How does the debut single and album by a group consisting of 50 singers and five band members, aged 16-26, make America's pop, R&B and gospel charts? Tony Cummings investigates the phenomenon that is God's Property.
Three years ago Kirk Franklin was beginning his phenomenal assault on the Christian music industry breaking all black gospel sales records with the first of his platinum albums. Now he's the producer and creative mentor behind the unprecedented gospel, R&B and pop chart success for the single "Stomp" by youth choir God's Property and the album on which it's featured 'From Kirk Franklin's Nu Nation'. God's Property were formed in 1992 by Linda Searight after being impressed with a group of talented students at the Dallas-based Washington Arts Magnet High School who were interested in forming a choir but lacked direction. A music teacher and former operatic performer, Searight gave the choir that direction and husband Robert became the choir's director. To round out the choir, Linda circulated fliers to young people in Dallas musical circles. "At the first rehearsal we knew we had something special," Searight told Billboard, the US music trade magazine. "Young people witnessing to other young people in their own vernacular."
Despite a number of the choir being "at risk students" with backgrounds steeped in drugs and violence, and having to adhere to strict no drugs, no profanity, high moral standards rules within the choir, God's Property quickly became immensely popular in the Dallas area.
Linda had first got to know Kirk Franklin while he was working with the Dallas/Fort Worth Mass Choir. Franklin did not allow his ascendancy to gospel stardom to distance him from his roots and retained a deep friendship with the teacher and choir conductor. Franklin became a spiritual and creative mentor for the choir and featured them in his 'What Cha Lookin' 4' video. The choir were also featured on a track on the Get On The Bus movie soundtrack. Then in 1996 Kirk told a surprised Searight that he wanted God's Property to be the first act he produced for his newly founded production company. "That was Kirk's baby," said Vicki Mack-Lataillade, CEO of GospoCentric Records. "He did everything, and he's the one who insisted that they be the first of those released on his production company (there are two other projects in the works). Lending his name to the project was very important to him. He felt he had to reach back into the community and share the spotlight."
Using a funk groove sampled from an old Parliament/Funkadelic classic "One Nation Under A Groove" and bringing in Cheryl 'Salt' James of mainstream million sellers Salt 'n' Peppa as guest rapper, gave the first single from the album, the blistering "Stomp", all the potential mainstream kudos necessary. But it still took a unique triple-headed US marketing campaign to turn it into a smash with Interscope handling the secular market, GospoCentric going after the (black) gospel market and Word handling the (white) Christian bookshops. "'Stomp' characterizes what B'Rite was trying to do with the audience we were trying to reach," said Claude Lataillade of B'Rite, the mainstream offshoot of GospoCentric which, through its deal with Interscope, aims to get gospel music into the mainstream. "Youth-orientated and energetic, it projected that you can have fun being a Christian. Hey, nothing like a Holy Spirit party."
Kirk Franklin is equally colourful in his language, saying the album has "everything from traditional praise worship to Sunday morning foot stomp and Friday night bumpin'." Having written the majority of the songs for the album and having played key live concerts with God's Property, Kirk is wildly enthusiastic about the project. "This is an opportunity to express the side of me I don't get to express with the Family. With God's Property I get the chance to be 27. I prayed to God for the opportunity to give our talented black youth a platform to showcase their talents. It's all part of my 'Nu Nation' concept - a kind of youth crusade. Next year in Dallas, I'm planning a convention that could be a cross between the Gospel Music Workshop Of America and Jack The Rapper, one with a ministry component, where we might have nightly worship followed by a youth jam session. I want to be about raising up a standard for youth. Telling them, 'Hey, you don't have to be a gangsta.'"
Recently Franklin appeared with God's Property at Six Flags Theme Park in Texas while the choir itself performed with pop mega-star Celine Dion at the encore of the media-acclaimed Call The Men/Power Of The Dream concert in Dallas.
Franklin is keen to see groups like God's Property challenge the disinterest many in the music industry show towards gospel music. "I'm all about the music society respecting gospel music across the board. I hate the second-class treatment that we get - no recognition on the American Music Awards, little recognition with the Grammys, particularly since most of your top R&B stars came out of the Church."
God's Property completed a major tour of America in September with Kurt Carr & The Kurt Carr Singers and Trin-I-Tee 5:7 (an act to be launched by B'Rite later this year). Kirk guested at some of the dates. Despite all his phenomenal success the platinum selling artist and producer is trying to keep level headed. "I'm keeping my ear to the throne to find out what I'm supposed to do, because there's a lot on the table, and I'm going to be very careful that I don't get in God's way. I want to bring together the key players. I don't have the experience and knowledge to do it all, but I do have the vision."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.