Born Nicole Coleman in 1967 in Cincinnati, OH; married David Mullen (a musician); children: Max and Jasmine. Addresses: Record company---Word Entertainment, 25 Music Square West, Nashville, TN 37203. Website---Nicole C. Mullen Official Website: http://www.nicolecmullen.com.
Singer-songwriter Nicole C. Mullen has established herself as a front-rank Contemporary Christian artist thanks to her rootsy, groove-driven sound and positive, gospel-inspired message. Drawing upon the struggles in her own life, she has challenged her audience to examine issues of racial division within the Christian community. Balancing her funkier tunes have been such soaring worship songs such as "Redeemer," which earned her the Gospel Music Association's coveted Dove Award. Off stage, Mullen has worked as a mentor and advocate for young people through various programs and organizations.
A Cincinnati native, Mullen was born Nicole Coleman in 1967. Gospel music came naturally to her---her parents were active in their local church and grandparents on both sides of her family were Pentecostal preachers. Mullen became a committed Christian at age eight and took inspiration from such gospel greats as Andrae Crouch and the Winans. As her singing talents became evident, she resolved to use them in the service of her faith. "I wasn't the most beautiful," Mullen told CCM's Gregory Rumburg in a May of 2000 interview. "I knew I wasn't the most popular. But I remember sitting there thinking that I may not be these things, but God has a plan for my life.... I knew that God had put something in my heart and He was going to use me. That hope kept me going."
From Bible School to Funkabilly
By her late teens, Mullen was enrolled at a Dallas bible college while continuing to develop her vocal abilities. While a student, she toured with the singing group Living Praise. She came to the notice of Christian music producer Tim Miner, who utilized her talents as a background singer on his recording projects. By the late 1980s, Miner had helped her land a recording contract with California-based Frontline Records. Recording under the name Nicole, she released her debut album Don't Let Me Go in 1991. A year later came a second Frontline album, Wish Me Love, featuring songs co-written by Mullen with Christian singer/songwriter David Mullen. A number of her singles for Frontline---including "Don't Let Me Go," "Wish Me Love," "Show Me," and "Miracles"---became Christian radio hits. Still, Mullen found her time with the label to be disappointing overall. "I didn't really feel like an artist," Mullen told CCM's Rumburg. "I felt like I was filling a position [on the label roster]."
After two albums, Mullen parted company with Frontline and withdrew from the spotlight as an artist. She kept busy, though, as a touring background singer and choreographer with such Christian music notables as Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith; her participation in the Newsboys' 1993-94 "Not Ashamed" tour was particularly well received. After marrying David Mullen in 1993, she relocated to the Nashville, Tennessee, area and became part of the Christian music community there. Her credits during the 1990s include contributing lead vocals to the "Larry Boy Theme Song," a tune from the highly popular VeggieTales children's animated video series. She also took on vocal acting roles for the Christian video series You! Kids and The Visual Bible for Kids. As a songwriter, she reestablished herself by composing Jaci Velasquez's "On My Knees," which won a Dove Award for Song of the Year in 1998.
Over time, Mullen honed her sound into a distinctive mix of R&B, hip-hop, folk, and rock elements, a blend she called "funkabilly." Her songwriting began to take an explicitly autobiographical turn, portraying her Cincinnati childhood in bittersweet tones. After some seven years away from album-making, she signed with Word Records and released Nicole C. Mullen in April of 2000. Co-produced by David Mullen and Justin Niebank, the album has a playful, acoustic guitar-based feel that recalls the Staple Singers and other classic gospel/pop artists. The album's songs deal with a range of issues from a Christian perspective, including gang violence ("Granny's Angel") and urban poverty ("Blowin' Kisses"). One track in particular---"Homemade"---touches upon Mullen's own humble beginnings with honesty and pathos. "Black, White, Tan" offers a loving tribute to her own racially blended family.
"Redeemer" Crossed Racial Divide
Nicole C. Mullen might've reached a limited audience if its fervent gospel/pop aria "Redeemer" hadn't become a major hit on Christian radio. Inspired in part by the biblical story of Job, "Redeemer" displays Mullen's full-throated vocal powers to full advantage, inviting comparisons with Whitney Houston and other R&B/pop divas. It helped to earn her a place on tour with the Billy Graham Crusade, exposing her to thousands of fellow Christians.
The success of "Redeemer" encouraged Christian music fans to listen to Mullen's message of racial reconciliation. In an industry where white and black Christian music fans generally had divergent tastes, Mullen's ability to reach beyond such barriers was noteworthy. Writing in the July of 2001 issue of CCM, Lou Carlozo noted that "at a time when the Christian music community confronts grim walls that divide it racially and spiritually, no other artist may be as well poised to help bring them down. For Mullen is more than just an African American performer who appeals to both black and white audiences. In her music, she has taken the bold and unusual step of tackling the subject of race head on." For her part, Mullen acknowledged her need to overcome stereotypes. "I've had to deal with a lot of preconceived ideas," Mullen said in a summer of 2001 interview with GMA Today. "One of those 'ideas' being that my music is urban or black gospel based on my skin color.... Some radio stations took a look and automatically said, 'We can't play that.' Now, some probably didn't realize they were doing it, but a special mark was still put on my music. Because my face was different, I was treated differently."
Touring actively in support of her Word debut album, Mullen confronted lingering prejudice head-on. "Many times when I've sung about racial issues in a place that's never had an African-American performer, people tell me after the concert, 'We haven't ever talked about racial issues in our family, but we want to address them now,'" Mullen told Today's Christian Woman writer Camerin Courtney in a March/April of 2002 interview. "Sometime last year when I performed live on a radio station, the DJ took calls from listeners between songs. One man phoned to admit he'd once been a racist. He asked for forgiveness and told me he loves my music and has bought one of my albums."
In 2001 Mullen won the Gospel Music Association's Dove Award for Songwriter of the Year, becoming the first African American ever to do so. "Redeemer" won Dove Awards for Pop/Contemporary Recorded Song of the Year and Song of the Year as well. Expectations ran high in advance of the mid-2001 release of her second Word album, Talk about It. Building upon the strengths of its predecessor, the CD offers a potent blending of old-school funk and contemporary hip-hop with a streetwise, empowering message. "Baby Girl" offers reassurance to troubled young women, while "Black Light" invokes the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Tracks like "Let Me Be" deal with personal fears and doubts with a sassy yet sanctified air. Balancing such groove-driven numbers are finely wrought pop/gospel songs like "Call On Jesus" and "When Heaven Calls." An album by turns celebratory and thought-provoking, Talk about It demonstrated that Nicole's first Word album was more than a fluke success.
Mullen was back in late 2002 with Christmas in Black and White, a holiday album matching traditional tunes like "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" with her own compositions. Among the latter was "Lamb of God," a soaring ballad celebrating the Nativity, and "Sing, Angels, Sing," a joyful pop tune with a Caribbean feel. Napoleon Coleman Jr., Mullen's father, joined her on a duet of "The Christmas Song." Renowned Christian singer/guitarist Phil Keaggy and saxophonist Kirk Whalum were among the guest players on several tracks. As a result of efforts to expand her following, Christmas in Black and White received distribution in the secular market through Curb Records.
Beyond her recording and touring activities, Mullen remains true to her role as wife and mother to children Max and Jasmine. In addition, she has actively mentored a circle of preteens and teens in the Nashville area. Together with her husband, she served as a youth leader at her local church and participated in the Kids Across America summer camp program.
While Mullen remained known mostly in the Christian music world, mainstream critics began to take note of her as well. In a June 27, 2003, Cincinnati Enquirer concert review, Larry Nager praised Mullen as "simply the hippest act in mainstream Christian pop, blending Afro-pop ('Freedom'), full-out dance funk ('Shooby'), and various elements of hip-hop, rock, and India Arie-style acoustic soul. Combine that with her casual-yet-compelling stage presence, her fine songwriting, and her athletic ability to dance and sing at the same time ... and you've got the reigning queen of contemporary Christian music."
Such a lofty position seemed within Mullen's reach. In interviews, she stated her intention to reach as broad an audience as possible without compromising her gospel-rooted message. "I want it all," she told CCM's Carlozo. "I want to have my feet planted firmly in the church, but I want to reach across the world. I believe that as believers we're called to do that, to reach outside the safety of the church. Not that I'm leaving, but I feel a pull there, and I just want to make sure my feet are planted firmly before I reach over."
by Barry Alfonso
Nicole C. Mullen's Career
Began as singer with Living Praise, 1984; signed with Frontline Records, released two albums and various singles, 1991-93; toured as background singer with Newsboys, 1993-94; signed with Word Records, released CD Nicole C. Mullen, 2000; released Talk about It, 2001; released Christmas in Black and White, 2002.
Nicole C. Mullen's Awards
Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, Song of the Year, 1998, Songwriter of the Year, Pop/Contemporary Song of the Year, Song of the Year, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Don't Let Me Go Frontline, 1991.
- Wish Me Love Frontline, 1992.
- Nicole C. Mullen Word, 2000.
- Talk about It Word, 2001.
- Christmas in Black and White Word, 2002.
- Alfonso, Barry, The Billboard Guide to Contemporary Christian Music, Billboard Books, 2002.
- Brothers, Jeffrey L., Hot Hits---Christian Hit Radio, CCM Books, 1999.
- CCM, May 2000, p. 48; August 2001, p.28.
- Cincinnati Enquirer, June 27, 2003.
- GMA Today, Summer 2001, p.12.
- "A Voice for Racial Harmony," Today's Christian Woman, http://www.christianitytoday.com/tcw/2002/002/1.44.html (July 17, 2003).
- Additional information was obtained from Word Records publicity materials, June 2003.