Blending secular sounds with an uplifting devotional message, the artist aims to “make God famous” through his music.
By Vinson Cunningham / The New Yorker / January 16, 2017
It’s hard to describe in a word what Kirk Franklin does for a living. Franklin, forty-six, is the most successful contemporary gospel artist of his generation, but he isn’t a singer. He plays the piano, but only intermittently onstage, more to contribute to the pageantry than to show off his modest chops. Above all, he is a songwriter, but in performance and on his albums his role more closely resembles that of a stock character in hip-hop: the hype man. The best hype men—Flavor Flav, Spliff Star, the early Sean (P. Diddy) Combs—hop around onstage, slightly behind and to the side of the lead m.c., addressing the microphone in order to ad-lib or to reinforce punch lines as they rumble by. But a hype man is, by definition, a sidekick, and while most of the sound in Franklin’s music comes from elsewhere—usually, a band and an ensemble of singers—he is always and unquestionably the locus of its energy and intention.
When I first saw Franklin perform live, last spring, at the newly renovated Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, he stood at center stage, spotlit, rasping out preachy interjections whenever his singers paused for breath. The theatre had the grandeur of a cathedral: blood-red velvet curtains framed the stage; golden ceilings, patterned with blue-and-purple paisleys, soared over vaudeville-era balconies and plush seats. During “I Smile,” a bouncy, piano-propelled anthem to joyful resilience against life’s troubles, Franklin punctuated the chorus with a rhythmic series of shouts: “I smile”—“Yes!”—“Even though I’m hurt, see, I smile”—“Come on!”—“Even though I’ve been here for a while”—“Hallelujah!”—“I smile.”
Meanwhile, he danced. Franklin’s music is rife with recognizable influences, from traditional Southern gospel to R. & B., hip-hop to arena rock, and he accentuates this fact by offering audiences a flurry of accompanying bodily references. He is short—five feet five on tiptoe—and has friendly features: sleek eyes with penny irises, arched eyebrows, a mouth that rests in a grinning pout, taut balloons for cheeks. He wore white pants with black racing stripes, a long black shirt, and, around his neck, a neatly knotted red bandanna. Cradling the microphone stand near the lip of the stage, he wiggled his feet like James Brown and drew miniature scallops with his hips, then galloped from one side of the stage to the other, like a sanctified Springsteen. During the down-home numbers, he turned his back to the crowd and waved his hands in the direction of the singers, a slightly comic invocation of the Baptist choir director’s showily precise control. Then he broke into a survey of recent dances made viral by teens on Vine and Snapchat: the Milly Rock, the Hit Dem Folks, the Dab. Sometimes, as if overtaken by joy, he simply leaped into the air and landed on the beat.
The show was a stop along Franklin’s latest tour, “20 Years in One Night.” The tour’s title had rounded down the years ever so slightly: Franklin released his first album in 1993. Since then, he has sold millions of records and won scores of awards for a brand of gospel that blends secular sounds with an uplifting devotional message. He has also collaborated with some of the biggest names in pop: a few months before the Brooklyn show, he appeared on “Ultralight Beam,” the first song on Kanye West’s newest album, “The Life of Pablo,” and performed the song alongside West on “Saturday Night Live.”
The mostly black audience at Kings Theatre was older than the usual concertgoing crowd, and well versed in Franklin’s œuvre, frequently breaking, unbidden, into surprisingly competent harmony. “Y’all sound good!” Franklin said. Later, he joked about his relationship with West: “Anyone can be saved . . . even Kanye!” The crowd laughed. The show ran for two and a half hours, with a short intermission; at several points, Franklin asked the audience if they had got their money’s worth. He was a genial narrator, a kind of hovering intelligence, pulling his fans through the healing places in his songs. When he was done, a woman of maybe sixty looked over at me, dazed, and said, “That’s why he’s so skinny—he’s got a lot of energy!” “What a blessing,” somebody else said. “I feel so light.”
In the mid-nineties, when I was ten years old, my mother and I became members of a Pentecostal church in Harlem. We had recently moved back to New York after six years in Chicago, where my mother taught grade-schoolers and my father was the music director at a Roman Catholic church. The hush of Catholicism was most of what I knew about religion—my dad had a talent for sneaking gospel sounds into hymnody, but the Mass had a staid, stubborn rhythm of its own—and the biggest shock of my first few months immersed in charismatic religion was the wild, unceasing stream of noise. Even as the pastor preached, the organ would honk, or a cymbal would crash, or someone in the congregation would open her mouth and let fly a stream of Spirit-given tongues. The other sound I remember was Franklin’s music. He was a fairly new phenomenon, and his songs had already become inescapable. Every respectable church choir seemed to have at least a few of them in its repertoire. His melodies and harmony parts were easy to teach to amateur ensembles, and congregations were sure to know them, and to sing along.
Franklin had forged an uncommon connection with “the youth,” as the elder churchgoers called us. His message rarely differed from that of the other gospel music circulating at the time, but his sound and his attitude were of a piece with the most popular hip-hop and R. & B. acts of the moment. His physicality sometimes scandalized the older crowd. I often heard people complain, “He’s bringing the world into the church.” But those parents also accepted, sometimes grudgingly, that this flashy figure might hold the key to keeping their sons and daughters in the pew and off the streets.
Franklin’s first album, a live recording called “Kirk Franklin and the Family,” offered a smooth, pop-adjacent brand of gospel, descended from acts like Andraé Crouch, the Winans, and, perhaps especially, Edwin Hawkins, whose 1969 hit “Oh Happy Day” laid the template for the kind of mainstream acceptance that Franklin hoped to win. Franklin’s songs had compulsively singable melodies—there was little of the sweaty, melismatic display typically associated with gospel vocalizing. His choir, the Family, sang in sweet, perfectly blended, middle-of-the-register unison, splitting into three-part harmony only toward the propulsive endings of their songs. The lyrics were earnest statements of affection toward the divine. “I sing because I’m happy,” went one of the more popular numbers. “I sing because I’m free”—“His eye is on!”—“His eye is on the sparrow”—“That’s the reason!”—“That’s the reason why I sing.”
“Kirk Franklin and the Family” sold a million copies, becoming the first gospel début to go platinum. Franklin’s next record, “Whatcha Lookin’ 4,” went platinum as well, and earned Franklin his first Grammy. Both albums topped Billboard’s gospel-album category. And, surprisingly, they appeared on the R. & B. chart—a sign that gospel, Christ and all, might finally cross over. In 1995, Jimmy Iovine, then the chairman of Interscope Records, home of Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre, engineered a partial acquisition of GospoCentric Records, the independent label that had signed Franklin. One of Interscope’s talent scouts had brought Franklin to Iovine’s attention, and Iovine was enthralled by Franklin’s charisma as well as by his commercial potential. He heralded Franklin—who, by now, was heading a new outfit, called God’s Property—as gospel music’s Bob Marley.
“Stomp,” the lead single on Franklin’s next album, “God’s Property from Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation,” made the Top Forty charts in 1997. Its video, which entered regular rotation on MTV, opens with Franklin, in a white suit and shades, issuing a warning directly to the camera: “For those of you that think that gospel music has gone too far—you think we’ve gotten too radical with our message. Well, I’ve got news for you: you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. And if you don’t know, now you know. Glory, glory!” It was a deliberate echo of the Notorious B.I.G.’s introduction to his 1994 hit “Juicy,” and served as a kind of mission statement for Franklin’s gospel/hip-hop hybrid. Throughout the video, the members of God’s Property—dressed, variously, in baggy jeans, shiny athletic gear, and Nike Air Force 1s—dance boisterously, striking poses you’d otherwise expect to see in a night club.
“Lately I’ve been goin’ through some things that’s really got me down,” the choir sings. “I need someone, somebody to help me come and turn my life around.” Beneath the voices is a sample from Parliament-Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove,” and this undercurrent of funk, along with Franklin’s interjections, keeps the song lively and aloft. Toward the end, Cheryl James—otherwise known as Salt, of the rap duo Salt-N-Pepa—offers a verse. “God’s Property” went double platinum, and reached the No. 3 spot on the Billboard 200 chart. Franklin won another Grammy. Iovine’s comparison of Franklin to Marley began to seem almost reasonable.
In August, I went to see Franklin for a few days in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was born and raised and still lives, with his wife, Tammy, and their children. We spent time with his family, talked over meals, and stopped by his old high school. The family attends the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, a Dallas congregation led by the pastor and radio personality Tony Evans, who has become a mentor and spiritual adviser to Franklin. When we first pulled up to Franklin’s house, which is topped by spires and slatted roofs, and set behind a black wrought-iron gate on a secluded street, Franklin turned to me and said, “Now, remember, this is Texas.”
On a bright, hot afternoon, we had lunch at a Mediterranean restaurant near his home. We were joined by his manager and closest confidant, Ron Hill, a slim, cerebral guy in his early thirties who went to college in New Orleans and, after getting started in the music scene there, lost nearly everything in Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, he recommitted himself to his faith, then became an intern at Franklin’s label, Fo Yo Soul Recordings, a joint venture with RCA created in 2013. He is now its president. The two men engaged in rolling, big-brother, little-brother banter, littered with industry gossip and notes on new albums. The conversation inevitably returned to what they see as the rut that gospel music has fallen into. Why, they ask, can’t the genre be as dynamic and unbound as its secular counterparts? And why can’t more of its listeners applaud risks like those which Franklin has continued to take?
Franklin has a raspy voice, like a preacher after service, and a slight stutter. He is given to parables and analogies, and he speaks with his entire torso, leaning over and looking you in the eyes to make sure you’re still with him. Discussing the business of music, he started many sentences by saying, “See, the problem with my genre . . .” One of the problems, he said, is gospel’s dual role as artistic endeavor and as purveyor of religious experience. “They don’t come to gospel for the production or for the beats,” he said of his audience. “They come because they wanna be ministered to. So sometimes it’s, like, Well, if that’s all I’m good for, what do I do with all these ideas, and these creative dreams, and growth I want to do as an artist? I wanna give you Jesus, but I wanna give you Jesus with an 808. I wanna give you Jesus with some strings.” Hill nodded in agreement.
As a teen-ager, Franklin spent days on end at a record shop near his high school, looking up the names of the producers who had created the songs he loved. Other musicians, Hill said, “who grew up in church and knew they could sing or whatever, they were just sort of pushed toward gospel music. That’s the natural frame of mind—‘People in church say I could be bigger, so I’ll go into it.’ Not ‘I wanna pursue this,’ not ‘I’m gonna spend my time honing my craft, and listening to other music, and growing as an artist.’ ”
Franklin pulled my audio recorder across the table and said emphatically, “This cat Ron Hill could easily run Apple, he could run Microsoft, he could run Google. He is one step away from something crazy that is going to change the culture.”
Franklin’s interest in fame and his devotion to the church can both be traced to his early years. Born Kirk Mathis, he was abandoned by his father and his mother by the time he was four years old. He was adopted by a relative, Gertrude Franklin, a pious woman and a widow in her sixties. Her age was alienating for Kirk, as was the fickle presence of his biological mother, who lived close enough to stop by a few times a year and then disappear again. He listened to Top Forty radio constantly, and his talent was obvious from an early age: at eleven, he became the minister of music at his church. When he began to write songs—and started performing them, along with choirs he’d assembled, in churches all over Fort Worth—his first impulse was to meld the secular and the sacred. His first song was a reworking of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” called “Jesus Is Coming Back.”
Franklin’s career is replete with unlikely collaborations, each reflective of a love for pop tunes: Bono, Mary J. Blige, and R. Kelly have all shared a studio with Franklin. Recently, the collaboration with Kanye West had angered some portion of Franklin’s fans, and, at lunch in Fort Worth, Franklin and Hill were still smarting from that reaction. West grew up in Chicago and was raised in the church; on “Ultralight Beam,” he uses Franklin’s voice as a kind of associative device, meant to ratify his assertion that “The Life of Pablo” is a gospel album. Franklin arranged the choir parts that provide the background for the song’s chorus, and he speaks at the end of the track: “Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they’re not good enough. This prayer’s for everybody that feels like they’re too messed up—for everyone that feels they’ve said ‘I’m sorry’ too many times. You can never go too far, where you can’t come back home again!”
Even before the song was released, a photograph was posted online of Franklin and West together in a recording studio, and Franklin received a raft of negative Instagram comments. (“Why is Kirk in a picture with Kanye?” one fan asked. “I really hope and pray he is not collaborating with that blasphemous fool!”) After performing the song on “S.N.L.,” Franklin posted a black-and-white photo of himself and West on Instagram. “Kanye is not me,” he wrote in the caption. “I am not him. He is my brother I am proud to do life with.” He added, “To a lot of my Christian family, I’m sorry he’s not good enough, Christian enough, or running at your pace . . . and as I read some of your comments, neither am I. That won’t stop me from running.”
In Fort Worth, Franklin spoke of the constraints he feels as a gospel artist. “If I’m writing and doing music celebrating the Creator, who is the most creative being in the world—I mean when you look at nature and when you look at all of the beautiful created things—why should I be limited in expressing myself? He’s creative, so why shouldn’t my music be creative, too? But everyone in my community, and especially the consumers, they don’t see it that way. Which is weird for me. It makes you feel good when you do a song that, sonically, can fit right next to Drake. But our audience, they don’t care. And it hurts that they don’t care!”
Hill said, “His music may not always get accepted in the church. But we’re trying to reach the people that don’t know the gospel.”
One simple way of understanding the customary path from gospel prominence to mainstream stardom is to listen to two recordings by Sam Cooke, “Wonderful” and “Lovable.” The melodies and song structures are almost identical. They both speak of an otherworldly, all-accepting love; on both tracks, Cooke rests his trademark yodel over classic gospel-quartet chords. But “Wonderful” is about God, and “Lovable,” released one year later, is about a woman, any woman, maybe you. Sam Cooke crossed over.
Acts like Cooke, Solomon Burke, and Aretha Franklin made their way into the hearts of pop audiences by shedding their music’s religious content while retaining its fervor. They left traditional gospel behind and invented, in its place, an entirely new American genre: soul. Other acts held on to the sacred, and some of them were swept into wider fame by the social turmoil of the sixties. Mahalia Jackson soundtracked the civil-rights movement, echoing its overtly religious appeal. But nobody danced to Mahalia; hers was a moral moment, and the mainstream largely left her there.
Kirk Franklin has held on to the gospel message while moving his sound, and his presentation, in the direction of hip-hop and contemporary R. & B., the genres with an increasingly solid grip on the imagination of America’s youth. Last June, he travelled to Los Angeles for the BET Awards. He’d been nominated for Best Gospel/Inspirational Artist, an award he had won several times. Before the ceremony, he was slated to participate in a public interview, called a BET Genius Talk, hosted by DeVon Franklin, a friend who has worked as a Hollywood executive and is a preacher and motivational speaker. The talk took place at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Backstage, as both Franklins waited to begin, DeVon turned to Kirk and playfully said, “Now, listen, I don’t want the humble Kirk. The people want to hear the genius Kirk.” After DeVon went off to greet some friends, Franklin turned to Hill and asked, “The humble thing—am I coming off insincere? That’s just how I am.”
Soon he was rushed onto the stage, and the crowd hooted and clapped. Prompted by DeVon, he outlined his life, presenting his abandonment and adoption as obstacles faced and, by degrees, overcome. “Sometimes, when you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom, often you find out that God is the rock at the bottom,” he said.
After the event, a young assistant pulled Franklin into a vast ballroom and pointed to a makeshift triangle of black draping, where he could change clothes for the ceremony. “They told me there’d be, like, a little room,” he said, smiling. The assistant shrugged and shook her head. Franklin disappeared behind the curtain.
Franklin dislikes awards shows, which remind him of how explicit the celebrity machine’s hierarchy can be. Everything from seat assignments to the number of camera flashes that an attendee attracts on the red carpet is meant, in some way, to fix a person in his place. To no one’s surprise, Franklin won again that night. He took the stage with his wife, Tammy, and gave a short, slightly nervous speech. Watching from the audience, I wondered what might have happened if, at the commercial and cultural apex of his career, Franklin had rocketed away from music about Jesus and into the heart of secular pop, the way Cooke and Aretha had. You sometimes get the sense, hearing him talk, that he wonders this, too. But, despite his periodic restlessness, leaving was never a serious consideration. Gospel, he told me later, is “closely connected with the dude that I am.” His relationship to the genre, he said, was like that of “a married man who sometimes gets frustrated with his marriage.” He went on, “You know, he can get frustrated, having arguments and disagreements, and be, like, ‘Man, if I was single I wouldn’t have to be dealing with this.’ But you never get to the point where you’re in divorce court or you’re talking to an attorney.”
Beginning in the late nineties, Franklin’s life was roiled by less metaphorical troubles. First, members of God’s Property filed a lawsuit against him, claiming that he hadn’t paid them sufficiently. (The suit, along with a similar one brought two years later by members of the Family, was resolved out of court.) A few years later, he and Tammy gave interviews, first in a series of Christian magazines, and finally on the Oprah Winfrey show, in which they divulged that Franklin was addicted to pornography, and that the habit had threatened their marriage.
Franklin says that he has always craved attention and approval, especially from women, and that he became promiscuous in his early teens. He often got involved with—and hung around the homes of—girls whose families were more conventional than his. Eventually, Gertrude kicked him out—rightfully, he says. “I was smoking in the house, sneaking girls in and out to have sex,” he said. “She loved me, but I could tell that my adolescence disappointed her. She didn’t know how to lovingly navigate me through it. So I was kind of written off. But I knew that she loved me.” It was around this time, Franklin says, that an anonymous benefactor, who had heard about Franklin’s musical talents, offered to pay his tuition to a new private high school for the performing arts. There were thirty students in the entire school. For the first time in his life, Franklin was the only black student in his class, surrounded by “white weirdos” who listened to Pink Floyd, and who considered Franklin cool because he was black and knew how to dance. He felt lucky; somehow, he fit in. He was sleeping most nights on couches and in cars. At the end of the school year, he found out that his girlfriend was pregnant. He quit school for good before his son Kerrion was born.
Gertrude died when Franklin was twenty, and left him her house. He sold it, paid off a few bills, moved into an apartment in nearby Hulen Heights, and began to write the songs that appeared on “Kirk Franklin and the Family.”
Franklin speaks of God as if he were in the next room, a shout away. Spurred by what he calls his “mama issues,” he has from time to time played the analysand. “I’m a Christian who believes in therapy,” he told me. In the aughts, Franklin underwent an artistic metamorphosis that was primarily lyrical: he turned, sharply and compellingly, toward the personal. The result was the creation of a specific, fully realized “I” in his songs, an innovation familiar from blues and pop that had never before wholly crossed into gospel. That character first appears on “Hero,” an album released in 2005. “Hero” is Franklin’s most autobiographical album, and his best. In “Let It Go,” a spoken-word near-rap driven by a moody sample of “Shout,” by the band Tears for Fears, Franklin begins, “My mama gave me up when I was four years old / She didn’t destroy my body but she killed my soul. . . . Ten years old finding love in dirty magazines / Ms. December you remember I bought you twice / Now I’m thirty plus and still paying the price.” It continues in this autobiographical vein: “Had a sister that I barely knew / Kind of got separated by the age of two / Same mama different daddy so we couldn’t fake it / I saw my sister’s daddy beat her in the tub naked.”
Another song, “Imagine Me,” a willowy ballad held together by a soft, vaguely martial snare, a bright acoustic guitar, and a sweetly repetitive piano riff, pulls a neat psychological trick: instead of telling the customary gospel story of absolute, transformational change, the narrator presents the act of even imagining an uninhibited relationship with God as a kind of breakthrough. “Imagine me,” the chorus begins, in a tender unison that sometimes sprouts into harmony, “being free, trusting you totally / Finally I can imagine me. / I admit it was hard to see / You being in love with someone like me / But finally I can imagine me.” Just before the song’s closing crescendo, Franklin begins to speak directly to the listener. “This song is dedicated to people like me,” he says. “Those that struggle with insecurity, acceptance, and even self-esteem. You never felt good enough; you never felt pretty enough.”
Franklin talks about the change in his work directionally: he had started out writing, like much of the gospel industry, “vertically,” man to God—“You know, ‘God, we praise you!,’ all of that, which is beautiful”—but now he wrote “horizontally,” person to person, hoping that the particulars of his life would strike a universal chord in both believers and unbelievers.
“It’s still very much a genre that wants these vertical songs,” Franklin said. “But I want to write about the God that I live with, not just the God that I love. Because the God that I live with sees me having doubts with him, and being afraid of him, and being mad at him, and saying sorry, and making up.” “Hero” briefly charted on the Billboard 200. It is the last of his albums to go platinum.
In an interview last year on NPR, Franklin said, “My job on earth, the reason why Kirk is created, is to make God famous. I just want God to be well known.” God does not seem to lack for name recognition, but the renown that Franklin has in mind is a kind of cultural capital, or, as he explained it to me, “a seat at the table of culture.” Secularists sometimes fear that theocracy is right around the corner, but in America God remains uncool.
“Christianity, and the framework of religion, makes us a subculture,” Franklin said. “But there’s a whole other world going on—technology, and science, and racism, and economics, and capitalism, and all of these things happening, but we have this bubble. And the problem is that when people leave this bubble they have to go into the world to work, and to raise their kids, and to find a spouse, to pay taxes. So why wouldn’t you take what you learn in the bubble and affect the world? You can’t do that if you only know the bubble.”
Escaping this provincialism is the theme of Franklin’s most recent album, “Losing My Religion,” which was released late in 2015 and was just nominated for a Grammy. The title was instantly and predictably provocative: Franklin’s fan base wondered if he planned to depart from Christian doctrine. He didn’t. “I just wanna have deeper conversations that intellectually challenge us, to make sure that we’re growing the right way,” Franklin said. “I wanna make sure that we’re not just being cultural Christians, just ’cause we’re black. Or because we’re American. I want to talk about weighty stuff.” The “20 Years” billing of the recent tour was partly a way to wrap these “deeper conversations”—about the church’s efficacy in an increasingly secular world—into the context of Franklin’s entire career. “I wanted them to know that I’m still their boy,” he said, referring to the fans who have stuck with him through the years.
Assurances notwithstanding, “Losing My Religion” is an open rebuke to the stuffier, more conservative corners of the church. “Religion is a prison but truth sets us free,” Franklin says on the album’s opening track, an a-cappella spoken-word piece. He continues, “Terror, famine, disease / Millions in poverty / Hungry, can’t sleep / With all of this religion, why these babies can’t eat?”
Franklin blames church-world cloistering, in part, for Donald Trump’s success among conservative evangelicals. Trump, he thinks, offered churches—often courted by mainstream Republicans as a source of votes, and then all but ignored—a highway back to cultural prominence. “To see the evangelical community be so desperate for relevancy, that really breaks my heart,” he said. “You know what that means to me, also? There have been decades where you didn’t do good work. Decades where you didn’t lay down a good framework where the culture saw you as not only passionate about the rich but passionate about the poor.” Shortly after the election, Franklin published an essay on the Huffington Post, titled “Dear Fellow Christians . . .” He walks a tightrope in the letter, declining to praise or condemn either candidate. Instead, he expresses consternation toward his co-religionists. “My shock is in the worst I’ve seen in those that claim to believe like I do,” Franklin writes. “While we fight and argue about abortion and sexual orientation, we apparently forgot one of the greatest sins that God continuously acknowledges He hates: pride.”
The political realm is thorny for a figure like Franklin, whose audience is largely culturally conservative and drawn to a positive, uplifting message. Today, in contrast to the sixties, much social-activist energy comes from secular sources. Some black religious leaders from more liberal traditions have aligned themselves almost totally with progressive politics, even on issues like homosexuality. Franklin is not quite so free, though he occasionally skirts the edges of orthodoxy. During an interview on “Sway in the Morning,” a popular radio show on Sirius XM, he addressed the matter of same-sex relationships. “As Christians, as the church, we’ve come off like the police,” he said. “What I always wanna say, man, is I’m sorry for all of the ugly things and all of the painful things that people have even heard from church people. Because things can come from a very homophobic lens—sometimes it feels very homophobic when people are trying to make their stance or their beliefs.”
Life in the bubble won’t do for a crossover artist like Franklin, who approaches his visits to churches and hip-hop radio shows with equal ardor. He has souls to win, seats to fill.
The first leg of the “20 Years in One Night” tour ran mainly through big cities, and was organized and promoted by the entertainment behemoth Live Nation. The crowds were so large that Franklin and his team organized a second leg on their own, through smaller markets—Tulsa, Savannah, Clearwater—where they were at the mercy of independent promoters. I joined him at the ivy-clad Main Street Armory, in Rochester, New York. He stood in the Armory’s gravel alleyway, wearing the same black-and-white outfit that I’d seen in Brooklyn. His background singers, mostly women, hung around him in a loose, laughing cluster, and the band, all male, stood a ways off. The sun was beginning to set, making soft shapes on the musicians’ horns.
“All right, let’s pray it up,” Franklin said to the group.
The huddle tightened.
“If the light shining on you,” Franklin said.
“Is brighter than the light shining in you,” the rest replied.
“Then the light shining on you—”
“—will destroy you.”
After the prayer, we could hear the squalls of an opening act—one of an exasperating five, none of which Franklin had been involved in choosing. “There’s no support system,” he said as he stretched, hoisting first one leg, then the other, almost level with his head, against a brick wall. “It’s almost like when women started doing their hair natural. The style was always perms, but then somebody said, ‘You know what?’ ” Here he slipped into a head-snapping, wrist-flipping impression. “ ‘I’ma start getting my hair natural.’ And then their girlfriends were, like, ‘Yeah, girl, let’s go natural!’ So they all went natural, but the beauty shops didn’t know. They still had all these chemicals and stuff, and girls showed up, like, ‘Do me natural,’ and the shops were, like, ‘Huh?’ ’Cause they’re still used to the perm.”
Promoters didn’t understand that you couldn’t sell tickets to a big gospel show the way you would for a Rihanna tour, he said. “You gotta go to the churches, you gotta include the churches, churches gotta know you, you gotta become a partner.”
After one of the recent concerts, he said, a promoter told him that he was three thousand dollars short of the fee he owed Franklin. “You wouldn’t do that to John Legend,” Franklin said, clearly still upset. “You wouldn’t do that to Jill Scott or Erykah Badu. So what do you think of me and my genre, that it’s so country and so backward that you can do that to me?” He found the whole experience discouraging. “You mean after twenty years I’m still having a promoter come up to me and tell me he doesn’t have three thousand dollars? That’ll make you want to go home. My community’s still doing that? I’m done.”
Toward the end of the show in Rochester, Franklin hopped off the stage and waded into the crowd. He offered the microphone to maybe a dozen people in turn and asked, “What’s your favorite Kirk song?” Each of them beamed and answered the question.
Returning to the stage, he didn’t hop quite high enough, and for a second he was stuck, with his torso onstage and his legs wiggling. After a few moments of struggle, he worked himself up and onto the stage, and stood shaking his head and scratching his brow. An embarrassed smile passed across his face. He started to laugh, and the crowd laughed along. Later, on board his tour bus, he was still good-naturedly embarrassed. “Ha!” he barked. “Please include me getting stuck,” he said, pointing to my recorder. “I have more ambition than I do physical capacity.” He had changed into sweats and bobbed like a wrestler atop the bus’s couch. In a few hours, he would take off for the tour’s final show, in Baltimore. He didn’t look much more tired than he had before the show. “Like, if you wanted to go eat, I could go eat,” he said. “You want to go maybe see your peoples? We could go see your peoples. Can I do a whole ’nother concert? Probably not.”
Also aboard were two women, a reporter from Rochester’s weekly black newspaper and a friend of hers. The reporter wanted a photo. Franklin obliged, but not without extracting some market research.
“So was this a good turnout for Rochester?”
The women laughed.
“No, no, really,” he said, raising his eyebrows. He’d seen a scattering of empty white folding chairs throughout the Armory. “Was it a good turnout?”
They assured him that it was. Almost nobody big comes through Rochester, they said, and even fewer get a crowd like this.
Franklin gestured toward his road assistant. “One of y’all has to go see how many people came out,” he said. ♦
Vinson Cunningham joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2016.This article appears in other versions of the January 16, 2017, issue, with the headline “Making God Famous.”