Tasha Cobbs Leonard Talks Working with Nicki Minaj, Building Bridges Between Hip-Hop and Gospel

Tasha Cobbs Leonard, 2017
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for BET

Tasha Cobbs Leonard performs onstage during Black Girls Rock! 2017 at NJPAC on August 5, 2017 in Newark, N.J.

Tasha Cobbs Leonard has been a standout force in the gospel music world since her arrival, with all three of her major-label records landing at No. 1 on Top Gospel Albums and her debut single, “Break Every Chain,” earning her a Grammy. But in the past year, she has been quietly expanding her reputation as a hip-hop collaborator, starting with a stirring feature on Common’s Black America Again. Her recent single “I’m Getting Ready” topped the Hot Gospel Songs chart with the help of an unexpected -- and somewhat polarizing -- feature by Nicki Minaj.

Cobbs Leonard spoke to Billboard about her long-tracking friendship with Minaj, dream collaborators and the wave of mainstream hip-hop artists synthesizing their spirituality into music.

How did “I’m Getting Ready” come together? Was collaborating with a rapper something you were always interested in, or did you want to work with Nicki in particular?
Nicki and I have a friendship that started a couple of years ago. I had done this show, and she saw it on television and reached out to me on Twitter just to say how she was very inspired by the song. Maybe about two years ago, she started commenting on my Instagram, so we communicated back and forth there, which started our friendship. One day on Instagram, she posted saying, "Tasha Cobbs, when you're done with this album, shoot me 16 bars." Of course, both of our fans started going crazy: "Are they really going to do this?" When I sent it over to her, she immediately responded, "This is the song I was hoping you would send." I guess it was just a song that spoke to her and where she is. It gave her space to tell her testimony, and that's what you hear on her 16 bars.

Did you expect Nicki’s verse would create this polarizing reaction?
I knew there would be a reaction. I knew that some would agree, and some would not agree, and I believe I'm perfectly fit for that. I always tell people, "There are more people that are for us than are against us." There will always be people who don't understand, and that happens. We're forever evolving, and sometimes people will fight change, but I know that this is something we both had to do, and it gave her an opportunity to share her heart and her story on a different platform. She's said that several times -- in a post the other day, saying, "This is the first time I've been on the gospel chart." She came from a Christian home, and I think this has given her an opportunity to share her testimony. It's been great just to read people's comments that say, "Hey, this song has really been blessing me this week," or "This is the only thing I've been listening to this week." Just to see those comments is huge for me. Everybody can relate to it. It speaks hope, and I believe our world just absolutely needs that. "I'm getting ready to see something I've never seen."

You’ve talked about seeing Nicki’s devotion to God that some of her fans don’t realize is there. Is there a specific moment that comes to mind when you think about Nicki Minaj in relation to religion?
There are several conversations that we've had where we talked about her relationship with God. Like all of us, we have areas of our life that we must continue to work on, and she's very verbal about that, but one thing that she never denies is that she's not ashamed of her relationship with God. I remember when we first started to talk about it, she kept saying, "This is the first time I'll get to expose my relationship with God to the world." I still believe she's really excited.

It seems like in recent years, there’s been a lot more awareness of the crossovers between Christian or gospel artists and mainstream musicians -- including your work with Common and Chance's with Kirk Franklin. Do you think this exchange is new? 
I think it's something that's happened a few times in the past. I recall several collaborations that have happened with Kirk Franklin and hip-hop artists. Even if you look a little further, you may think about the Hawkins and how they would combine with different R&B artists. But now, I think what's so different about it is that you have a huge pop culture, where there are so many eyes watching and social media is so strong and everybody's so verbal that now, you have a world of people who have an opportunity to express how they feel about the collaboration. You get to see visibly, through Twitter and Instagram, how these songs are impacting people's lives. Outside of radio, they now have the chance to get on their personal platforms and say, "I was listening to 'I'm Getting Ready' and this is what's happening to my life, in my world, and how this song made me feel." I think that's what is so fresh about it: we get to personally see how these songs are affecting people's lives.

And as an artist, you much less have the pressure to appeal to just one audience. People like Nicki can have these different parts of their life reflected in their music.
That's so amazing because one of the visions that I had with this album, when we first started was that it would build a bridge for different cultures and different nationalities, people from different walks of life. We can all meet on that bridge and bring our lives together to say 'Hey, we serve the same God.' I believe that's what's happening with [this album].

How did the idea of using worship leaders from different churches as your background vocalists come together?
That week was so amazing, everything just flowed so smoothly, everybody's personality worked so well together. We had an opportunity not to just sing, but everybody shared what was happening in their personal lives and ministries and at their churches. I believe that each of those worshipping -- there were about 25 worshippers that came from all around the world -- each had a chance to share with one another, and they built relationships that I believe will last forever. They have this thread that they all left me out of [laughs] and every single week, they stay in contact with each other. That was one of my purposes in doing it that way. We need to connect with people who do what we do around the world. Sometimes you can feel really lonely, like you're working and working and working, and nobody else can relate to how you feel and how tired you get. Now, they have people who understand the weight of the assignment they carry. 

Is there anyone else you’d like to work with in the future?
There are several artists that I'm friends with and really cool with, and if any of them call and say, ‘Hey Tasha, I want you on this song, I need you to do this song,’ of course I would be totally open to it. I just believe that those are the bridges we are building and it's definitely going to happen -- not just to me, but different gospel artists and different R&B and pop artists. I believe we are going to start to connect and bring those different gifts. I think we live in a generation and a world of artists who are so interested in what other people have to offer. I would've never been able to rap like Nicki on my songs, but "I'm Getting Ready" calls for that style of rap, that style of hip-hop. I believe that there are so many other artists who are open to different styles and different people and different relationships. I think we'll see that much more in the years to come.
But yeah, I would do it again. I was telling someone the other day [that] I was a fan of Celine Dion. If she called me tomorrow, I would fly to wherever she is. I would love to sing with her. She has one of the most phenomenal voices in the world. If you were asking me about another collaboration, I would say Celine Dion, hands-down.