These days Tamela Mann is most likely to be recognized as an actress, but she got her start singing with contemporary gospel icon Kirk Franklin. They reconnected last year for her current chart-topper, "Take Me to the King." So, participating in the sixth annual McDonald's Choir Showcase is a special thrill for her.
"I'm excited!" she yells. "I'm sorry I got real loud because I get excited to be able to give back and let people know."
She adds, "I'm into the service part. I believe we can be wonderful leaders if we would make more of the serving part instead of being served all the time."
Of course, this sense of service and community has always been at the heart of the church's role, and the choirs are the musical embodiment of that. The songs remind us of our interconnectedness and that dark clouds will eventually dissipate if you believe in the sun. It's a message that's even more important in times like this, and it's part of the reason why "Take Me to the King" has sat near the top of the gospel chart for 48 weeks and counting.
"The truth is we're tired and our options are few because the world is kind of shaky right now, and to give hope to people is what it's all about for me," Mann says. "You have to keep the hope alive that change will come."
Franklin actually approached Mann about being a part of what would become her third album, Best Days. Tamela, Franklin, and her husband David have all known each other since high school, but when they got back into the studio together, the years faded away.
"Our chemistry was like it had been yesterday. It was amazing," she says, getting a little teary eyed. "He was like, 'Tam, I didn't realize how much I missed your voice.' I was, 'The same here for you producing.' It was like a glove — this fits perfectly."
Of course, it's not entirely surprising given how magical and passionate "Take Me to the King" is. It speaks to a longing we all understand. That universality is what drew McDonald's to create the annual choir showcase, which highlights nine Charleston-area church finalists from 27 entries. The Grammy-winning Mann and Grammy-nominated Cheri Jones-Moffett join the choirs on stage.
Mann's familiarity with gospel came through the Pentecostal church, which provided most of her childhood music. Innately shy, she wasn't allowed to listen to the pop music of the day, but she was able to find her voice in gospel. But it took Tyler Perry to really bring her out of her shell. The filmmaker first cast her in one of his plays.
"Doing the stage plays helped me get rid of my shyness, because I'm used to being in the background," she says. When Franklin went solo, her husband pitched the two of them to Perry as a package deal, and he bit. "So I came in really under the umbrella of David, and I was like, Tyler, I don't act ... And he said, before it's over with I'll have you acting. I laughed at him because it was like a jokey-joke to me."
Perry helped by casting Tamela in the role of Cora Simmons, a character very similar to herself. "I always say that we're one and the same because Cora's role is more that of the encourager, and I kind of learned that early on in my life. I'm the youngest of 14 and I'm the encourager of my family," she says. She has since starred in several of Perry's stage plays, his films Madea's Big Happy Family and Madea Goes to Jail, and two TV shows, House of Payne and Meet the Browns.
Meanwhile, things just keep getting busier for Mann. Last year, she starred in the film Sparkle. Although Meet the Browns finished its run in 2011, Mann is working on a new sitcom, Mattie, featuring Jill Scott and Community's Yvette Nicole-Brown. The Manns have also done test shoots to pitch the idea of a reality show focused on them and their three children.
Though her life is hectic, Mann still finds time to sing with the choir, decorate the church, and see family during her downtime.
"It's been a wonderful journey," she says. "Of course, I've had some tears, but I wouldn't change a thing."