Monday through Friday, Shawn “CoCo” McMillan runs a coffee stand called Koffee Kafe inside the North Academy Street Amtrak station. She instantly connects with every customer who stops by with jokes, laughs or kind words.
But when she’s not manning the stand, McMillan connects with friends, family, even strangers, in a different way – through music.
McMillan, 43, has performed gospel and gospel jazz music at area concerts and has been nominated for a Stellar Award, the gospel music industry’s award.
On Aug. 9, she found herself on the biggest stage of her career so far. She was featured on BET’s “Sunday Best” gospel singing competition.
After entering the show’s “Race to the Stage” online competition, producers chose McMillan and nine other singers from more than 2,000 applicants to perform on the show.
Viewers cast votes to select the winner. Although she didn’t advance to the Top 5, the next step in the competition, the opportunity has opened more doors for her.
Later this month, she will travel to Casablanca, Morocco, for two and a half months to perform for the royal family. Early next year, she will release her second album, which she plans to call “I’m Free.”
“I’m really excited for what happened and what’s going to happen in the future,” said McMillan, who has lived in Cary for 15 years.
Ever since she was young, all McMillan wanted to do was sing. At 5 years old, McMillan’s grandmother, Alice, began taking her and her cousin to different churches along the East Coast to perform.
Her grandmother, now 98, inspired her.
“She’s such a jewel,” McMillan said. “She has so much wisdom. I thank God for her, because my mom was there, but my grandmother raised me and taught me everything I needed.”
McMillan, a native of St. Pauls, has four sisters and three brothers and an 8-year-old Pit Bull named Cleo. Her mother, Rita; grandmother; and most of her siblings still live in St. Pauls, which is about 20 miles south of Fayetteville.
While she always participated in numerous choir groups, McMillan graduated from Shaw University in 1994 with a criminal justice degree, thinking she wanted to be a lawyer.
But almost immediately after graduating, McMillan was drawn to music. She landed a job as a background singer for R&B artist Gerald Levert after only one audition. From there, her career took off.
Less than seven years later, she was on the road touring as a background singer with artists such as The O’Jays, Aaliyah and Michael Buble.
“Once I started doing background work for them, it just kind of started opening up the doors for me to travel, to sing with these artists,” she said. “I got to travel all over the world.”
Singing around the world
On her travels, McMillan visited every state in the United States, as well as Paris, Bermuda and London. She lived with the royal family in Morocco for three months, where she sang for them four nights a week.
Upon returning from Morocco the first time, McMillan decided it was time to achieve one of her lifelong goals – to record her first album.
“I was going through a lot,” she said referring to a bad relationship that had ended. “I had to get through that depression I was going through because of a man. That’s what inspired me to do the album to really get myself back together, because I lost my self-esteem.”
She released the album, “I’ve Been Delivered,” in 2009, signaling her transition from R&B to gospel music. And while recording cost her a lot of time and more than $20,000, she said it was worth it.
She was nominated for a Stellar Award for New Artist of the Year in 2010.
“It’s stressful, but when you’re passionate about it, you’re going to do what you’ve got to do to get it done,” she said.
McMillan said her favorite part about singing is making others happy.
“Anytime I perform, if some person is blessed, is happy, gets something out of it, I’m pleased, because that’s my goal, to make someone feel good or bring them to Christ,” she said.
Besides performing every weekend, McMillan is also active at Mitchiner’s Grove Baptist Church in Franklinton, participating in its choir, praise team and youth programs.
Melvin Jackson, the church’s pastor, has known McMillan for more than 20 years. He calls her a “trailblazer” who is able to reach out to people through her music, particularly the younger generation.
“When she opens her mouth to sing it’s just like a gravitation,” he said. “You’re just going to be drawn to her voice and her ministry. She has that. God has placed that in her to reach people.”
Despite all of her work in music, McMillan still has aspirations here at home. She hopes to expand her coffee shop business to Raleigh and Durham in the next couple years.
“It definitely keeps me busy between church, the coffee shop and music,” she said.
Kathryn Trogdon; 919-460-2608; @KTrogdon