Music Sermon: How Kirk Franklin Remixed Gospel Music
In honor of Kirk Franklin's 49th birthday, #MusicSermon chronicles how the former VIBE cover star remixed gospel for a generation that may not have found christianity through church pews.
#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.
In this era of music, there’s “trap gospel,” one of the biggest rappers of the last several years wears a “3” on his hat to represent the holy trinity and holds his own version of the altar call at the end of his shows, and the song “Jesus Walks” is an old school classic. But it’s easy to forget that way back in the 90s when Kirk Franklin’s music first hit MTV, the pop charts and the cover of this publication, church folks were scandalized. Easy to forget that a gospel artist dressed like a rapper or member of your favorite male R&B group wasn’t common. There was a wide chasm between gospel and secular music. Until Kirk. In honor of his birthday, today’s Music Sermon takes a look back at how he changed an entire genre--maybe two.
Gospel and secular music have a decades-old love/hate relationship. The genres have always influenced each other even as they’ve denied each other. Up until relatively recently, the best of black music’s singers, musicians and producers developed their craft in the black church, bringing the oil with them into the world to sprinkle some anointing on soul and R&B tracks. Then there were the greats, like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, who turned away from presumed gospel careers to seek pop success, but who had the spirit so imprinted in their voices they made everything sound like worship anyway. R&B has always reached back to acknowledge the church, in the way you swing by on event Sundays even if you haven’t been to service in a while: artists participated in gospel tributes, featured choirs on big songs and performances, and in the 90s it was an unwritten rule that an R&B album contained at least a gospel-feeling interlude. But gospel’s foray into secular music was much less frequent. It happened occasionally; The Hawkins Singers, The Staple Singers, and The Clark Sisters all had singles land on the pop or R&B charts. Then Andraé Crouch laid the foundation for contemporary gospel music in the 70s and 80s, using secular influences in his sound and working with pop and R&B stars including Elvis, Michael Jackson, El Debarge, Stevie Wonder, Madonna, Elton John, and Chaka Khan. (And composing/performing one of the livest TV theme songs of all time for Amen!) And then, Kirk. Kirk Franklin didn’t just bridge gospel and secular music, he combined them. The title “gospel rap” still isn’t commonly used, but Kirk Franklin is to whatever that hybrid genre would be called, what Puffy is to “hip hop soul.”
In the 90s, even young Christians were feeling disconnected from the gospel music they heard at church and on gospel radio. And the gospel that had a life on R&B radio, like BeBe and CeCe Winans, Take 6 and Sounds of Blackness, was more inspirational. Messages of agape love and hope. Not a lot of Jesus. Kirk came with Jesus, seeking the ears and hearts of the young churched and unchurched alike. He didn’t just aim for secular influence, but a full secular sound, with songs that sampled the Beastie Boys, Rufus and Chaka Khan, LTD, The Jacksons, Tears for Fear and even Scarface. Remaking hits from the 80s (yeah, yeah) to make it sound so crazy (yeah, yeah)…crazy for the Holy Spirit! It was kinda how parents blend vegetables into their kids’ favorite dishes on the sneak, except with Jesus instead of broccoli. Franklin created gospel that not only moved you to praise and tears, but made you wanna dance. Not just praise dance. Dance, dance. In the club. And while you were bankhead bouncing you realized you were getting a word. “They don’t come to gospel for the production or the beats,” Franklin told The New Yorker regarding his penchant for pushing sonic boundaries in gospel, “I wanna give you Jesus, but I wanna give you Jesus with an 808.”
While his career has been dogged with a mixture of praise and criticism, accused sometimes of having one foot in the world and one foot in the church, Kirk has remained one of the biggest contemporary gospel stars of all time – definitely the biggest of his generation. And still, continues to stand in the gap.
Franklin was a prodigy, and was writing, composing and directing the adult choir at his church as a minister of music by age 11. But unlike some children from strict christian households, he listened to and loved secular music. He established his name in traditional gospel circles working with various mass choirs, and simultaneously formed his own group, which he called The Family. His intention was to move gospel closer to secular music from the beginning. Not the message, though; just the music. “I’m trying to change the way people look at gospel music,” Franklin explained to the LA Times in 1996. “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.”
At non-church audience performances, Franklin and The Family would flip current hits to get and keep the crowd’s attention, adding Christ-centered references where appropriate. Not just R&B hits, hip hop hits. “When the holy spirit comes, you know it comes correct…woo ha!! It gots you all in check!” Sound familiar? That type of flip, where you don’t distill the essence or the energy of the original, just the language, has become one of Franklin’s signatures.
Kirk and The Family’s breakthrough hit, “Why We Sing,” was a traditional contemporary gospel song, but still a remix of sorts. It was an update of the classic hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” with another of Franklin’s signatures: his voice guiding us through the song as combination worship leader and hype man. Over time the song rose to the top of the Gospel chart and the Contemporary Christian chart (The first black act to do so), and crossed over to the R&B chart. Kirk Franklin & the Family became the first gospel album to crack a million units in sales (unheard of prior, even with gospel’s biggest acts), and the first gospel album since Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace to land in the Top 10 of the Billboard R&B chart.
“Why We Sing” kept Kirk Franklin & the Family at No. 1 on the Billboard Gospel chart for almost a year (42 weeks), so they dropped Kirk Franklin & the Family Christmas as a way of giving fans new music in advance of the sophomore album. The LP produced instant choir classics, like “Now Behold the Lamb,” but also spawned the jingle jam “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” in which a Kangol and leather vest-clad Franklin informed us, “Santa Claus ain’t got nothin’ on this!” Then he broke it down towards the end about how “(He) love(s) it when (we) call Him (our) savior.”
We talked about Kirk being the gospel inverse of Puff already, right?
The second album Whatcha Lookin’ 4 established Franklin songs as a staple for any youth or young adult choir worth their salt. They were easy to teach and easy to recall, with simple three-part vocal melodies--guaranteed to get the entire church rockin’. Enough so that the elders will ignore hearing Tony! Toni! Tonè!’s “Anniversary” during the modulations.
You know your part. Sing along.
By the way, there’s also a “Crush on You” remix for “Melodies…”
Yes, Junior Mafia.
Yes, for a gospel song.
Yes, it’s an entire bop.
Yes, Kirk is milly rocking.
Whatcha Lookin’ 4 was another platinum success, but it was the follow up that broke Franklin wide open in the secular space and made him a gospel’s biggest superstar. Jimmy Iovine, who was hipped to Franklin’s music by an employee, offered Franklin a production deal through Interscope Records. He believed Franklin would be for gospel what Bob Marley was for reggae. Franklin decided to build something outside of The Family that he could be more experimental with, and tapped a young Fort Worth choir called God’s Property to work with him.
The debut single was “Stomp,” and it changed everything. The single that went to radio was a remix, with a Funkadelic sample, featuring a rapper (Salt of Salt-n-Pepa), and was released on the same label that housed Death Row Records. The song’s intro was a declaration from Franklin – with another Biggie reference thrown in for good measure:
“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 got news for you; you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. And if you don’t know, now ya’ know.”
(I’m positive Big never thought that hip hop would make it that far.)
God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 and No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts: both firsts for a gospel album. The single was a No. 1 hit on the pop charts and the first gospel video put in regular rotation on MTV. The project eventually sold three million copies, the largest selling album ever in the genre at the time. This was not your grandmother’s gospel.
Son, they were goin’ down the Soul Train line on this.
The saints weren’t really feeling it. While Kirk was still beloved as a gospel artist, some thought he was going too far to translate God’s word to young audiences.
VIBE’s October 1997 issue featured a cover story on Franklin’s unprecedented mainstream success – a story in which, among other things, he referred to himself as “the holy dope dealer” peddling “Jesus rock.” Some of the resulting letters to the editor were scathing.
“I was a Kirk Franklin fan until I read your story,” one read. “I commended him for being a young man who really loved the Lord. Now, I think he uses the words “Hallelujah” and “God” over bouncy beats to appeal to GenX, not to the traditional churchgoers. You can’t straddle the fence when it comes to serving God.”
“If I can go to a club and ‘stomp’ on a dance floor, then what’s the purpose of going to church? Mr. Franklin is little more than a pimp, prostituting a new style of gospel music that sounds no different from hip hop and R&B. Once (you’re saved), your life does not become a ‘holy ghost party.’”
But was this a fair assessment, or out of touch? After all, music is a form of ministry, and the point of ministry and evangelism is to bring souls to Christ. Why should the message not go forth in a way to reach a younger audience? Why can’t it be a “holy ghost party?”
This has been Franklin’s counter-argument as he’s faced this criticism continuously over his 25-year career. He responded to detractors in a 1998 interview with Jet magazine, explaining, “Gospel music is not a sound; gospel music is a message. As long as the message is still the good news about Jesus loves you and He died for you. He’s coming again for you.” The bottom line, “No matter how radical my music may seem, does the music say Jesus or does it not say Jesus?”
Franklin once expressed in an interview that he felt like he could be a 27-year-old with God’s Property. He didn’t have to temper his energy and excitement. Didn’t have to dress in suits to perform. Didn’t have to be a church elder. The success of “Stomp” and the God’s Property album left him free to push boundaries even further. He was all in. Shiny suit, fish-eyed lens, bubble coat and ski goggles, Darkchild production (and feature! With a Mase flow!) late-‘90s bling-era all in.
This is the greatest video in the entire history of music videos. You should watch it multiple times. ALL MY REAL LIVE SAINTS THROW YOUR HANDS UP!!
Kirk wasn’t just churning out party gospel, either. As great as Franklin was and is as a hype-man and ad lib master, his prevailing talent has always been his songwriting. He used his newly solidified multi-genre crossover appeal to round up Mary J Blige, Bono, contemporary Christian artist Crystal Lewis and he-who-shall-not-be-named for “Lean On Me,” an incredibly moving anthem for humanity and community.
To his point in the Jet interview, no one could argue that the doors of the church had opened that much wider, thanks to Kirk. Not only were all welcome, be they in traditional Sunday best or streetwear fly; people wanted to be part of it. Gospel’s reach outside of Sunday morning radio programming, AM stations, BET’s beloved Bobby Jones and gospel conventions saw continued growth following the two God’s Property albums.
In 1999, gospel duo Mary Mary (and producer Warryn Campbell) followed Franklin’s 80s sample, hip hop influenced formula to score a multi-genre hit with “Shackles (Praise You).” The sample of Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Further” drove the single to success not only on the R&B and Pop charts, but also on the Dance chart, which propelled it internationally. Production virtuosos Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis scored a Top 10 R&B hit for Yolanda Adams with “Open My Heart.” A remix of the track cracked the Top 40 on the Dance chart. Gospel artists scoring No. 1 R&B hits and selling platinum albums were no longer anomalies. Secular producers working with gospel artists became more common.
TV was getting into the gospel game as well. After decades of being relegated to the Stellars, The Doves, and maybe one BET Awards performance, gospel was getting fresh looks. In 1999, VH1 added Franklin, CeCe Winans, and Shirley Caesar to a televised concert special. "Gospel music is no longer relegated to just the churches in the South," network exec Robert Katz told CNN at the time. "There is an emerging gospel music, a pulse that is all over the country.”
The game had changed.
This next part is far too familiar in stories of skyrocketing success: after the highest heights, there is conflict, because mo’ money, mo’ problems. And that goes double when you’re supposed to be about the Father’s business (just ask John Gray). On the heels of The Nu Nation Project, Franklin faced multiple lawsuits and a public battle with porn addiction. His next album, The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin, was a throwback to the sound and style of the early Family albums; traditional contemporary gospel. But it didn’t sell as well as his previous projects. Franklin found himself in a spiritual identity crisis. In a 2003 interview, Franklin revealed that he was unprepared for the success. “Selling a lot of albums and crossing over made me famous, and it gave me an audience. It gave me validation.” Abandoned by his parents at a young age, he was seeking attention and adoration, and when it came in the form of celebrity, it was addictive. “It was almost like I was the worst person God could have ever chosen…It’s like sending a crack addict to be a missionary in a crack house.”
Fortunately, Franklin bounced back, and relatively quickly. He didn’t go as hard as he had previously--he was older, youth culture had changed, and Kirk in a 4XL tee doing snap rap gospel would have been a bridge too far. But he went back to the formula that worked for him. The days of 17-person choirs were gone (thanks, label budgets), but flipping familiar hits is evergreen. Soul/R&B (Patrice Rushen, “Haven’t You Heard”), pop (Kenny Loggins, “This is It”), rap (Scarface feat. 2Pac “Smile”), all could be used to glorify and edify.
There’s more, though. Much like Puffy was once blamed in part for hip hop going too pop and getting too shiny, Franklin bears some weight in steering gospel music away from the traditional format of scripture-based gospel sung by choirs to the modern praise and worship format. The songs are simple and repetitive, and usually sung by small praise teams instead of choirs, led by worship leaders or soloists, and can be backed by tracks instead of musicians. In an attempt at being more radio-friendly, more gospel artists also stay in a Jesus-free inspirational lane. Is it a love song? Is it a gospel song? Who knows?!
Shortly after Andraé Crouch’s death, Franklin shared on his personal blog that he was embarrassed he’d dismissed Crouch’s style of gospel when he was younger, and expressed amazement at the wide recognition and respect Crouch enjoyed and how his music touched people of all walks of life. Things Kirk implied he’d thought only possible with crossover success. And now, the sound of gospel music had shifted completely. Arguably too much so.
“Our music doesn’t affect people the way it used to. It doesn’t create movements like it did during Andrae’s time. Is it because today’s worship leader is too busy trying to get the record deal, the applause, a higher church salary, and that crossover song? [The guilt is all over my hands, people!]”
Franklin may be more mindful now of the balance between blending and distilling, as many career gospel artists are tackling the question of how to restore their genre to former greatness – a question echoing throughout R&B and hip hop as well. Now, a gospel influence in hip hop and vice versa isn’t so foreign. There are even thriving Christian rappers. But Franklin is still one of the go-to’s when secular urban artists need a gospel OG. In 2016, almost two decades following the angry VIBE write-ins, Franklin found himself again facing questions about the appropriate line for gospel crossover when he recorded “Ultralight Beam” with Kanye. When asked about the backlash, Franklin’s answer to the The New York Times sounds like it applies to all the ups and downs of his career. “What I always have to remember is motive and intent: ‘Kirk, you know why you’re there, you know what God has put in your gut. Some of that will come and you will weather it.’ Christianity ain’t something you signed up for like a vacation. It’s not a first-class trip to Fiji. You’re signing up for the ridicule.”