When you think of gospel music, there are some artists who speak to your soul in a way that only a select few can. Legendary voices of worship like The Winans, Fred Hammond, and Richard Smallwood can make even those who've never stepped foot in a church believe in the love of God.
But perhaps no group has done quite what The Clark Sisters did when they revolutionized what we even thought was possible from human voices. Karen, Dorinda, Twinkie, and Denise are to gospel what The Supremes are to mainstream music. So, in 1997 when Karen introduced the world to her daughter, Kierra, in one of the most iconic moments in music history, we all knew that God was still in the miracle business. Adorned with all the talent of her legendary family, Kierra Sheard seems to expand upon a flawless design of vocal power, relentless anointing, and a knack for writing songs that speak to not only the Christian experience but the human condition.
Years later, Kierra stands on a ground of her own making, as a Grammy award winner, fashion designer, entrepreneur, and most recently an author with her new book, Big, Bold and Beautiful: Owning The Woman God Made You To Be, hitting shelves this week!
Iman Milner: I'd say so many of us have watched you grow from KiKi Sheard to this fully grown woman in her own respect. Who is Kierra Sheard-Kelly?
Kierra Sheard: A woman who has the peace of the Lord that I am just completely baffled at. There's this calmness I've attained that I never thought I'd have. I was always this woman who was ready to let you have it, ready to snap, but now there's just this deeper understanding. Security and the peace of the Lord make me who I am today.
IM: We can definitely say you've firmly cemented yourself separately from your legendary family. How does it feel to be carving out your own space in this Mt. Rushmore of gospel greats?
KS: It feels great. I am blessed because, to be honest, when I was first starting out, I felt I had a lot to prove. The Clark Sisters, first of all, they can play. I don't know how to play keys. So, there's an ear they have that I don't have.
I have felt inadequate for some time, so it really means a lot that I am able to continue the legacy. Accepting the torch and carrying to make them and God proud means a lot to me. I'm really excited that I can own who I am without feeling the pressure to be exactly what they were. I'm blessed. I'm ecstatic. As a creative and a woman, I can sometimes get in my mind, but I keep it moving.
IM: You said the word 'inadequate,' and that brings up a deeper question about the pressures women, especially women in the gospel space, have to be a certain way. In your song "Don't Judge Me," you talk about being your authentic self. How do you stay true to that fearlessly?
KS: I've made it clear my desire is to mirror Christ and not what man has defined as a "Christian." But I also have made it clear I am young, growing, and figuring it out. Me being transparent with that "figuring it out" space but also seeing how the Lord is manifesting himself through me is the balance. I also have given myself this commitment that I won't become this weirdo who thinks I am boxed in by Christianity.
The Bible says when we accept Christ, it's a life of abundance. It's not about you being in some box. You get to be free. I am trying to find that freedom every day of my life and also trying to live the life after this one. Staying connected with the seasoned saints who can keep it real with me also keeps me grounded. And disconnecting from anyone who makes it feel like the Christ-like life is so hard and tedious. I'm gone live my life and have fun too.
IM: Let's talk about this album, Kierra. What has it taught you about yourself as an artist and a woman?
KS: Oh, this album has taught me that I still like bangers. I like good music. I like to go UP and go crazy. And, you know what, I love good ole churchy music. If you give me a churchy drive—we just had a service, and my mother was singing in her white habit for communion. She was dressed like a nun but singing so out of the box. I'm saying this to say I enjoy that good old-school church vibe, but it has to have some funk to it. I used to try and avoid that because I didn't want anyone to label me, but gospel music is everything. It liberates you, and it's a sound, creatively, that has everything to do with, what we call, soul music. I don't like the slow worship songs as much as people do. But when I get in that space, those declarations come from me that people connect to. The Lord really deals with me on those.
IM: You've released the deluxe version. What can we expect from that re-release?
KS: You'll get one of those very transparent songs. A lot of people know I am an open book. So, you get this song "Out Of My Mind." And I have one I wrote about my dad. I was just telling a friend it seems like the more drama you have, the [more] culture supports it. In this song, I talk about this man living a clean life, and that's what should go viral. It is to be celebrated that this man is a man of integrity who's been chasing after God. I get a little teary-eyed when I hear it. I've seen him be under scrutiny, and people have tried to put things on him, but they couldn't because he is who says he is. Another one is "Grace, Grace," and that one blends Black culture references with CCM. It's super fun.
IM: Ok, let's talk about 'Something Has To Break.' You released another version with your mother (Karen Clark Sheard). Why was it important to reunite with her on this track?
KS: She put me on the map. My pivot in my life was when I did a talent show in elementary school, and we were going to sing "Weak" by SWV. My mom came in there and was like, 'Nah, y'all ain't singing that, who y'all weak for?' We sang "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" instead and got a standing ovation. That changed my life because I was like, 'Oh ok, maybe this what I am supposed to do.'
To have that person who pushed me into my destiny in every part of my life and get to share this moment with her was just so special. The declarations I make on that song come from my mom. I call her a monster, for lack of a better term, when she sings. There's a note that she hits on the track that made me say, 'How you gone come on my song and let me have it?!' It gives me chills. It's not just a resume builder. It's me and mommy, and we get to do this for the world together.
IM: Let's talk about your book Big, Bold and Beautiful. Why was now a good time to get your story out there?
KS: This was really a God thing. The opportunity was sitting in an email account that I wasn't paying attention to, and it was lying dormant. It wasn't through any of the channels that these types of things usually come through; this was a God-send.
It happened in his timing. And I fought to name it Big, Bold, and Beautiful because I was always a chunky girl. Sometimes it was hard to find ways to embrace who I am and be confident. I would be in these relationships and be cheated on, and I would automatically attach my love value to my insecurity around my weight. That same insecurity would affect me in so many ways. That was becoming a lot.
In this book, I encourage young women by saying what you think is "ugly," the Lord could be using to get you to create something that helps others. I get into me dating the wrong people, having the wrong friendships, finances; it came from me just journaling. It turned into a book, and I didn't know that was what God was preparing me for the whole time.
IM: You just got married. Congratulations!!
KS: Thank you so much.
IM: What do you say to women trying to date with intention and find their person to build a life within a world that seems to be going in a different direction?
KS: One of the lessons I had to learn was from my dad: the root word of dating is data. We learn in elementary school that the data is the information you collect for the final decision. I had to learn that. I can be honest, I had one of my boyfriends just living in the house with me, He didn't do nothing, and I was allowing that to happen. It wasn't edifying. It wasn't cultivating anything but dysfunction. I began to learn behaviors that would only allow me to exist in something toxic. If I wasn't careful, I would have carried that over to my marriage.
Really live in the moment and also know where you are mentally. I was so busy trying to secure a man that I wasn't secure in myself. When you have to hide any part of the relationship from the people who love you, it's probably not serving you. Keep those people in it so they can hold you accountable to the kind of relationship you deserve. And don't settle. I know it's hard with everything going on but fix your mind on what you want because it's out there. Watch your words and stop speaking to your wounds. You can keep your criteria for what you want, and God will provide you with a fruitful relationship that does not drain you.
IM: Right now, there's a very interesting divide between millennials and the church. What do you say to those who have left and may not feel that church is a safe space for them?
KS: Come back, come back. There are some of us who are just as refreshing as you and I. Church is not just a building; it's a body of people and a community. As long as you forsake your community, you may never be pushed into spaces you're actually called to. It's one thing to say yes to the success that the world defines and another thing to say yes to the success the Lord defines.
When we talk about the ancestors, we are trying to talk to the dead, but there are living people who can edify you. And not all of us are the same. Though there is a lot of crookedness in the world, God is still alive, and he can give you goodness. Find a church that will accept you. The churchy people who give you condemnation and not a solution are the people you can stay away from—date churches. God will give you the leader that you need. Keep trying, don't give up.