As a little girl growing up in Lewisham, south London, I wore my Sunday best every time I went to church; my shoes were shiny, my hair was neatly combed. We were the “first family” of the Pentecostal church we attended because my grandfather, whom I called Papa, was the minister. I felt I had to be better behaved than anyone else.
I was brought up by my grandparents while my parents were working, and felt very different from other kids.
They were part of the Windrush generation who came from Jamaica and brought their faith with them to this country.
My grandmother, Gwendoline, whom I knew as Mama, felt that singing Precious Lord to me and my sisters would give us comfort and strength in tough times.
I went to church every day, for choir practice, Bible study, prayer meetings and all that educational stuff – and it was there I discovered that I loved to sing.
At the age of eight I would sing He’s That Kind Of Friend.
Standing at the front of Papa’s church in my Sunday best, I’d watch as the tears began to roll so I’d hold the notes for longer.
I discovered at a very young age that gospel was a way of reaching people in the very core of their soul, and it didn’t matter if they were religious or not.
When I sang that song everything was good again.
When I sing gospel it’s like I become a channel for something else.
The feeling of comfort offered by a song like Amazing Grace has made it a gospel standard in black churches all around the world.
Many of the slaves in the American South had converted to Christianity and they reinvented the English hymns, bringing in African musical influences.
They were already creating their own religious songs, known as Negro Spirituals and these rose up where black people sang spontaneously in the cotton fields where they were forced to work from dawn to dusk.
The songs gave them strength to carry on.
These traumatic experiences give spirituals and gospel music their passion and their power.
Mama and Papa’s living room was like a shrine; the front room was sacred.
So I would tiptoe in, past the cabinets with the special plates, and place the record player needle carefully in the grooves.
My friends were out playing but this was my special thing, and by the time I was 10 I had nailed all those black American gospel singers.
I used to listen obsessively to every ad lib.
I was in awe of Edwin Hawkins’s Oh Happy Day because it didn’t sound like a gospel record – it felt like pop.
After I won a gospel singing convention at Wembley at the age of 10, I knew that performing was my future and told my grandmother: “I’m going to be singing all over.”
Everyone thought gospel was going to be my future.
But as time went on, I found myself growing increasingly curious about the secular music my father listened to.
He and my mother would visit once a week and he would educate me about black history, civil rights, jazz, Miles Davis and, of course, soul.
He explained how in the mid-19th century, slavery had been abolished in America but how black folks continued to live with segregation, poverty and violence and how this hardship gave rise to a new type of music,
I started studying the soul records my dad had shared with me and found the contrast with gospel intoxicating.
And my father would play the records and accompany them on his flute or trumpet.
But when I bought them with my pocket money I would hide them under the bed because my grandparents believed that kind of music was the Devil’s music.
When I was 12, my father introduced me to Come Live by Marvin Gaye.
The minute I heard it, I told him: “I love church and gospel, but I want to make music like that.”
As a teenager, I was on the gospel circuit, but a lot of the pastors didn’t like the fact that I performed at public concerts outside the gospel circuit.
I was still singing about God.
What did it matter if it was a little bit more funky?
Then in 1987 I was offered a record deal by Island Records.
I was a teenager bursting to get out into the world so I took the deal and became one of the first gospel singers to step into the mainstream.
My grandparents were mortified, convinced the music business was Satan’s kingdom.
I was a big star in our church and as a gospel singer you are there to spread the word of God, but when you choose to sing secular music it is seen as abandoning your faith.
They also worried I would end up as a drug addict or “a harlot”.
I had to look up the word because I didn’t know what it meant.
My grandparents were the loves of my life and I had so much respect for them – what they preached on a Sunday they lived all week – but I had to prove that I could follow my own dreams.
It was horrible when I left home.
They were so afraid.
In 1988 my first single, My One Temptation, was a big hit while my debut album went platinum.
But still I had church people I’d known all my life telling me I was going to Hell.
Friends of mine, including Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan and Prince, all had this experience with church and had to break out.
It was no different for me.
At the age of 19, I came home from the States, where I’d be performing with Luther Vandross, and in concert with my heroes, and I went to visit Mama and Papa.
I knocked on the door and when they opened it they were both wearing merchandising T-shirts from the tour.
They were proud and told me I had done “so great”.
It was a beautiful moment and they continued to be my greatest supporters.
I’ve had many ups and downs on my journey and they were always there for me from that point on, ready to pray, or share a scripture, at any time of the day or night wherever I was calling from.
I was able to survive because of their love and because of all that they had taught me.
When I lost my brother Jason – a postman who was shot dead in 2002 at the age of 22 by a drug dealer who had attacked his girlfriend with a bottle – we were very broken as a family.
I realised that if this could happen to a postman and a great father, then there was a big problem on the streets.
I found it really healing to help other people in a similar situation.
I began to work with the Metropolitan Police Force’s antigun crime operation, Trident, to raise awareness of what was going on in the streets.
Supporting mothers who had lost their children through gun crime helped me get through my own grief.
I lost my grandparents 10 years ago, and it was like I lost my rock, but their wisdom has stayed with me.
I don’t go to church at all now, but I do hold prayer meetings in my house.
I believe every faith is a different road to the same place, but singing gospel remains the most incredible feeling and leaves you in tears whether you are a believer or not.
When I was younger I was too busy critiquing myself.
Forty years later, I have finally learned not to care what people think.
I’ve been singing in church since I was nine – I know I can do this thing and that there’s only me that does it the way I do.
• Mica Paris was talking to JANE WARREN.
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