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.”
“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. ♦