Kirk Franklin On Gospel Music’s Past, Present & Future
No conversation about gospel music can be had without mentioning Kirk Franklin’s name. His 1993 album Kirk Franklin and the Family was the first gospel debut to go platinum and he’s secured several GRAMMY Awards® throughout his lengthy career. In addition to collaborating with mainstream acts like Chance the Rapper and Kanye West, Franklin has continued to be a vessel for gospel music. In honor of Black History Month, the Texas native candidly discusses the genre’s African-American roots, the presence of what he calls “God’s DNA” and gospel music’s future.
As a little boy, going to church and hearing all of the music around me and seeing how it affected people — even the lady that adopted me [my aunt] and listening to her sing gospel music in the house all the time and seeing how she was inspired and motivated by it is also what encouraged me to [pursue gospel music as a career]. But it wasn’t gospel music that first impacted me musically. It impacted me spiritually and emotionally, but what impacted me musically was more the R&B and pop music of the ‘70s, whether it was the Commodores, Prince, Michael Jackson, the Jackson 5, Teddy Pendergrass, Elton John or James Taylor.
If I heard an Elton John song or a Carole King song or a [Debby] Boone song, them were the jams when I was a little black kid. I was really in love with [their] songs. They really inspired me more. Then, as I got older, just kind of started getting the meaning to life and Christ became more serious to me and being a Christian became much more important to me; I think that’s where the music really developed a whole ‘nother life.
I am not one to believe that [gospel music is] in the framework of religion. I believe that the music is a reflection of something bigger, something divine, something that transcends religion because religion is just one’s framework of thought about the supernatural or the spiritual. Gospel music really has to do with more of an experience because you can study religion and never have an experience. There are so many people that don’t have an experience, but when you have that encounter, when God reveals himself to you in some supernatural way through a storm or through a test or trial, it becomes more than just textbook, which is religion. It becomes relational, it becomes something that’s revolutionary, something that you can’t explain.
The music really plays a very big part in that. You can be somewhere sitting in a parking lot, getting some bad news about someone that just died or bad news about a job or you’re dealing with fear about your child being born. You can remember where you were when a song spoke to you and gave you hope, and reminded you of the supernatural and God’s love and that he’s got you.
There were people for me, guys like Andraé Crouch, Thomas Whitfield and V. Michael McKay, a prolific songwriter in gospel music back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He really had a big impact on my music, inspiring me to really want to do it because he did it in a really special way; his pen was really different in the way he communicated about God and Jesus that I never really experienced before.
Thomas Whitfield has a lyric [on “In Case You’ve Forgotten”] that said, “Oh, my saints you forget how to call me by name/ When you sing or you preach of the One who’s real/ It’s a shame, oh shame, that you push me away.” I just thought like, “Yo, man that’s really romantic.” It felt very very romantic, like God was a person that was affected by our rejection.
I believe that every human being, whether they realize it or not, is created by God. They are God’s workmanship. They are not accidents, they’re not coincidences, they’re not luck. Because we are created by Him, we all possess within us his DNA. What you feel in gospel, there’s not another genre that you can put on the same level and say I feel the same thing. Even when they don’t realize it is that God’s DNA inside of them is agreeing with what they’re hearing.
Black people are incredible. We’re just phenomenal beings, so there’s a supernaturalness about us that already exists. The struggle that we’ve gone through just makes us even more beautiful, even more unique, powerful and stronger. It was faith in these songs and the belief in these songs and the lyrical content that gave our mothers’ mothers’ mothers the power to know that there’s more to this than this. That’s what captivated my heart when I was younger. Through a series of tragedies, I came to know Christ as my own personal savior and I try to portray that in my life and in my music. That’s what got me here.
I was 15 years old and by this time, I was already raised in church, already wildin’ and kind of trying to smoke one with the fellas, drink and be lit with everybody. A homeboy of mine got killed and the crazy part was that he was a good kid, so because he was the good kid and got killed, that just really rocked my world. It really, really shook me up to know this guy being the good guy was the one that lost his life. I knew that I was wildin’. It was in that very moment — summer of ‘85 in my momma’s den — I got on my knees, had a 100 conversation with God and knew that my life wasn’t right and that I wanted to be His son. He’s been the love of my soul ever since. I’m far from perfect, still growing, still stumbling, still trying to get it right, you dig? And I just really want to make Him proud.
I don’t think our goal [in gospel music] should be crossover appeal. I don’t think our goal should be numbers. I think the rules that apply to everyone else shouldn’t be the template for who we are or who we’re trying to be, that we should, number one, live every word that we’re trying to sing and try to be committed to the faith that we believe in and for that faith to be so bananas for us that we want to put it in songs. Then that song does whatever God wants us to do and it goes wherever God wants it to go. Trying to manipulate it into anything else is hypocrisy and I think it’s fake and it won’t be authentic and original. It’s hard to do gangsta rap if you just graduated from Brown University. It’s almost impossible because that’s not your narrative. So if you’re gonna do songs about Jesus, you gotta know ol’ boy and that’s just real talk. And wherever the music goes, it goes because He has a purpose for it to go and not because we’re trying to make it happen.
Trying to categorize and having this type of conversation within genres is kind of self-defeating. I think it’s more fluid than that because we’re more fluid than that. I think that as God’s beings, God’s creations and God’s vessels that there’s too much fluidity to it to try to narrow it down to a formula or a process that we can either try to copy or try to pass on to others. I think it is what it is. I think when people feel that knock on their heart, like Chance [the Rapper] did, that it was very natural for him to do what he did on the Coloring Book album. Of course, after I did those two records [Coloring Book and Kanye West's The Life of Pablo], I started getting phone calls from everybody [to do music] but it wasn’t authentic. These are not things that I feel were authentic and that’s not a blast on the people that called, Chance and Kanye were people that I had a relationship with already and so it started to go from there. Instead of it trying to be this moment that we can manipulate like trap music. It’s like when one person does trap music and now everybody’s going to do trap music, or one person does Auto-Tune, now we all gon’ do Auto-Tune. I don’t think gospel music possesses those same ingredients.
I believe that it has to be part of a person’s personal decisions and journey. That you’re saying that I don’t know what it is right now or I don’t know what it may be that is pulling me or something that’s yearning inside of me but I want to communicate it through my music. Now, we are spectators of that journey, the growing, the falling, the stumbling, whatever it may be, that we are a kind of part of that journey with them. Some will say I don’t want to sell out or do TNA music, I just want to be about God, I want to be 100 and just turn up and be lit for Him. As a Christian, it’s my job to pray for them, to cover them and be available to answer questions, to be someone that has their shoulder or their back, and to try to be a friend.
One of the biggest misconceptions [about gospel artists is] it hasn’t always been intentional but that there’s this community of perfect, holy, clean, super spiritual, better-than-everybody type of people, which is so far from true and so far from what I know many of us over here want to portray. We’re not trying to portray that type of person. We’re just trying the best [way] we know how to point people to the perfect One, perfect love, perfect grace, for you wherever you are.
I think the biggest accomplishment that I’m very proud of as far as the genre is that we’re still having a conversation about it, that we’re not going, “Hey y’all, remember when?” We’re still having questions about it like, “Yo, man what is this gospel music? What is the meaning of it and what does it do to people and how do you feel about its impact?” ‘Cause I think it’s really dope that it’s still part of the discussion. I’m very proud of some of these new kids coming up. I’m proud of Tasha McCobb, I’m proud of the Lecrae’s, I’m proud of the Travis Greene’s. I think they’re dope.
I think that what we gotta remember is that gospel music is not a sound. That it’s not limited to a sonic sound, that gospel music is at its core is the good news of Jesus Christ. Whatever beat is up under, it could still be gospel because what makes it gospel is not what is playing, but what it’s saying.
—As told to Adelle Platon
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