"I see myself as a Contemporary Gospel Hip-Hop artist with a traditional ‘churchy’ flair," the youthful Detroit gospel sensation Kierra "Kiki" Sheard told Christopher Heron of the BlackGospel Web site. Sheard entered a gospel marketplace filled with other young artists who were combining gospel sounds with hip-hop, R&B, and other forms of contemporary African-American music. She stood apart from these other artists, however, by combining her contemporary influences with a grounding in gospel music techniques she obtained as a member of gospel music's most famous families.
A native of Detroit, Michigan, Kierra Sheard was born on June 20, 1987. Her mother is Karen Clark Sheard, a noted solo vocalist and a member of the Clark Sisters, one of contemporary gospel's most famous vocal groups, and her grandmother was influential choir director Mattie Moss Clark. But Sheard may also have picked up some entertainer's instincts from her father, J. Drew Sheard, pastor at Detroit's Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God in Christ. "Church is fun for me …," Sheard told LaTonya Taylor of the Christian Music TodayWeb site. "Especially Bible study, because my father is kind of funny, kind of like Steve Harvey. So
we laugh and joke and learn a lot there."
Church and family shaped Sheard's singing as she grew up among nationally famous music makers. Different aspects of her own style, she told Heron, came from different family members: "My Aunt Twinkie [Clark]'s squall, Aunt Dorinda [Clark Cole]'s energy, all the crazy notes my mother hits, my cousin J. Moss's ‘quick-runs,’ and my Aunt Jacky [Clark Chisholm]'s sweet tones." The Clark family's Detroit-based brand of gospel was distinctive, with splashy vocal effects deployed as expressions of especially fervent religious faith. And it became clear very early on that Kierra would have something distinctive to add to the family's stylistic mix.
When Sheard was ten, she made her recording debut in a duet with her mother: "The Will of God" (also known by its opening words, "The Safest Place") appeared on Karen Clark Sheard's first solo album, Finally Karen. In the midst of a galaxy of gospel stars who appeared on the album, Kierra's talent made a strong impression on its own as she executed a volley of rapid runs in the classic Clark Sisters style. She was acclaimed as a gospel child prodigy and took home a Stellar Award in 1997 for best children's performance. Sheard continued to make cameo appearances on her mother's albums (2002's Second Chance and 2003's The Heavens Are Telling), and a segment from a DVD released by Dorinda Clark Cole showed something of Sheard's spontaneity as a performer.
Sheard herself wasn't always happy about being a child star, and she didn't yet carry the conviction she would later bring to the religious lyrics of her song. "When I was younger, I didn't really feel as much—I was just singing!" she told LaTonya Taylor. But a traumatic event helped focus her spiritual energy: during minor surgery, Karen Clark Sheard developed complications and, Sheard recalled, was given only a two percent chance of survival. "I didn't have much faith in God at the time, and I'd decided that if she didn't make it, I was going to live however I wanted to," Sheard told Taylor. "But with God, all things are possible. He answered my prayers and took the load from my shoulders. My mom recovered."
With this experience in mind, Sheard signed with the EMI Gospel label and prepared for the release of her debut album, I Owe You, in 2004. The family reputation attracted top talent such as producer Rodney Jerkins to the album's creative roster, but Sheard herself also contributed her own composition, "Was," and a good deal of overall input to the project. "I want to let kids know that you can be young and give God praise," she told Tracy E. Hopkins of Essence, and indeed the album featured plenty of big beats typical of urban R&B and hip-hop music. Other artists, such as Tye Tribbett and his G.A. (or Greater Anointing) choir had moved in a similar direction, but few had the down-to-earth church feel that Sheard brought to her own music.
The results were dramatic as I Owe You, seen as the continuation of a musical dynasty, became the first debut album to top Billboard magazine's Top Gospel Albums chart in its first week of release. Among several strong tracks were the ballad "Praise Offering," produced by J. Moss's PAJAM collective, and the upbeat "You Don't Know." The album's appeal to urban audiences was underscored by the 2005 release of Just Until …, a set of remixes of songs from I Owe You. The delay of Sheard's sophomore release, This Is Me, until 2006 was partly due to Sheard's determination to finish her high school education; she followed through on her plans and enrolled at Detroit's Wayne State University that year.
By that time, Sheard had deepened her thinking about music and faith. "I sang every last song on [This Is Me] from the bottom of my heart, and I wrote several," she told Taylor. "But one of my favorites, a song that means an absolute lot to me, is ‘Hear This.’ That's one of the ones I wrote, and it's my testimony. I wrote it when I was just so deep in sin at one point, and I felt like that Lord didn't want to hear my confession, because I wasn't making any progress." The songs, Sheard told Kelley L. Carter of the Detroit Free Press, were drawn on her own life. "If I was getting made or if I had a bad relationship, I was writing stuff down. And I kept in mind that I wanted to write more and show the people that there's something else I could do other than sing or do what my mom says to do. So I kept that in mind and I expressed that to the record company. They let my dream of what I wanted to happen, happen."
At a Glance …
Born on June 20, 1987, in Detroit, MI; daughter of Rev. J. Drew Sheard (a minister), and Karen Clark Sheard (a gospel vocalist); granddaughter of Mattie Moss Clark (noted gospel choir director and arranger). Education: Attended Wayne State University, Detroit; major in entertainment law. Religion: Church of God in Christ.
Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God in Christ, Detroit, performer, 1993-; recording debut (duet with Karen Clark Sheard on "The Will of God"), 1997; EMI Gospel, label artist, 2003(?)-.
Stellar Awards, best children's performance, for "The Will of God", 1997, contemporary female vocalist of the year, 2006; Dove Award, urban recorded song of the year, for "You Don't Know", 2005; Grammy nomination, best contemporary R&B gospel album, for This Is Me, 2006.
Label—EMI Christian Music Group, P.O. Box 5085, Brentwood, TN 37024-5085.
Sheard was riding high in the gospel world in 2006 and 2007. This Is Me duplicated the No. 1 chart performance of its predecessor and crossed over to the upper levels of general Christian music, R&B, and pop charts. Sheard toured Japan, where her recordings, especially the single "Let's Go," had become popular—a groundbreaking feat for an African-American gospel performer. Despite her international celebrity, however, Sheard kept a low profile. Strangers seldom identified her as she took classes at Wayne State, working on a major in entertainment law so that she would be able to keep better control over her own career and remain connected with the music industry, perhaps starting a recording company, in the future. Meanwhile, This Is Me won a Grammy award nomination for Best Contemporary R&B Gospel Album, and Sheard performed on the Stellar Awards television broadcast in 2007. "I kind of feel like I don't deserve to be where I am," Sheard told Carter. "I don't deserve to be rewarded. I don't deserve to be nominated for a Grammy. I want to be rewarded for living a life that God is pleased with. That is my motivation."
I Owe You, EMI Gospel, 2004.
Just Until …, EMI Gospel, 2005.
This Is Me, EMI Gospel, 2006.
Detroit Free Press, January 21, 2007.
Essence, December 2004, p. 130.
Jet, January 31, 2005, p. 65.
"Kierra ‘Kiki’ Sheard," BlackGospel,www.blackgospel.com/interviews/kierrakikisheard.htm (April 15, 2007).
"Kierra ‘Kiki’ Sheard," Christian Music Today,www.christianitytoday.com/music/artists/kierrasheard.html (April 15, 2007).
"This Is She," GOSPELflava.com, www.gospelflava.com/articles/kierrainterview2006.html (April 15, 2007).