How Kirk Franklin Is Pushing The Boundaries Of Gospel

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