– Kirk Franklin and The Family
From what I’ve heard (and because I’m completely biased towards the East Coast, will believe to be true), it was Philadelphia urban mainstream radio station WDAS-FM that broke Kirk Franklin and The Family’s “Why We Sing”. I remember how this song just skyrocketed of nowhere and was soon being played at all times of the day on urban mainstream radio. And by all times, I mean ALL TIMES: morning, rush hour, and even during The Quiet Storm right between Silk’s “Freak Me” and The Isley Brothers “Between the Sheets” (I’d imagine that could kill a mood but hey, I’m no radio programmer so…). This mega-hit off of Kirk Franklin and The Family’s debut album paved the way for Kirk Franklin’s music becoming a permanent fixture in almost every black church choirs’ setlist. From children’s choirs to senior choirs across the country, there was simply no escaping Kirk Franklin’s influence on gospel music in the early 90’s.
But come the late 90’s, Franklin’s music became revolutionized.
I remember sitting in a hip-hop themed restaurant in Philadelphia when Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation “Revolution” video came on the screen. I stopped eating midway only to hear the person at the table in front of me say “Oh I’m not ready for this.” I couldn’t understand why really. Not too long before that we were all head bopping along to other videos that had similar formulas in the 90’s: Hype Williams directed videos with rappers in puffy jackets, and choreography we could all get down with. The only thing that was different about what Kirk was doing was the message. I guess not everyone was certain that they were ready for a revolution but I knew I was. I decided against raising my fist in solidarity in the middle of the restaurant, went back to eating my food, and then later bought the album.
To this day, I can never quite wrap my mind around some of the backlash Kirk Franklin has received from venturing into less traditional gospel music. It makes complete sense if you know anything about his background. Here is a self-proclaimed church boy from Fort Worth, Texas who grew up in the hip-hop generation. He’s a choir director but he is also a B-Boy. So yes, he’s going to take you to church one minute and then he’s going to Milly Rock the next, perhaps all in the same song. While some who hold onto more traditional gospel may have seen his revolution as rebellion, I see the way his music has evolved as a natural progression for almost any musician who grew up during that time. Don’t get it twisted: while his explosive energy on stage has deemed him the reputation of being gospel music’s greatest hype man, Kirk Franklin is without a doubt one of the most underrated musical arrangers and songwriters of our time.
I feel like nothing has displayed that more in his career than when he released the critically acclaimed Grammy award-winning album “Hero”. “Hero” to me has always been the bow wrapped around the artistry that we get from Kirk Franklin. It made a statement for what kind of artist I think he truly is: musically adept (“Hero” featuring Dorinda Clark Cole), socially conscious (“Why” featuring Stevie Wonder), and transparently poetic (“Imagine Me”). In albums to follow he’s gone from doing a song or two “for the young people” on his albums, to making music that is simply relevant and honest.
This is why, to the dismay of some, he is able to be in arenas and mainstream situations that many aren’t welcomed into, such as Saturday Night Live with Kanye West or The Breakfast Club with Charlemagne. The revolution in gospel music that Kirk Franklin declared in the nineties was not just a musical one. It has been a revolution that has brought the message of gospel music to audiences that may have never set foot in a church where his more traditional songs can still be heard every Sunday. While his music has evolved, as it should with any musician, the reason why he gets us all to sing has never changed.
For more on Kirk Franklin and his impact on African American music, check out the Rivers of Rhythm website, a new collaboration between NMAAM and Belmont University, here. This website is a sneak peek into future digital exhibits that will be in the Museum, connecting the legacies of African American artists to almost every genre of American music. Type in the name of any artists to find out more about them, their musical influences and how they are impacting music today.
Here’s this month’s The First Time I Heard Spotify playlist featuring some of Toya’s favorite Kirk Franklin songs: