It’s hard to describe in a word what Kirk Franklin does for a living. Franklin, turning forty-nine this weekend, is the most successful contemporary gospel artist of his generation, but he isn’t a singer. He plays the piano, but only intermittently onstage, more to contribute to the pageantry than to show off his modest chops. Above all, he is a songwriter, but in performance and on his albums his role more closely resembles that of a stock character in hip-hop: the hype man. The best hype men hop around onstage, slightly behind and to the side of the lead MC., addressing the microphone in order to ad-lib or to reinforce punch lines as they rumble by. But a hype man is, by definition, a sidekick, and while most of the sound in Franklin’s music comes from elsewhere—usually, a band and an ensemble of singers—he is always and unquestionably the locus of its energy and intention.
Franklin’s music is rife with recognizable influences, from traditional Southern gospel to R. & B., hip-hop to arena rock, and he accentuates this fact by offering audiences a flurry of accompanying bodily references.
Franklin released his first album, a live recording called Kirk Franklin & the Family in 1993. The album offered a smooth, pop-adjacent brand of gospel, descended from acts like Andraé Crouch, the Winans, and, perhaps especially, Edwin Hawkins, whose 1969 hit “Oh Happy Day” laid the template for the kind of mainstream acceptance that Franklin hoped to win.
Watch Why We Sing, the first song off Kirk Franklin & the Family.
Kirk Franklin & The Family spent almost two years on the Gospel music charts and charted on the R&B charts, eventually earning platinum sales status. It remained at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums chart for 42 weeks. It was the first gospel music album to sell over a million units.
Since then, he has sold millions of records and won scores of awards for a brand of gospel that blends urban sound with an uplifting devotional message.
Franklin’s next record, Whatcha Lookin’ 4, went platinum as well, and earned Franklin his first Grammy.
Stomp, the lead single on Franklin’s next album, God’s Property from Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation, made the Top Forty charts in 1997. Its video, which entered regular rotation on MTV, opens with Franklin, in a white suit and shades, issuing a warning directly to the camera: “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’ve got news for you: you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. And if you don’t know, now you know. Glory, glory!”
Watch Stomp here:
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 the youth.
In an interview on NPR, Franklin said, “My job on earth, the reason why Kirk is created, is to make God famous. I just want God to be well known.”
“Christianity, and the framework of religion, makes us a subculture,” Franklin said. “But there’s a whole other world going on—technology, and science, and racism, and economics, and capitalism, and all of these things happening, but we have this bubble. And the problem is that when people leave this bubble they have to go into the world to work, and to raise their kids, and to find a spouse, to pay taxes. So why wouldn’t you take what you learn in the bubble and affect the world? You can’t do that if you only know the bubble.”
Kirk Franklin has won 12 Grammy Awards, 16 Dove Awards, 23 Stellar Awards amongst many others.
What does Kirk Franklin remind you of?
“He is a dope guy, the real OG,” says Manolo. “He has been doing it for the longest time and I love that what people say about him doesn’t really move him.”
“My favourite songs,” Manolo continues, “are Looking Out for Me, My World Needs You, Imagine Me and Happy.”
Additional info from The New Yorker