Gospel Newcomer Onitsha Sends Up the Praise on her Debut
Onitsha Hernandez (neé Shaw), will tell you without much prompting that she loves the Lord and lives to spread His word through song. That devotion, coupled with God-given talent makes, this rising talent an artist to watch. Her debut, Church Girl, was produced by Shep Crawford (Luther Vandross, Tamia) and features guest appearances by Deborah Cox and the contemporary Christian duo Mary Mary — for whom Onitsha sang backup for six years. Barnes & Noble.com’s Tracy E. Hopkins caught up with this sunny California girl via telephone to discuss her album and her inspirations.
Barnes & Noble.com: You sang backup for Mary Mary. Who else have you performed with?
Onitsha: I did a couple shows with Destiny’s Child in 2002 for a Christmas special. I did a few shows with Ashanti, sang background for Stevie Wonder’s last record, and I used to sing with Jada Pinkett in her band [Wicked Wisdom]. When I first started with her [the band] was a little softer rock. It’s different now. But Jada and Will are awesome people and I was grateful for the experience. When you grow up in the church and people see you doing things that are not necessarily Christian, you get questioned a lot. I just want to remind people I’m still a church girl and I love God with all my heart. There were times I needed a breakthrough from God and I prayed and those doors opened for me the next day. That happens a lot. I love the Dixie Chicks and all types of music. [But] I try to keep it positive and don’t listen to everything, because everything is not for your spirit.
B&N.com: Did you have formal vocal training?
O: I got saved when I was four years old, and ever since then my mother and I were always at church and I became a part of the music ministry. [That's how] I was able to develop my singing. I [also] remember being three or four years old singing Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It” at family parties.
B&N.com: Is “Church Girl” your nickname?
O: That’s from my background growing up in the church, being a preacher’s kid, and being in church Monday through Friday with my mom. I feel like that’s a good description of who I am. I love God and His people. I love church.
B&N.com: Your mother is a pastor. Do you still sing at her church?
O: My mom is my best friend. When I’m in town, I sing at my mother’s church to show support and get my praise on. They like to shout at my church. You know, you need that sometimes. She gets on me and says, “You need to come sing Mommy a solo.” I joke, “Mom, I’m a recording artist, honey.”
B&N.com: In the tradition of Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable,” you do a posthumous duet with Mahalia Jackson on your album.
O: I wanted to pay respect to her because she was the first woman to get a gospel recording contract and God used her to open doors for [the rest of] us.
B&N.com: Who are some of your other musical influences?
O: [Erica and Tina Atkins of Mary Mary] are sincere and honest and they love Christ. [I've also been influenced by] the Winans; Vanessa Bell Armstrong; Stevie Wonder; Michael Jackson; Ray Charles; Tina Turner and Brandy.
B&N.com: You actually sound very similar to Brandy.
O: I’ve always had a low register and when I was younger everyone was singing high and I’d try to harmonize. So when Brandy came out it was easy to sing with her [because] I have a similar tone. I think Brandy is really dope.
B&N.com: The song “This One” is really touching.
O: I get a lot of love from that song. Anyone can relate to it. You don’t have to be a churchgoer or into God like that. You can relate to it because everyone experiences times they feel like they won’t make it through. My father passed away in January 2007, and before he passed I had “This One” on my MySpace page. I was getting messages from people who’d lost loved ones or were battling cancer and listened to the song and recovered. It was amazing. When my father passed, I put a tribute on my page and people encouraged me and said, “You’ll get through this one, O.” I had to go back and listen to the song. I didn’t think my own song would be an encouragement to me, but it has been a blessing. [My producer] Shep [Crawford] wrote it and that’s a song I listen to when I’m going through something.
B&N.com: Along with your Mary Mary friends, the song “My Life” features Deborah Cox and Coko [from SWV]. How did that collaboration come about?
O: I worked with Deborah [before] and Coko is a friend. It’s a fun girlfriend song about the struggles of life, doing what God wants us to do, and living because life is short.
B&N.com: Would you ever consider doing an R&B album?
O: The thought ran through my mind for like five seconds, but God gave me this gift and I owe it to Him. He blessed me with this voice so I can be a blessing to other people. There’s enough people out there representing secular [music], and I want to show young people it’s cool to be down for Christ.
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