Gospel singer Kierra Sheard says her music and acting careers blossoming at once was all God’s plan.
In early April, Twitter praised her splitting image portrayal of her mother, Karen Clark Sheard, in the Lifetime film “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel.” The biopic chronicles the origin, rise and success of one of gospel music’s greatest acts, and it was the highest-rated original movie for the network since 2016. Then on April 17, the 32-year-old singer released her eighth album, “Kierra,” which debuted at the top of the Billboard Top Gospel Albums Chart. It replaced Kanye West’s “Jesus Is King (Soundtrack)” after a 25-week reign at the top of the chart.
“I sat on this music for a year and sitting on the music for that long I was beginning to be frustrated,” she told HuffPost.
This is Sheard’s first project under a new partnership between RCA Inspiration and Karew Entertainment, a record label and entertainment company launched by her parents (her father is J. Drew Sheard) in 2009. When business took longer to finalize than she expected, she turned to God for relief.
“So, I prayed and I felt like God was showing me I have a specific time [for you] to release this,” she said.
Sheard wanted the timing to be right for her self-titled opus, an album that further highlights her musical duality: love for both gospel roots and secular music genres, such as pop, R&B and hip-hop.
“I am this woman who loves the Lord,” she said. “And I’m hoping to inspire others who are listening to know that you can be a believer and still have balance.”
Sheard, who recorded her debut album when she was 14, said it took years for her to comfortably showcase her musical range, whether it was stirring vocals for worshipers in church or upbeat tracks to bump in the car with her friends. She has gospel legends to thank for paving the way for her to explore it all, especially her mom and her aunts’ group, The Clark Sisters.
“I looked at The Clark Sisters and Kirk Franklin and (gospel group) Mary Mary, The Winans, and especially The Clark Sisters because they had a lot of opposition when it came to their performance on the  Grammys or just their music being released into different genres,” she said.
The Clark Sisters, along with their mother, Mattie Moss Clark, performed “You Brought The Sunshine” at the Grammy Awards ceremony 27 years ago ― fulfilling a longtime dream. But the leadership of the Church of God in Christ, where matriarch Clark was a high-ranking official, was displeased to see them perform the song and then banned Clark from singing on stage with her children.
In 15 tracks, “Kierra” brings the balance. For instance, her chipper pop-dance track “Don’t Judge Me” features Missy Elliott, whom she calls a family friend. It’s all about freedom of expressing herself without holding on to other people’s opinions.
“Please don’t judge me by the clothes I wear (I wear)/ Please don’t judge me by the songs I sing (I sing)/ Please don’t judge me by the way that I’m dancing,” she pleads.
On “Human,” Sheard takes a snappy R&B beat and encourages people to find their own definition of success that isn’t centered on living up to other people’s expectations.
The Word of God will really see you through. Having a prayer life and having people around you and who encourage you to hang in there helps. Kierra Sheard
Her traditional gospel selections, recorded live in Detroit, include “It Keeps Happening For Me,” which she wrote to never lose sight of her blessings, and “Follow,” featuring Todd Dulaney, in which she proudly submits to God’s path for her life.
The album also celebrates her musical family. Her brother, J. Drew Sheard II, is a producer on the majority of the album’s cuts. Then there is her live cover of The Clark Sisters’ “My Redeemer,” a personal favorite from their catalog that “brings back childhood memories.”
Although Sheard grew up witnessing her family’s musical genius, taking on the role of her mother in the Lifetime film brought her new understanding about The Clark Sisters’ journey from Detroit girls singing in church to crossover pop and the Grammy stages.
“I didn’t know that my (maternal) grandmother had such challenges with her love life and I didn’t know that she had such opposition from leaders in the church,” Sheard said of Clark, who served as president of the international music department for the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal Christian denomination.
Sheard didn’t want to seek the role at first, but auditioned after her manager and parents encouraged her to reconsider. After landing it, she spent three to four months watching videos of her mother’s performances and studying her voice. One of the most challenging scenes to perform was when her mother went to the hospital for a procedure that left her with only a 2% chance of recovery.
“I had to put myself on her side of the fence when it came to that part because if you let her tell it, she said she was ‘in a peaceful place while us out here, we were going crazy,’ Sheard recounted. “It gave me a new level of respect for actors because it can be super draining, you know, having to activate those emotions.”
The other challenge was doing her mother’s high notes justice.
“She’s a true soprano. I’m like an alto who can sing some soprano notes,” she said. “It did stretch my vocal ability.”
Sheard is one of many entertainers releasing projects during the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, she lost her paternal grandmother to the disease in April. As she and her family cope with the loss, she said she is relying on her loved ones, studying God’s word, and embracing this moment of stillness to get through.
“We’re used to being busy to where we don’t know how to isolate and just chill out and be by ourselves,” she said. “I take breaks from social media from time to time. The Word of God will really see you through. Having a prayer life and having people around you and who encourage you to hang in there helps.”