How Kirk Franklin is Pushing the Boundaries of Gospel

Blending secular sounds with an uplifting devotional message, the artist aims to “make God famous” through his music.

Franklin (seated) blends secular sounds with an uplifting devotional message. Photograph By Brent Humphreys For The New Yorker

By Vinson Cunningham, The New Yorker

Franklin (seated) blends secular sounds with an uplifting devotional message.
Photograph By Brent Humphreys For The New Yorker

It’s hard to describe in a word what Kirk Franklin does for a living. Franklin, forty-six, 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—Flavor Flav, Spliff Star, the early Sean (P. Diddy) Combs—hop around onstage, slightly behind and to the side of the lead m.c., 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.

When I first saw Franklin perform live, last spring, at the newly renovated Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, he stood at center stage, spotlit, rasping out preachy interjections whenever his singers paused for breath. The theatre had the grandeur of a cathedral: blood-red velvet curtains framed the stage; golden ceilings, patterned with blue-and-purple paisleys, soared over vaudeville-era balconies and plush seats. During “I Smile,” a bouncy, piano-propelled anthem to joyful resilience against life’s troubles, Franklin punctuated the chorus with a rhythmic series of shouts: “I smile”—“Yes!”—“Even though I’m hurt, see, I smile”—“Come on!”—“Even though I’ve been here for a while”—“Hallelujah!”—“I smile.”

Meanwhile, he danced. 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. He is short—five feet five on tiptoe—and has friendly features: sleek eyes with penny irises, arched eyebrows, a mouth that rests in a grinning pout, taut balloons for cheeks. He wore white pants with black racing stripes, a long black shirt, and, around his neck, a neatly knotted red bandanna. Cradling the microphone stand near the lip of the stage, he wiggled his feet like James Brown and drew miniature scallops with his hips, then galloped from one side of the stage to the other, like a sanctified Springsteen. During the down-home numbers, he turned his back to the crowd and waved his hands in the direction of the singers, a slightly comic invocation of the Baptist choir director’s showily precise control. Then he broke into a survey of recent dances made viral by teens on Vine and Snapchat: the Milly Rock, the Hit Dem Folks, the Dab. Sometimes, as if overtaken by joy, he simply leaped into the air and landed on the beat.

The show was a stop along Franklin’s latest tour, “20 Years in One Night.” The tour’s title had rounded down the years ever so slightly: Franklin released his first album in 1993. Since then, he has sold millions of records and won scores of awards for a brand of gospel that blends secular sounds with an uplifting devotional message. He has also collaborated with some of the biggest names in pop: a few months before the Brooklyn show, he appeared on “Ultralight Beam,” the first song on Kanye West’s newest album, “The Life of Pablo,” and performed the song alongside West on “Saturday Night Live.”

The mostly black audience at Kings Theatre was older than the usual concertgoing crowd, and well versed in Franklin’s œuvre, frequently breaking, unbidden, into surprisingly competent harmony. “Y’all sound good!” Franklin said. Later, he joked about his relationship with West: “Anyone can be saved . . . even Kanye!” The crowd laughed. The show ran for two and a half hours, with a short intermission; at several points, Franklin asked the audience if they had got their money’s worth. He was a genial narrator, a kind of hovering intelligence, pulling his fans through the healing places in his songs. When he was done, a woman of maybe sixty looked over at me, dazed, and said, “That’s why he’s so skinny—he’s got a lot of energy!” “What a blessing,” somebody else said. “I feel so light.”

In the mid-nineties, when I was ten years old, my mother and I became members of a Pentecostal church in Harlem. We had recently moved back to New York after six years in Chicago, where my mother taught grade-schoolers and my father was the music director at a Roman Catholic church. The hush of Catholicism was most of what I knew about religion—my dad had a talent for sneaking gospel sounds into hymnody, but the Mass had a staid, stubborn rhythm of its own—and the biggest shock of my first few months immersed in charismatic religion was the wild, unceasing stream of noise. Even as the pastor preached, the organ would honk, or a cymbal would crash, or someone in the congregation would open her mouth and let fly a stream of Spirit-given tongues. The other sound I remember was Franklin’s music. He was a fairly new phenomenon, and his songs had already become inescapable. Every respectable church choir seemed to have at least a few of them in its repertoire. His melodies and harmony parts were easy to teach to amateur ensembles, and congregations were sure to know them, and to sing along.

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