In 1993, Kirk Franklin And The Family’s debut album changed contemporary gospel. The genre wasn’t unfamiliar with crossover success; Andrae Crouch infused new life into the genre-blending gospel with Christian, R&B and even pop. By the early ‘90s, gospel acts like Bebe and Cece Winans enjoyed a steady presence at Urban radio with songs that leaned more inspirational than straight up spiritual. But Kirk And The Family bridged the gap between gospel and secular even further, putting praise to hip-hop and new jack swing samples and updating tried and true classics with catchy but emotive arrangements. By the late 1990s, Franklin had revolutionized the business. He was the first gospel artist to reach platinum sales with his debut album, the first gospel artist on MTV, the first gospel artist with a No. 1 pop hit – the first gospel artist to become a bonafide mainstream superstar. He moved like a hip-hop artist but walked with Jesus, and while it confused and upset church elders, it opened the word of God up to a segment that the old time hymns simply couldn’t read.
The multi-talented artist is now 26 years into his career, and facing the same challenges of staying true to his artistry and message in a changing musical landscape as his peers on the secular side of the charts. Gospel artists who broke down barriers into mainstream music in the ‘90s and ‘00s are mostly back to serving their gospel core, and finding their path musically as gospel music is in the midst of a similar genre identity crisis as R&B. But while Franklin may not be in as big a spotlight as he once was, he’s still the biggest and one of the most visible gospel stars of our generation and hasn’t slowed down with his music or his energy.
On May 31, 2019, Franklin released his 13th studio album, Long Live Love, and will begin touring for the album on Thursday, July 11. VIBE joined him for an intimate listening of the new album, and then Naima Cochrane talked to the prolific writer, producer, and Sunday Best executive producer and host about going back to his origins, the black church’s relevance for black millennials, and False Evidence Appearing Real.
VIBE: Your run of 26 years in the game is amazing, and to be commended. At the listening party last night, you brought up the theme of going back to your roots a few times. You said you went back to your childhood home and your school. You talked about stripping back your production methods, and taking it back to the days of The Family, and even mentioned that your partner (Ron Hill, president of Franklin’s Fo Yo Soul Entertainment) told you to pull the “old Kirk” out. What does that mean? What has inspired that reach back to the origins and the roots for this album?
Kirk Franklin: I know that for (Ron), his statement had to do more with the sonic sound, kind of more of the texture. Not the heart behind the music… because you know I’m the same Kirk. I’m steadily trying to grow in my faith and I want to be a sincere dude about the God I preach about and about the God I love, so it wasn’t about that. It had more to do with just the texture. It’s the DNA of a song. Some songs may be more driven by a piano than like an 808, or by the lyrical content, or the way that the choir is singing. So, that’s what he meant, and it was very difficult at first like I said [at the listening session]. … But I really really love the song now because I had to push, you know what I mean, I had to really push through all of that. Does that answer your question?
That answers part of it. What inspired you to go back home and start over again for this album? Was that about the sonics, or was that more about wanting to rekindle something?
That had more to do with the innocence of what I come from; I wasn’t trying to be no artist [at that time of my life]. I wasn’t trying to be no national name or nothing. I didn’t have that idea to even think that was possible. It had more to do with me just really… going through the storms of life. And so, I wanted to go back to those places and those moments in my life when the storm was real for me. Where before I’m doing a concert in London, or before I’m on a stage at an awards show, I want to go back to an area you know I was broke and strugglin’. Had no money or nothin’, and just kinda sit there and feel what that felt like again.
I imagine that might be a necessary reset when you’ve been doing what you do for 26 years. You get so far away from that.
What it does is that – what is very interesting is that those are places I really prefer. I feel more comfortable and at home in those places of my childhood and the places of innocence, than flying to New York or L.A. Those things are great, but I am most comfortable when I am going up to my old middle school, and sitting on the football field and just being reflective. Or going down by the river that runs through the city we live in and just remember – that moment. Those are my sanctuaries; that’s my church.
You also said you don’t go back that often.
I don’t get to go back as often as I like. The truth is, I probably go once a month, but I wish I could go back more.
You said you’ve been struggling with anxiety for several years and that part of it was wrapped up in pride and fear of younger artists coming behind you. We think about that more in terms of secular music, but I never considered that perspective in gospel. How do you move yourself out of that and just focus on Kirk?
Yeah, or, even focus on God, right?
Focus on God, you’re right.
Yeah, yeah. I think that statement was inclusive of a lot of things. It had to do with my age, and had to do with are people tired of what I have to say, or just the world that we’re living in. And one thing that I didn’t say that is inclusive of that anxiety – and I think you heard me say this (at the listening event) – just about the PTSD that a lot of men of color in America go through. When we go through being rejected and abandoned like I did as a kid, you have a lot of fear and anxiety issues that you didn’t even know that’s what it was defined as. You live your life a lot of times living with the ghost of fear. That’s why I called (my 2011 album) Hello Fear. I called it that because that has been a narrative kinda, of my life; this anxiety connected with fear. Fear of death, fear of getting older, fear of younger artists coming, you know. It’s almost like when you struggle with fear, fear connects itself to anything. So, it’s not just necessarily exclusive to younger artists coming up, that’s not it at all. It’s just a combination of anything that fear can grab its hand on.
Like, one of the acronyms of fear – False Evidence Appearing Real. So, when that spirit of fear comes on you, it can just attach itself to anything. That can breed anxiety. For like the last eight or nine years, I’ve struggled with it more than I did as a kid, but even as a kid I had it.
But you were able to recognize it a little bit more as you got older?
I’m able to recognize it more. To recognize the genesis of it, and to be able to connect the dots of why.
I do appreciate that you said that you’ve been in therapy for many years. I think it’s so important that our black men know that’s okay.
Yes ma’am. Yes ma’am.
This album, you focus on love. Long Live Love, and your lead single is “Love Theory.” Why this focal point now?
Well, one thing that I’ve learned is that love and fear cannot occupy the same space. So, one of the weapons to defeat fear is love. Learning the power of love and being loved by the creator of love. Being loved by God himself. “For God so loved the world,” knowing that I’m included in that statement, and that I’m not an afterthought, and that I’m gonna be okay. God is my protector, whom shall I fear? And those truths give you the hope to be able to make it another day, to be able to persevere.
You said your most personal and most challenging song is “Forever/Beautiful Grace,” right?
And you also added your own voice at the end of the song, which you don’t often do.
That’s the “Beautiful Grace” part. It’s almost like two songs in one, I guess. I sang it because it would have been difficult for anybody else to sing that and it ring true. Like, I had to do it. There was no one else that could really do that part.
But I think it’s beautiful. It conveys some rawness and vulnerability, which I think really helps bring the message of the song through more clearly, so I think that was a perfect choice.
You also said that this time you wrote a lot of the music before you actually did the track. Before you went in to record, the songs themselves were done already, and that’s kind of new for you. When a lot of people think of you they think of the production first, so for you to start from the lyrical content first, how is that different for you?
What’s funny is that rarely do I ever work on a track before writing the song in the first place, but this time I was very intentional to make sure that I did that with the entire body of work. A lot of times I’m writing and producing at the same time. And this time, I had everything completely done before I even considered trying to work on the production. And that was a very different process because I wanted to make sure that the songs speak life by themselves. Like, I didn’t want them to need any help, I didn’t want the song to need help. And we narrowed it down to ten songs. We didn’t want an album full of songs. Ten songs that were intentional. Because I had on my phone, I had about three years of ideas, because it’s been about three and a half years since my last album, so I had about three and a half years of song ideas. …I just wanted to be very intentional. Didn’t want a lot of fluff. Wanted to make sure that what I was saying was coming straight from God’s heart to people.
You, Yolanda Adams, and Mary Mary ushered in a whole new era of gospel. For the first time it was possible for gospel artists to go all the way mainstream, to rack up platinum albums. And then when Andraé Crouch died in 2015, you wrote that you were worried that now worship leaders were focused a little too much on the stardom, and that something had been lost in terms of how gospel music actually impacted people. Do you still feel that way? Are you keeping that in mind when you’re recording?
Yeah, and that’s pretty cool that you did your little research on me. That’s pretty fresh (laughs). I don’t think that we are immune to the same kind of tricks that affect anybody that has a microphone. Anyone that has a microphone, that temptation for the voice to be bigger than the message is always there. And I think especially with people in my genre, it is imperative that we are intentional in making sure that people hear God more than they hear us. That takes a great sense of self-denial.
On the R&B side there’s a question about what happened to “real” R&B, and I know that conversation is being mirrored in gospel. People feel like there’s more praise and worship (a style born of the evangelical church with simple, repetitive lyrics) coming through than actual true hymns and gospel songs that reflect scripture. How do you feel about that? Because some point to you as one of the people who started that transition. Do you agree with that?
I think that first of all, whatever touches a person’s heart and causes them to want to be closer to God more than they are now, that’s a beautiful thing. That should be happening and that should be allowed. If people are growing in their faith, and if they’re going to gospel music, or if they’re going to worship and praise music that may lean a little bit more contemporary Christian in its style and format, that’s cool, too, because I think the main agenda should always be the word of God in this genre. The number one agenda should not be the industry, and what’s poppin’ on the charts, and what’s the new wave. I think that all of those things must be secondary, even if they have to be included at all. I think that the bottom line; I am saying that in within that context, there is something very beautiful about the experience of our people. There is something very beautiful about the experience of African Americans, and the struggle and the sound and the culture we bring to the table should not have to be left on the table when it comes to the music that we do.
Do you ever take credit for getting young adult choirs poppin’ in the church? (laughs)
No. Young adults poppin’ in the church? I think that is so cute.
The main agenda should always be the word of God in this genre. Not be the industry, and what’s poppin’ on the charts, and what’s the new wave.
The young adult choirs! Listen, there’s a whole generation of people out there who were more engaged in their choir because they were able to do Kirk Franklin and the Family music or Kirk Franklin music. I’ve seen it stated again and again. I have to imagine people have said that to you.
I have a question for you.
What do you think happened? What do you think happened to the engagement of people in gospel music? Not necessarily Kirk Franklin, but just the engagement of gospel music. Like, in your view of a person who talks about music and culture professionally, and also somebody who’s somewhat familiar with the gospel music genre, what do you think happened?
It seems like it’s not even so much – just from my anecdotal perspective, because this is a conversation I do have – it’s not even about the engagement with the music, but an engagement with the church altogether. I’m GenX, I’m 43, but people who are a little bit younger than me – millennials, many of whom grew up in the church – as soon as they were old enough to make their own decisions they left. And I think that leaving the church for them also meant leaving things of the church, like the music. And I think at the same time, once we came out of 2010 or so, we stopped having as much gospel on the mainstream charts as we did in the ‘90s through the early 2000s. You know you, Yolanda, the Mary’s, Ty (Tribbett), etc, you guys were sometimes popping up on the R&B chart or the adult urban chart, but mostly you were back on the gospel charts, so I also think there wasn’t as much crossover as there was when I was growing up. I think it’s kind of those two things combined. But also Kirk, in my opinion, there’s been a loss of musicality on the gospel side and the R&B side, because they used to feed into each other. So, on the R&B side we don’t have as many producers coming out of the church, we don’t have as many singers coming out of the church. And on the church side we don’t have as many people involved in the music ministry of the church – they might play a track, there might just be a couple of stars who do the singing and the playing, but I don’t see as many people getting trained up in the music ministry and I think that affects both sides.
You did very good. Very, very good. What do you think can happen to change that around?
For those of us who are a little older, we need to have a little bit more patience with those who are younger instead of just dismissing them as “you don’t know nothin’,” or being frustrated with them. But I also think there has to be some reach out on both sides; I think those who are younger have to be a little more interested to engage the older folks, and the older folks have to be a little bit more willing to reach back. I think that used to happen more, and it doesn’t – there’s a disconnect. There’s a generational disconnect now.
Yes. I totally agree. And I definitely agree with you that there is a lack of interest in all things about faith when it comes to millennials.
But I also see it even in the 40-year-olds, don’t you?
I think we let life get in the way a little bit. For example, I’m part of the young adult choir at my church, but our choir has the most fluctuating membership because as soon as life stuff starts happening, we leave, we come back. We leave, we come back. We take a break from church, we come back. It’s not as consistent for us. You know, for our parents and our grandparents, no matter what else was going on, you went to church. No matter what else was going on, you went to choir rehearsal, you went to bible study. And for us it’s like, I don’t feel like it this week, I’m not going. I think there’s maybe that change in priority. I don’t really know how to shift that back, but that’s what I see happening. For us, we go (to church) to get fed, we go to get nurtured, but it’s not like this happens and everything else happens around this the way it used to be for older generations.
That’s my thought. See, now look we done flipped the interview around and now you interviewing me. But I love it.
It’s a good talk, though, man.
I appreciate it! But that also leads me another question: you were the voice of connecting young people to gospel. And now you’re an elder statesman in the game – of sorts; gospel artists tend to have a much longer career than mainstream artists, but now you’re an elder.
Does that change how you approach your music and your career, and how you talk to people, and just how you move through your career?
You know, I’m gonna be very candid with you, I’m still trying to figure out what that looks like. I even try to do it even from the physicality of it. Like I still run around and dance on stage and I be trying to figure out like ‘Okay, what dance can I do?’
You sure do! I saw you at Essence Festival last year with The Roots, and you were killin’ it!
But you have no idea how painstaking it is to try to figure, okay, can I do the Whoa? You know, just ‘cause I can do the Whoa, can I do the Whoa? Or am I gonna look like the old pawpaw tryin’ to do… you know. I’m at a weird place of not knowing how to be my age.
I think that all of us in our forties are in that place, because we’re not the same forties that forty was twenty years ago, right?
Exactly. I hear you. So, it’s like, I’m trying to figure out what that looks like. Now, when it comes to showing love to people and you know just giving advice, that’s something I would have done in my thirties, I did it in my twenties. So, I’m not being any different. I’m always trying to figure it out. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m literally still trying to figure it all out.
Why is Sunday Best coming back now? (Ed. note: the show returns to BET on Sunday, June 30.) Was it time? Do we need it?
I think that, you know, it always depends on what type of ambassador you have in the house that fights for certain content that is more a niche in its DNA. With the changes at Viacom and the things that were happening at BET, you still gotta have somebody in there fighting for the things that may not look as mainstream, but there’s an audience that is underserved. And to see the viability of that underserved audience. Sometimes it takes that. So, we can stand on the side of the road, kind of like what is happening with that boy and his TV show Star.
Oh, yeah, Lee Daniels.
Yeah, he’s trying to get the word out there that they’re fighting for it, but if the corporates at Fox want to move something different, he can yell as much as he wants to and if the audience doesn’t yell along with him…
I think that the audience yelled loud for Sunday Best, because there’s nothing in the marketplace.
Tell me about “Strong God”: the motivation, and the inspiration and the why.
I think that one of the greatest misconceptions about gospel music from those that listen to it – and even at times those that do it – is that its agenda always has to be vertical, that there can never be a horizontal social commentary connected with the gospel, when at the same time one of the biggest modus operandi of Jesus Christ was the poor and the less fortunate and the widows. And his level of frustration was the oppression that the government and the religious leaders put on those people. So, to have social commentary in a gospel song for me is very important. Even, you know it’s been part of my career, I was doing it back with “Lean on Me.”
You were even doing it with “Revolution.”
I’ve always enjoyed having social commentary, because I think it’s important. And then it broadens – and when I say “broaden” I don’t mean radio airplay and crossover – it just broadens the idea of what gospel music can be and who God is.
Okay, last question. How have you felt about people calling you the Gospel Puff Daddy?
The gospel Puff Daddy?
Yeah. Did you know that’s your nickname?
They can call me whatever they want to call me. They call me the gospel DJ Khaled…you know I’ve heard it all. I’m cool. Whatever you wanna call me. I don’t care.