Featured Music: Wednedday, June 13, 2002

The music of Fort Worth native Kirk Franklin is a little deeper than just R&B gospel.


Anyone who wants to understand the trauma and drama of Kirk Franklin’s childhood needs only to listen to the intro to his latest album, aptly titled The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin. In a dramatic spoken segment, a mother hands her crying baby boy over to his grandmother, explaining through angry tears that she can’t care for him and promises she’ll return. As the intro ends, a now-grown Franklin sits in his dressing room as an eager crowd cheers for him, and he whispers a thankful prayer to the woman who raised him and the God who saved him.

“Hearing that [played back to me] for the first time affected me in several ways,” said the Fort Worth native, who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother as an infant. “Even when I was working on it, it was very emotional for me. I’d had that idea for a while, just in my heart, but to hear it now, it still messes with me.”

His entire album, in a way, is designed to mess with everyone who hears it. Taking spirituality out of the church and bringing it into the secular world of popular music, Franklin wanders beyond the confines of gospel music on this disc.

“The whole project, I hope, will lead people back to the path,” said Franklin, who now lives in Dallas. “I hope that it connects with people who’ve been kicked to the curb, makes them see what’s out there for them.”

Franklin himself has known despair. Although raised in the church by a devoted aunt, he rebelled as a teenager, and it was only after the violent shooting death of a close friend that he returned to his righteous roots. His musical calling had been reinforced by piano lessons, which began when he was just four years old. Franklin, a natural musician who can sight-read and play by ear, found his home behind the keys of the church piano.

But Franklin brought a worldly wise musical sense to the spiritual music he created, owing as much of a musical debt to George Clinton and Rick James as to gospel artists like Andrae Crouch and James Cleveland. By the early 1990s, his abilities and ambition had stretched beyond the Mount Rose Baptist Church choir with which he had been playing, and he formed “The Family,” a 17-member vocal choir made up of friends. The group caught the ear of Gospo Centric Records in 1992. A record deal soon followed, and Franklin and his entourage got to the top of the Billboard gospel music chart, where they stayed for more than 100 weeks. It may have been the R&B appeal of the music that helped make Kirk Franklin & The Family the first gospel album ever to sell more than 1 million units — and make Franklin a household name.

Ten years later, Franklin stands as one of the greats of gospel music; he scored, wrote, and produced the soundtrack to the motion picture Kingdom Come, has written hits for 1NC, and sold more than 2 million copies of his last solo album, 1998’s Nu Nation Project. With The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin, he offers an album in which each track is a snapshot of his personal triumphs and struggles.

“I just pray that it impacts everyone,” he said. “It’s just a brother’s reflection of his life. I have no plans for it. I’m just sitting back, being prayerful about our direction and the steps we need to take with it. I don’t want what we do to be too close to a formula, so I’m not making the plans for it.

“For this to be powerful, it needs to go in the direction it’s supposed to go, not what [direction] I make for it.”

He attributed the title of the new album more to his spiritual makeover than any changes in his approach to music.

“It has to do with the journey of the last three years, the things I personally have gone through,” he explained. “You go through dry seasons, and there are times you’re confused with what God wants you to do. Going through that gives you a spiritual rejuvenation.”

That rejuvenation born of desperation shines through in the track “911,” which is delivered like a 9-1-1 call. Dallas bishop T.D. Jakes, who was on the cover of Time magazine and touted as “The next Billy Graham” on the same week as the terrorist attacks, acts as a sympathetic ear for a despondent and angst-ridden Franklin. They touch on the 9-11 tragedy, losing loved ones, and the daily struggles of life, all against a backdrop of soulful melodies and plaintive vocals.

Bishop Jakes isn’t the only guest appearing on the new album; Pastor Shirley Caesar, a gospel-singing powerhouse, appears on the celebratory track “Caught Up,” and the disc also gets visits from renowned gospel artists Crystal Lewis, Jaci Velasquez, Yolanda Adams, and more. The c.d. has a hidden bonus track featuring Tobymac of DC Talk on a tune that shows Franklin’s hard-rock side.

“I see a whole bunch more white folk [at my shows] than I used to,” he said. “My following is pretty broad. I’ve been very blessed to be able to have a broad base of people who listen to me. I’ve been able to do stuff with Billy Graham and to large black audiences and a whole lot of places in between.”

But, for Franklin, being an artist is all about following his heart, sharing his faith, and sending the message that he feels he was born to share, never taking for granted the gifts he’s been given — or the responsibility to use them wisely.

“I’m happy doing what I do,” he said. “The album will do what it’s going to do. I just want to get it out and let it do what it’s going to do. I hope people will hear what it says. The biggest problem with organized religion is [that] we make it like trigonometry.

“Following God just isn’t that hard.”

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