration Tour, Mann responds to the criticism some Tyler Perry productions have faced and shares with EBONY.com why she'll always be a gospel singer.
EBONY: I absolutely love your song “Take Me to the King.” And I’m not alone, it’s done so well, it’s been such a big hit for you. And every time you sing that song live it just seems like you go to some other place. It’s like we’re looking at a private moment between you and God. What are you pulling from when you sing that song?
TAMELA MANN: Well, it’s like my opportunity to talk to God like, “truth is,” a lot of people are tired, like the lyrics say, and our options are few. I’m praying and sometimes because I don’t think He’s coming fast enough we wonder is He there but I realize that God is still in control. Just the heart of the song, that I can just cast all my cares on God I can give all my problems to God. It may not come as fast or quick as I want it, but He has an answer and He’s always been there for me and He’s my father and He’s going to take care of His own.
EBONY: You’ve had a lot of mainstream success in Tyler Perry productions, so what was behind your decision to stick to your gospel roots?
TM: I started in gospel first, and it is my first love. The plays came along after the singing, but it’s like, that was like icing on the cake. To be able to sing, I feel like this is my one gift that God gave me. I just feel like no one can take that away from me. Not that I’m the best or anything, I just want to give what He’s given me back to Him and to the people. I just always want to be an encouragement and give hope to the people [so they can see] that someone like me that was less fortunate, broke, disgusted — all that–how's it go? “Started from the bottom now I’m here.” [Laughs] That’s really a true statement for me.
EBONY: Everybody's 'bottom' isn't the same so what was 'the bottom' like for you?
TM: The bottom was, I’m the youngest of 14, I’m the only one that graduated high school, we were very poor. We didn’t have a car so every musical or whatever I went to I was always thumbing a ride but it so happened that people were just put into my life to grab hold of me and kind of lead me on. A lot of people in my church sheltered me took care of me and just filled the needs that she couldn’t fulfill and I’m just really grateful to being this place. So I go back to my home church and let people know that I haven’t forgotten them. They helped paved the way for me and it makes me grateful. I get kind of teary-eyed because I’m really happy to be here.
A lot of my brothers and sisters are addicts and they chose to go a different route rather than serving God, [but] it’s just paid off for me. So I can’t turn my back on Him. I’m just really happy to be here. Wherever I get to stand before the people and sing, I don’t think of it boastfully, I think I could have been out there on the streets, but God saw fit to give me opportunity to take my gift and let my gift make room for me.
EBONY: Because you chose this path to follow God and it’s different from some of your brothers and sisters, what is your relationship like with them now?
TM: I have a good relationship with them but sometimes because we don’t do the same things we’re not as close. But I always check on them, we talk to each other. We’re good, but I’m not a partier, I’m not a smoker or a drinker, so I don’t hang [around that] because that’s not what I do. I surround myself with positive people, people that are like-minded because I don't have to pump and prod [my friends] to do what’s right. But I reach out to [my siblings] and I love them and sometimes I still wonder why they choose to do the things that they do, but we all have free mind and will and all I can do is be an encouragement and let my nieces and nephews know that we can come from nothing and still make something out of ourselves.
EBONY: There has been a lot of criticism of Tyler Perry over the years, for the plays, movies and T.V. shows he writes, directs and produces and there have been concerns that he is perpetuating negative images of Black women and the community in those mediums. As someone who has been in many of those productions, how do you deal with that criticism? Do the positive people you surround yourself with shield you from that?
TM: I really don’t let that bother me. You’re always going to have naysayers. There are going to people who agree with you but there’s always going to be someone who don’t agree with everything you do or don’t like how I sing or how I act or what have you, but I feel like it’s a big enough pie that everybody can have a piece. So I really don’t dwell on those type of people. It’s like you said, I stick with the people who are thinking positive. People are going to say what they’re going to say but we’re moving on. We’re pressing on. And hey, hopefully [the naysayers are] going to catch on. Because they'll keep wondering, “Hey, how does she keep coming up?” It ain't me. It’s the God in me.
EBONY: Do you find any of those kinds of criticisms or concerns to be constructive?
TM: It’s not worth the time and effort [to worry about it]. Some people are not going to like everything that we do. The things that I can’t change, I don’t worry about them. And I can’t dwell on that because I feel like my time is short. I’m not going to die of a heart attack worrying about what other people are saying and being insecure because of what they’re saying because there's somebody that’s going to like it. And [Tyler Perry's productions come] from a real place. I think the reason why [his productions have] blown up is because it’s reality. A lot of things that’s said [in his films] is what a lot of us are dealing with. So that’s why we have great following. And anyway, that’s what makes a good battery: you’ve got positive and negative.
EBONY: You're a Grammy-nominated singer, you've won all sorts of awards and seen great success as an actress. What do you hope your legacy will be?
TM: That I lived a great life. I want my kids and grandkids and other young people to see you can reach those goals that you’re trying to reach.
Catch Tamela Mann live in concert at Xavier University Convocation Center in New Orleans July 13 at 7:00 p.m.