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For musically evolving Detroit star Kierra Sheard, success ‘keeps happening to me’

As she neared the end of a musically eclectic, often exhilarating gospel recording session Friday night, Kierra Sheard let loose a declaration of creative independence:

“Don’t box me in!”

Inside the recently renovated sanctuary at Greater Emmanuel, the west-side Detroit church founded by her pastor father, the young gospel star was deep in the spirit of the moment. Having battled through what appeared to be early nerves and technical issues, Sheard had just served up a triumphant performance of new and vintage music for a pumped-up crowd that included some of gospel’s glitterati.

“It was just a smart way to go,” Sheard said of her choice to cut a live record. “I’m doing what I’m good at — gospel — but (fans) like the raw experience, the authentic experience, and I enjoy it as well. And God always meets me there. I’m super-excited about putting out a different sound, something new for myself.”

It was the latest victory in a career with ever-growing momentum — a hometown shining moment for a 32-year-old singer, actress and online influencer who said she’s embracing a newfound personal and creative freedom.

The forthcoming album, a blend of studio tracks and the live material, is due for release early next year with the sort of direct title that’s revealing in its confidence: “Kierra.”

“This journey since my last record has been a divine experience,” Sheard said of the five years since her album “LED.” “God has been with me — I’ve been working nonstop. Open doors have come nonstop.”

Sheard, casually known as Kiki, hails from gospel royalty in a city loaded with it: Her mother, Karen Clark Sheard, is a solo star and a member of Detroit’s famed and influential Clark Sisters. The elder Sheard was there Friday night, beaming proudly as her daughter commanded the church stage amid a high-tech video production, the sweet smell of stage fog and a tight band complete with horn section.

With her bright, modern sound, Kierra Sheard has continued to plow the musical path blazed by her mom and aunts, whose work borrowed from R&B, dance music and hip-hop to forge a new kind of gospel approach.

Life has been hopping for many years for Sheard, but 2019 has been especially bustling. Following Friday’s live album session, she spent Tuesday with Chance the Rapper on the Los Angeles set of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” There they performed “I Got You (Always and Forever),” the buoyant track she co-wrote for the Chicago star’s new album, “The Big Day.”

Chance had been a fan of “Hang On,” a 2016 hit featuring Sheard and other Greater Emmanuel musicians, and tracked her down out to collaborate on the album. Writing together in Chicago, they worked up several songs, Sheard said.

On Saturday, she’ll be back home as Motown celebrates its 60th anniversary with a Detroit gospel concert.

The sold-out gospel extravaganza — to be held at Detroit World Outreach with artists such as Tye Tribbett and Tasha Page-Lockhart — will include Sheard’s live performance of her August single, “Don’t Judge Me.”

The track, which has racked up nearly a million spins on YouTube, was also released in a version featuring old family friend Missy Elliott. The rapper has deep roots in Sheard’s world, having previously collaborated with the Clark Sisters (“I’m Not Perfect”) and Karen Clark Sheard (“Go Ahead”).

As with most homegrown artists, Motown has a special place in the heart of Sheard, who recalls teaming up with her cousins as children to sneak views of “The Temptations” miniseries, which aired on NBC in 1998.

“I’m a gospel artist, and I grew up in the church. But we’re also a musical family, and we know music when we hear it,” she said. “When you have those hits from the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, the Supremes — I mean, you could go on and on — it’s all about the good stuff.”

Years in the making

Sheard’s star might be rising to new levels of late, but this singing business certainly isn’t new: A onetime child prodigy, she first appeared in the pages of the Free Press as a 10-year-old, having recently sung a duet with her mom on CD.

“I wanted to sing, not just for the crowd, but for Jesus,” the young Sheard said at the time.

That mother-daughter bond took on a unique dynamic this year for Sheard, who landed the part of Karen Clark Sheard in the Lifetime channel’s upcoming biopic on the Clark Sisters.

The movie, filmed in Canada and set to premiere in January, traces the Clark story from the days of family matriarch and gospel pioneer Mattie Moss Clark, played by veteran actress Aunjanue Ellis.

For Sheard, the film was a chance to get inside her mom’s mind — and voice — while chronicling the Clark Sisters’ dramatic ups and downs on the way to gospel success.

“My mom is beautiful on the outside, but inside she’s just as beautiful. She’s an amazing individual,” Sheard said. “And when it comes to her talent — her singing is, like, out of this world. She’s a little more soft-spoken than I am. I started sleeping with her (voice) in my ears, to study her sound.”

Stepping into a studio to perform songs for the movie, Sheard said she got lightheaded working to nail the notes made famous by her soprano mother.

“My respect for my mom went to a different level,” Sheard says.

At 32, having grown up in the digital age, Sheard is among the first generation of gospel artists to have embraced the internet with a built-in understanding of the platform’s possibilities. She’s an avid Instagram user, supplying her nearly 1 million followers with bits of scripture and glimpses into her colorful personal life. Her weekly video series on YouTube, “Katching Kierra,” brings a bit of reality-show flair as it blends spiritual themes with messages of female empowerment and personal improvement.

“I’m always trying to find ways of uplifting people, whether it’s through music or being transparent in sharing a story with someone. Or even showing what I’m doing on the road — how I’m working but still maintaining some sanity,” she said. “It’s all just about connecting. So I embrace it. I love it.”

Friday’s recording session at Greater Emmanuel was part musical revival, part pop concert. Sheard took the stage in a bold gold-and-black jacket once worn in concert by her mother, with a makeup artist periodically scurrying out to touch her up.

While there was some familiar music on display — including a cover of the Clark Sisters’ “My Redeemer Liveth” — most of the songs were new to the assembled audience.

Still, the energy was high as Sheard rolled through her diverse set: There was a duet with Todd Dulaney that started with a hint of Ed Sheeran soul-rock before blossoming into gospel ebullience. There was a bright hip-hop undercurrent on “I Will Choose You,” while Tasha Cobbs stepped up for the soft-lit but powerful “Something Has to Break,” as the song’s co-writer, Christian-music artist Mia Fieldes, watched from a front pew.

The upcoming release is Sheard’s second live album, following 2011’s “Free,” recorded in Chicago. Settling into Greater Emmanuel was a logical move, she said.

“When I’m at home, doing praise and worship in our church, I find that I think my best because I’m more most comfortable,” she said ahead of Friday’s taping. “My nerves are a little bit more relaxed. Like I want to be in my home, my home sanctuary, so that I can feel that level of comfort.”

The centerpiece of the new project seems to be a song called “It Keeps Happening to Me” — a celebration of the life blessings Sheard said she has been experiencing. Through a series of modulating key shifts, the song’s message is captured by a rising musical uplift.

“The power of God is in this room,” she told the audience.

These are jubilant times for Sheard, and that theme — personal achievement accompanied by God’s grace — was present from the opening song, “Always Win,” a bit of minimal R&B that grew into a showcase for her dizzying vocal runs.

“I shake up culture, I change trends,” she sang. “Society’s pressure will not win.”

Via Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum