Grammy Award winning gospel megastar KIRK FRANKLIN continues his dazzling progress to unprecedented Christian music success. Tony Cummings reports.
The rise and rise of Kirk Franklin has now reached breathtaking proportions. Just consider these bald facts. Kirk has been at least partially responsible for three of the Top 15 best selling Christian music albums of all time. 1993's 'Kirk Franklin & The Family' was the first debut album on a Christian album to go platinum. Last year's 'God's Property' album (featuring the hit single "Stomp") went double platinum and reached the top of America's R&B and gospel charts - and third place on the pop charts. Five songs on Kirk's latest album 'The Nu Nation Project' have been nominated for Grammy Awards and Kirk performed "Lean On Me" at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on 24th February before a TV audience of 1.5 billion people.
Amongst those guesting on that rousing ballad "Lean On Me" of course were Mary J Blige and Bono. Kirk was very keen to sing with the U2 megastar. As Kirk told CCM magazine, "I asked Jimmy Iovine if I could sing with Bono and he said yeah. I said, 'Are you serious? Can you hook me up?' So he called Bono and Bono said he'd love to do it. Hearing the news was incredible!
"So I flew over to Ireland. I don't even remember what studio it was. I didn't sleep. But it was quick. I tracked him and we shot some video footage. Then I left. And I was back home the next day for my daughter's birthday."
The whirlwind, one-day session was logged by Rolling Stone's Random Notes section and was a perspective-builder for Franklin, the rising star who got to share studio space with a rock'n'roll legend. "Bono's a nice guy, a very spiritual guy," he recalled. "I asked him how things were going and he talked to me about the 'PopMarf tour. He said one of the shows didn't turn out as big as they wanted it to, and I'm lookin' at him and goin', 'You're kidding!' And then he remembered something about 'Pop' only selling seven or nine million units! I thought, 'Man!'"
In his no-holds-barred biography Church Boy Kirk talked with heartening honesty about his lurid past and his current struggles. "I struggle with my flesh every day," he said. "I mean, if the album isn't getting enough spins on the radio, I get frustrated." But Franklin's quick to admit that achieving success - and figuring out how to view and use its rewards - is a struggle and challenge he deals with moment by moment. "I can't take the praise of people," Franklin revealed. "I gotta say, 'It's from Jesus' or I get caught up in the flesh. I know I'm supposed to say, 'Lord, I just want to minister. If one person gets saved, that's all that matters.' But I don't always do that. Then God convicts me - and his conviction is the blessing. It's like, 'Hey boy, you trippin'! Who is this about?' "I'm just afraid that someday I'm gonna look in the mirror and forget that. I'm afraid that if I go for popularity, riches, number one charts, limos and private jets, God will say, 'You're no good for me.' And then he'll cut me off. I'm nothin' but dirt that God's blessed."
But along with the rewards of his work have come equal measures of
thorny barbs. Ever since he came on the scene in 1993, controversy and
criticism have followed Franklin like rabid hellhounds on his trail.
So relentless are his critics that Franklin countered with two tracks
on 'The Nu Nation Project' devoted to them. The opening number,
"Interlude: The Verdict", is a Carman-esque courtroom take on the
Franklin's often saddled with: that he spends too much time with rap and R&B artists; that he's a general market artist dressed in Christian clothing; that he makes gospel music too worldly. "Interlude: The Car (Stomp)" is a hilarious send up of an older, Rev James Cleveland-loving couple who bow to Franklin's feet but then diss him behind his back, calling him "shorty" and "filth", among other epithets.
Not all the tracks on 'The Nu Nation Project' are defiantly urban. For
those in tune with the traditional gospel,
Franklin included "Something About The Name Of Jesus" on which gospel legend Ranee Allen, The Family and Men Of Standard appear. "It's an old-school gospel song for people who like that down home church singing," said Franklin. Continuing on, it's the serene "Riverside", a selection that blends straight ahead gospel with R&B soul.
Jazz propels the elegant "He Loves Me", adorned with a lush piano and strings arrangement. Bill Withers' tender classic "Lovely Day" gets the Franklin treatment. "I spiced it up a bit and made it more hip hop," noted Franklin who decided to cover the song after hearing it late one night. "It was about 2.00am. I was trying to sleep when 'Lovely Day' came on the radio. I jumped out of bed, went straight to the piano and started playing it. I was inspired."
Next Franklin enthusiastically delivered "Praise Joint", a get-up-out-of-your-seat-and-testify track; reminiscent of Kirk Franklin And God's Property's number one international hit "Stomp". "It's a real praise party," declared Franklin.
The tempo slows down quite a bit with the introspective "Hold Me Now", a piece very close to Franklin's heart. "It's a real intimate, a very transparent song," revealed the singer/songwriter /producer/mentor. "It shows some of my scars and feelings about being a Christian in this business. I'm a gospel artist who has to deal with a secular business. I walk a very tight rope. I stay focused through prayer. 'You Are' talks about all the wonderful things that Jesus is. I want to educate and enlighten. Some people are afraid of organised religion. I'm giving a fresh new way to look at religion so it can be embraced."
Hip-hop pumps hard on "If You've Been Delivered", with Franklin flexing his rhyming skills. "Smile Again" takes on a different twist...it's a rock gospel number featuring gospel veteran DonniMcClurkin. "I love many styles of music and on this album I wanted to express them all," offered Franklin. Gospel great Fred Hammond joined Franklin on the upbeat "My Desire". "Blessing In The Storm" moves to an acoustic/folk vibe while "I Can" is another touching and personal composition highlighted by a full orchestra and arrangements by Claire Fisher (who has worked with such artists as Barbara Streisand and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince). The album wraps us with a "Love Remix".
Perhaps Franklin's biggest setback came during a freak accident that nearly cost him his life. Walking backstage during a November 1996 concert in Memphis, Franklin fell into a pitch-black pit offstage and sustained serious head injuries. Miraculously, he healed quickly and the 'Tour Of Life' resumed the following month. But for Fred Hammond, a top artist in his own right and a close friend of Franklin over the last five years, being nearby when Franklin got hurt was one of the most horrific moments of his life. "We'd just come offstage after the opening number and I heard a lot of hollering," Hammond explained. "I'd played in this place before, so I immediately knew Kirk fell into the pit. When they finally got to him, security was flashing alight on his feet, then his head. It was twisted sideways and bleeding. He was going into convulsions. It was pandemonium. And I was thinking over and over, 'This isn't happening. This isn't happening.' "So I went back on stage and told the audience that Kirk needed prayer. At that point the concert was ruined, but we had a 30-minute worship service anyway. In my times of tragedy, in my times of panic, with tears in my eyes, I'll sing worship songs. Because the enemy comes in and brings doubt. There was so much physical opposition to that tour happening - Yolanda Adams had a lung disorder of some sort; I was close to developing diabetes; and then Kirk. I mean concerts were selling out and God was being lifted up - but then the enemy says, 'Okay, I got you all now. I'm shutting this thing down.'"
And the most recent hurdle for Franklin? A lawsuit, and not one from a crazed fan or a struggling songwriter claiming Franklin stole lyrics. This lawsuit was filed by none other than God's Property. In mid-October, Franklin and Gospo Centric were sued by the ensemble vocal group for more than $65 million in damages. The suit claims Franklin & Co induced God's Property founder, Linda Searight, into signing a one-sided contract and that no royalties have been paid to the group since the now double platinum album released. Franklin's camp has denied the charges.
And talking to Franklin, you'd never know a multi-million dollar lawsuit is hanging over his head. It's almost as if it's merely another knob that's been turned up in the pressure cooker that's become his life. "It gets to you," Franklin admitted, referencing the barrage of criticism he's received. "It hurts when people attack you directly. It's a challenge. It's not something I learned overnight, but when 'Stomp' was hitting and people criticised the dancing in the video, I used to try to defend myself all the time. But God told me, 'You are not my attorney! You're not my Johnny Cochran!'"
Yet despite edicts from above, there are a few issues Franklin can't keep silent about - the most notable being the treatment of high quality Christian music compared to what he characterises as raunchy general market songs. "I find myself going to radio stations and record companies and getting livid!" he said, the passion in his voice building with each word. "It's a big struggle now because I'd like to be Peter...and cut ears off. I have a big problem when people play secular music with lyrics calling women 'b's' and 'h's' and saying 'nigga'. And here I am with a song and the beat is just as hot and the rhythms are just as funky, but they decide to play this other mess instead! They won't play my songs 'cause I say Jesus! That rubs me! I find myself getting in the middle of a war -and I fight it.
"But God convicted me...again. He called me to be a servant, to live for him, but still I struggle. Why is society so scared of the name Jesus? Things have happened in the last decade that have given Christians a bad name - that they're money hungry, fornicating hypocrites - but you can't throw the baby out with the bath water!" Journalist Dave Urbanski wrote in CCM magazine, "Innovators do what they do because they're not afraid of being different - or being ridiculed, derided or laughed at. When these trailblazers are carrying out their radical projects and theories, the change they bring about isn't often looked upon favourably. But when innovators are proven correct, they're hailed as heroes. Franklin is indeed an innovator - not just through his music, but through his relationships with other artists, especially those steeped in the adulation of general market hip hop and R&B. And just like many other facets of his life, Franklin's friendships have been lightning rods."
One of the most far-reaching criticisms he's received in this regard stems from his friendship with rapper Cheryl "Salt" James of Salt 'N' Pepa, who made a controversial guest appearance on "Stomp". James' presence was controversial because she's been quoted numerous times as believing in Jesus and recreational sex - not exactly a combination associated with a biblical world-view. But whatever James' spiritual state, Franklin is steadfast in what he sees as his pastoral role with her and other artists like her. "Sometimes I'm an ear. They know they're talking to somebody who's not going to judge them," Franklin explained. "(Young R&B singer) Usher is one. There have been a couple of times when he and I have hung out. He's such a young man - and he's a big pop star. So I'm telling him, 'Be careful; recognise your relationship with God.' You know, to reach the secular world, you don't beat them over the head with the Bible. You do it the way Jesus did it. You feed them first, then you preach to them."
The Rev Tony Evans, pastor of Dallas' Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship and a well-respected speaker, author and teacher, is one of a handful of informal mentors Franklin meets with for counsel and prayer. Evans says he actually foresees Franklin transferring the emphasis of his career away from entertainment and toward ministry. "He's been wanting to develop his discipleship impact," Evans revealed, "and there's a very strong possibility that he'll bring my ministry -the Urban Alternative - on his upcoming tour."
Franklin acknowledges his need for more mature Christians to keep him accountable, primarily because he's operating in culture at large, outside the safety afforded by a career within the church market alone. While that can be an honour and a privilege, it can also be a problem - one that most Christian artists don't have to face. Indeed, as with many innovators, Franklin's chosen path is often a lonely and difficult one. "You feel a mixture of things," Franklin explained. "Sometimes you feel like a dirty piece of carpet with people walking over you; sometimes you feel like a fish out of water. Yet there are so many opportunities to minister to people. But if you go into that environment and people can see no difference in you, there's something wrong with you. If they're not uncomfortable smoking herb around you, then maybe you're not living right.
"So that always makes me check myself. I can't say or do anything that gives Christ a bad name. Yes, I have bad days, but my life is not mine anymore. I know that I can't do anything and go wherever I want anymore. I'm accountable to a cloud of witnesses. I'm accountable to Abraham. I'm accountable to Jacob. To Isaac. To all the brothers and sisters who've come before me."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.