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Coko *For many R&B singers who record gospel CDs, success in the mainstream does not beget success in gospel. An exception to the rule, Coko Clemmons — lead singer of popular 90s girl group SWV (I’m so Into You, Weak In the Knees) and gospel soloist — is enjoying the best of both worlds.

“I don’t like to put myself in a box,” she says about her decision to maintain a dual musical identity. I’m an artist who sings positive music.”

Her musical influences?: Patti Labelle, Shirley Murdock, Freddie Jackson, Tramaine Hawkins and The Clark Sisters.

Following in her mother’s footsteps and singing in a local gospel group in the early years, the Brooklyn-born artist released “The Winner in Me,” her second solo gospel album on July 14 (landing at #4 on Billboard), a follow up to the Grammy and Stellar Award nominated “Grateful” she released in 2005.

The top of the charts was like home for the R&B singing sorors, SWV in their hey day and she says their fans are still faithful when they perform together today.

As a wife and mother of two boys – Jalen (6) and Jazz (13) – she says family comes first and manages her work schedule accordingly.

“I don’t ever stay out for months at a time like I used to do with SWV … I go back and forth. I don’t want to miss out on my mommy time with them. They miss me. I miss them. We have the computers. We do video chat. We do all of that!”

But she has also made some changes when she is on the stage. Coko is not oblivious to the perceived mixed messages that could be sent by doing both forms of music, so she thought it was appropriate to remove some songs from the SWV performance repertoire during their last tour.

The unique role of having two successful singing careers simultaneously — one in gospel, one in mainstream — makes Coko’s story central to the age-old gospel vs. secular music debate that ponders whether artists should only use their talents to praise God.

She says, “I still do ‘Weak in the Knees’ because I’m married, I’m in love and I don’t see anything wrong with me doing a love song.”

Neither does accomplished producer/songwriter P.J. Morton, the son of singer and Presiding Bishop of the Full Gospel Baptist Church, Paul S. Morton, Sr., who has written a book entitled “Why Can’t I Sing About Love?” It claims the church has no biblical foundation for condemning secular music about life and love.

His perspective was the focus of a CNN story on secular vs. sacred music that included the opposing view of former R&b artist, minister/producer/singer Tye Tribbett who declares, “No man can serve two masters and at some point you’re not going to be comfortable doing both.”

Despite some people’s criticism, Coko says, “I enjoy singing with SWV and by myself.”

Coko and Morton are among a small army of other outspoken artists like Kelly Price, Michelle Williams, Anthony Hamilton and Lil’ Mo, who cut their performance teeth in the church and have vacillated between the worlds of Gospel and R&B, but don’t want to choose one over the other because they believe their ability to do either is a gift from God.

A reflection of her musical philosophy, while her first gospel CD was more churchy, Coko describes her latest, “Winner,” as more urban/SWVesque that explains where she’s coming from.

Her favorite song is the title cut, “Winner in Me,” which she says, “talks about feeling down and out or not feeling the best about yourself, but realizing there is a winner and his name is Jesus and as long as you have him he’ll lead me and guide me where I need to be.”

Despite her choice to sing in “the world” and the “house of God,” the songstress admits she has not experienced any direct resistance.

The Light Records artist has a singular goal in mind with “Winner”:

“I’m just trying to encourage people, uplift them and draw them to Christ and you’ll hear that message throughout the album.”

Some would argue that this goal can be accomplished with or without mentioning the name of Jesus. Right or wrong, based on Coko’s success, she seems to be winning the debate.

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