Local fans of gospel music are finding an unlikely venue for catching some of the top performers in the genre.
The Wichita Riverfest.
Though the festival has for years included a gospel concert, occasionally featuring known headliners like Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Earnest Alexander, over the past two years it has been attracting some of the hottest names in the industry.
Last year, it was Tamela Mann, an award-winning gospel singer also known for her role as Cora Simmons in Tyler Perry’s Madea movies and plays. She performed hits, including songs from her chart-topping album “Best Days” during the Gospelfest concert on the Kennedy Plaza Stage.
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This year, the festival has scored another big gospel star in Erica Campbell, a singer best known as one-half of the Grammy-winning contemporary gospel duo Mary Mary, which includes Campbell’s sister Tina. The sisters also star in the reality show “Mary Mary” on WE tv. Campbell will headline Monday’s Riverfest gospel concert, scheduled for 5:15 to 9:30 p.m. at Kennedy Plaza. She will take the stage for a 75-minute set at 8 p.m.
Gospelfest has always been an important part of Riverfest, said Mary Beth Jarvis, president and CEO of Wichita Festivals Inc., which puts on the event. But when Jarvis took over in 2012, she realized it had been years since Gospelfest had a national headliner. It had morphed into an evening of local choirs and worship group performances, which was good, Jarvis said, but she wanted to see if she could round up support to raise the event’s profile.
She formed a committee and signed up Cox Business, Westar Energy and Spirit AeroSystems as major sponsors. The committee also approached local fraternities, sororities, churches and service organizations, from Urban League to the Greater Wichita Ministerial League, and raised money “$150 at a time.”
Their efforts helped them book Mann, who drew 12,000 people to her show, and footage from her Wichita visit and performance were later featured on her BET reality show, “It’s a Mann’s World.”
The same groups stepped up again this year, Jarvis said, and the festival was able to book Campbell.
“We want to keep that momentum going, and we want to make sure that we continue to maintain a balance of showcasing the best Wichita has to offer in terms of local talent but also national headliners,” Jarvis said. “We want everyone to see themselves in Riverfest, but conversely, we want folks to experience things at Riverfest that they might not have dived into with both feet if they didn’t already have a button and were down there.”
During a recent phone interview from her home in Los Angeles, Campbell said she was looking forward to taking the Riverfest stage. She’s been to Kansas a few times, she said, and has a brother-in-law who is a former Kansan.
“I hope people have their comfortable shoes on, and I hope the people there are ready to have a great time,” she said.
Campbell, 43, first rose to notoriety as part of Mary Mary with her younger sister, Tina. The duo, known for its crossover style of gospel music that included flavors of hip-hop and funk, had its first big hit in 2000 with “Shackles (Praise You).”
As a group, the sisters recorded seven studio albums and racked up four Grammy Awards. In 2012, their reality show premiered, following the often tumultuous relationships between the sisters and the people in their lives. The show’s fourth season, which wrapped up earlier this month, detailed the tension between the sisters when Erica Campbell decided to launch a solo career.
That decision resulted in Campbell’s first solo album, 2014’s “Help,” which won the Grammy for Best Gospel Album.
“It was unreal,” she said. “I try not to say, ‘I can’t believe it’ because that puts a negative spin on it. I can believe it. You work hard and are rewarded with awards and accolades. To have been there was so rewarding, and it felt so good to be there after all the sacrifices I had made and challenges I had encountered even doing a solo record. I’m enjoying it. My Grammys are visible in my house, and I walk past them and smile.”
In March of this year, Campbell released “Help 2.0,” which included her controversial song “I Luh God,’” with a rap sound and a gospel message. Some critics have said she’s dumbing down the message for the masses and don’t like her combining rap slang with references to God.
Campbell said she tries not to listen to the critics.
“I know everybody doesn’t understand it, and I’m no stranger to people not understanding what the heck I’m doing,” she said. “But my heart is good and my intentions are good and my purpose is to please Jesus.”
The reality show also has been an interesting experience, said Campbell, and when she meets fans, they express concern that she and Tina are still at odds. When the show’s finale aired, Tina was not happy about Erica’s branching off on her own.
What fans don’t understand is that the footage was captured a full year before it aired. The sisters are good today, she insisted.
“The audience is expanding, and it’s funny because sometimes people take it really personally and they’re either upset at me or Tina or somebody,” she said. “But we are fine. We all love each other. After the cameras left, we worked through our differences and moved on.”
Going solo has been good for Campbell personally, she said, because she finally feels freedom to express her individuality.
It’s also been good for her relationship with her sister, and the result is something that “Mary Mary” fans will like.
“It’s strange. We’re so much stronger now that we’ve taken space away from each other,” she said. “This next Mary Mary album is going to be crazy. This is the first time I’m telling anyone this, but we already have five songs recorded for the next record.”
Campbell says fans can expect a mid-2016 release date for that album, and the sisters also are planning to shoot a new season of their reality show. Filming should start in September and episodes would hit the airwaves next spring.
If you go
Erica Campbell at Gospelfest
What: The singer and reality TV star will headline the Wichita Riverfest’s Gospelfest concert.
When: Show starts with local performers at 5:15 p.m. Monday. Campbell will take the stage for a 75-minute set at 8 p.m.
Where: Kennedy Plaza
How much: Admission is included with a Riverfest button, which is $10 for adults and $3 for children. They’re available on-site.