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.
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