Kirk Franklin Biography
"My message is simple and plain," Kirk Franklin insisted in the Los Angeles Times. "I'm trying to change the way people look at gospel music. It's not corny, and it's not hokey. We're not just running around here with some choir robes on, yelling and screaming. It's not about that anymore, kid." The charismatic Franklin has achieved mainstream success thanks to a fusion of hip-hop-flavored style and hardcore religious content. Where other gospel acts had replaced "Jesus" and "God" with "Him" and "You" in hopes of winning over pop listeners, Franklin has never blunted his proselytizing. At the same time, the recordings and concerts by the singer and his gospel group, The Family, have achieved sales that would be respectable even by secular standards and won a bevy of honors. Despite his rise to stardom, Franklin has kept his eye on the real prize. "When I try to reach people, it's by any means necessary," he told the Tri-State Defender. "The purpose is to win them. I spread the word of God through my music, and that's how souls are won—regardless of where it's heard."
Franklin's own soul underwent considerable turmoil in his youth. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, to a teenage mother, he never knew his father and was adopted at the age of three by the only mother he ever really knew—his great-aunt Gertrude—who raised him vigilantly. "She taught me everything," the singer told Cheo Hodari Coker of the Los Angeles Times. "She taught me how to respect people and respect myself, and that's something I'll never forget." A devout Baptist, Gertrude recognized and encouraged the boy's profound musical gifts; money she and Kirk made from recycling cans and newspapers paid for his piano lessons. His obvious talent for church singing led to an offer of a record contract by the time he was seven, but Gertrude refused to consider such an offer, considering Kirk's age. His precociousness could not be kept under wraps forever, though, and by age 11 he was leading the adult choir at Mt. Rose Baptist Church. "It was scary," he recalled to Coker. "I was [in charge of] people 60 and older. Could you imagine someone that young telling their elders they were singing wrong?"
Despite his immersion in a religious environment, Franklin was not immune to the call of street life. "I was always a moody child," he reflected in Texas Monthly. "In the house it was just me and an older woman. When I got around my peers, I was just buck wild, because I wanted to be a kid, you know?" Fear of being called a "church boy," he has noted in numerous interviews, motivated his acting out. "I was more of a perpetrator than a hardcore G[angster]," he asserted to Gannett News Service. "I was always one of the brothers trying to be a gangster with all the other kids because I didn't want them to think I was soft, although I was." Though his behavior was hardly extreme by street standards, he hung around pool halls, smoked marijuana and got into fights; it was only when, at 15, he saw a friend die of an accidental shooting that he decided to change his life. "I didn't think anyone could die so young," Franklin recollected to Coker of the Los Angeles Times. "I knew what I was doing was wrong. That was a major trip for me."
The incident had profound implications for the singer's path in life. "It woke me up," he told Gannett. "At 15 I had been in church all my life, but it wasn't in me." Further hardship ensued when he and his girlfriend had a child out of wedlock; she was left to care for the baby, Kerrion, for several years. "What I had done was wrong," he reflected in Texas Monthly, "but God forgave me, so I was able to forgive myself." Ultimately Franklin managed to place all his focus on his calling. Noted producer Milton Biggham heard a home demo tape Franklin had made and invited him to write material for a gospel album by the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) Mass Choir. Franklin fulfilled this request on the Choir's 1991 release I Will Let Nothing Separate Me and on 1993's Another Chance. He performed similar duties for the GMWA National Mass Choir's recording Live in Indianapolis.
But the vocalist wanted to perform his own material; to that end, he put together a 17-member singing group, the Family, culled in part from the DFW Mass Choir. "I called my group the Family because it was the extended family that I never had and the sense of family I always wanted," he proclaimed to Coker. After turning down a deal with Savoy Records, they signed a recording contract with Gospo Centric—a label run by gospel music industry veteran Vicki Mack-Lataillade—and released their debut, Kirk Franklin and the Family, in 1993. Recorded at Grace Temple Church in Forth Worth, the album scored with such songs as "Why We Sing" and "He Can Handle It." The Los Angeles Sentinel cited Mack-Lataillade's advice to Franklin: "I told him I didn't want gospel music to remain status quo; I wanted to make it for everybody," she pointed out.
Franklin's uplifting, modern take on gospel refused to omit "Jesus" and "the Lord" from the lyrics—as many gospel artists seeking mainstream fame have done—but at the same time pursued hip-hop fans with its up-to-date grooves and vocalizing. Though some purists objected to the appropriation of secular styles, Franklin brushed their qualms aside. "We're doing it our way," he asserted in the Los Angeles Sentinel. "If it's different, well, get used to it, because it's music inspired by God and it's here to stay."
Initially, the debut album sold respectably for a gospel record. But over a year and half after its release, Drew Dawson—an urban-radio deejay in Virginia—began playing "Why We Sing" regularly on his program; as a result, other secular radio stations began picking it up. Speaking to the Tri-State Defender, Dawson compared Franklin to multifaceted R&B figure Babyface, another writer-performer-producer-arranger. "Because [Franklin]'s so talented as a songwriter and musician and because there's no one around in gospel music that is doing it all, his stuff stands out," Dawson insisted. It stood out so much, in fact, that Franklin soon became a sensation in the pop music world, becoming the first gospel debut to sell a million copies. "When my album started blowing up—I mean when God started blessing me—I started to go a lot of places," the singer related in USA Today, "but it was like a giving a diamond to a 4-year-old kid."
And Franklin had to deal with the consequences of challenging an entrenched form, in this case an approach to gospel that drew firm distinctions between secular and sacred music. "Gospel needs an edge," he asserted in the Michigan Chronicle, "so that it will receive the same type of respect that other types of music get. For so long gospel didn't get much respect from the industry." What's more, he pointed out in the same interview, his funky, contemporary approach drew in younger listeners. "A lot of Christian young people are saying, 'Man, this music that we like to listen to on the urban stations is real funky and it's jammin' but a lot of the songs are so nasty,'" Franklin reported. "'Can y'all give us something we can play in our Jeeps and ride down the street and pump to but it's talking about Jesus?'" Franklin and the Family did just that, incorporating references to secular rap and hip-hop hits, but reworking the lyrics to address religious themes. His explosive approach appeared in Family concerts as well. "Franklin came to us and said, 'We want lights, we want big sound, we want special effects,'" tour promoter Al Wash told the Los Angeles Sentinel, "and now we're putting on a show like no one else in gospel ever has."
Franklin further scandalized gospel's old guard by entering a production deal through Mack-Lataillade's new company, B-Rite Records, which was distributed by the controversial Interscope Records—home of the notorious rap label Death Row and such rock acts as Nine Inch Nails. Interscope co-founder Jimmy Iovine told the Los Angeles Times he considered Franklin "an innovative artist with a long career ahead of him. He's going to create a lot of avenues for artists in the genre that they don't have right now," continued the famed music executive. "I think the spirit of gospel will expand and be an even more important factor in the pop world." Mack-Lataillade asserted in the same article that Franklin provided a corrective to the kind of music for which Interscope had become infamous. "We're on a mission," she proclaimed, adding, "We want to show people that there's another way to go with the music. When Kirk's music stops, people don't feel violent, and today that's worth something."
Franklin and the Family followed up their debut with a Christmas album, but it was Whatcha Lookin' 4, a continuation of the pumped-up R&B-styled gospel that had made the first album a sensation, that was considered the true follow-up. The album hit the pop charts running and scored on both the gospel and R&B charts. Franklin—who played a pastor in the touring play He Say, She Say But What Does God Say?—told Janice Malone of the Tennessee Tribune that he was untroubled by the high expectations that greeted the album. "I just stayed focused and recognized that it had nothing to do with me," he insisted. "I don't know about other artists, but it's a lot different for me because I write all of my own material. By doing so it makes me more sensitive to the final outcome, song per song. Whenever I do a project, I don't pick out just one particular song. When God gives me the music, he also gives me the words to the song all together, so that was one worry, I didn't really have."
In early 1996, the singer married Tammy Renee Collins, a former member of the R&B group Ashanti; "She's wonderful," he exclaimed in USA Today. "She's my soul mate." He added, "I hate the single life. Even though my music has a lot of urban appeal, I'm still a church boy. I'm not supposed to be seen with three or four different women. I want to represent not just the music but the lifestyle." He further insisted, in CCM, that his decision to marry Tammy was strengthened by Divine guidance. "God told me," he claimed. "When I was in my prayer time in Birmingham, Alabama, God spoke to me and told me He was pleased [about his plan to marry Collins]. And that He was pleased that she and I had waited [to be intimate]…[Marriage] is making me think and feel like a man. For so long, I was a boy. I know I'm a better man now that I'm married." He brought his son into the marriage, and she her 7-year-old daughter; the two later had a child together.
His spouse would prove an additional pillar of strength when Franklin suffered a serious accident. In late 1996 he fell from the stage of North Hall Auditorium in Memphis after introducing opening act Yolanda Adams, landing in the orchestra pit and sustaining head injuries. After a hospital stay brightened by "tens of thousands of postcards and phone calls from well-wishers," as Jet reported, Franklin convalesced and resumed his "Tour of Life." His experience, he told Steve Jones of USA Today, deepened his appreciation for his wife. "I started looking at her differently and started holding her hand differently," he related. "It was like I was falling in love all over again." Franklin's desire to attend gospel's Stellar Awards was so strong, his wife recalled, was strong even during the thick of his recovery. "When he was in the hospital he was telling us he was going," she recalled to Jones. "And we kept telling him, 'You're not going anywhere.' But he was like, 'Yes I am. Yes I am.' So finally, when the doctors said it would be OK, we said all right."
Franklin's appearance at the Stellar Awards—a mere month after his fall—was something of a valedictory. Billboard's Lisa Collins reported that the singer "was the night's big winner, thrilling the crowd with a performance and testimony that brought the crowd to its feet." Though he took home five awards, including artist of the year, Franklin expressed a larger goal to Collins. "I wanted to make a fool out of the devil," he said. "You're not going to try to take my life and think I'm not going to praise God. I'm a living testimony."
Nearly a decade later, Franklin continued his mission. His music had generated an even bigger buzz in the music industry. Franklin made gospel music cool, opening the doors of churches to share their music over the airwaves and on television. He combined gospel with R&B, pop, rock, hip-hop, and even African and Latin music. Franklin was credited by his peers as helping to make gospel music into a multi-million dollar industry. VH1 offered viewers several concert shows in the early 2000s, and mainstream musicians—such as Bono, Mary J. Blige, and R. Kelly—partnered with Franklin in the studio. Franklin was hailed as a "visionary" of gospel music, and he knew all that label implied, telling CNN that gospel music's new popularity was "an opportunity to reach more people with the message—especially a generation that isn't into organized religion, God, the Jesus thing."
Kirk Franklin and the Family, Gospo-Centric, 1993.
Christmas, Gospo-Centric, 1995.
Whatcha Lookin' 4, Gospo-Centric, 1996.
God's Property, Gospo-Centric, 1997.
Nu Nation Project, Gospo-Centric, 1998.
One Nation Crew, Gospo-Centric, 2000.
The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin, Gospo-Centric, 2002.
Billboard, December 28, 1996, p. 16; February 15, 1997, p. 38.
CCM, August 1996.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 6, 1996.
Gannett News Service, June 21, 1996.
Jet, November 25, 1996, p. 33.
Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1996, p. 7.
Los Angeles Sentinel, November 21, 1996.
Michigan Chronicle, November 7, 1995.
Philadelphia Tribune, May 9, 1995.
Tennessee Tribune, December 4, 1996.
Texas Monthly, 1996.
Time, January 22, 1996.
Tri-State Defender, November 29, 1995.
USA Today, October 17, 1996; December 10, 1996; December 11, 1996.
Washington Afro-American, February 18, 1995.
"Franklin Pushes New Gospel Boundaries with 'Nu Nation Project,'" CNN, http://archives.cnn.com/2000/SHOWBIZ/Music/01/31/wb.kirk.franklin/ (accessed January 20, 2005).
"Kirk Franklin," Nu Nation, www.nunation.com (accessed January 20, 2005).
"New Gospel Reaching Out to Next Generation," CNN, www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/Music/9901/07/franklin.gospel/ (accessed January 20, 2005).
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