Love, Hope, Joy, Possibility: Kirk Franklin @ 50

How he revolutionized gospel music.

by
Kirk Franklin performs in 2019. Credit: Johnny Louis/Getty.

To figure out why we sing, he went on a journey that took him from Texas and Georgia, where he wrote for and directed choirs that sang about “every day with Jesus” being “sweeter than the day before,”to a renowned career that found him collaborating with everyone from Yolanda Adams and Stevie Wonder to Chance the Rapper and Kanye West. His name is Kirk Franklin.

Franklin’s importance cannot be understated. He changed the trajectory of gospel music, and the ways in which he did this must be examined. Franklin certainly wasn’t the first to mix what some call the secular with what others call the religious. Rather, he is in the long tradition of those who contended with the so-called division between the sacred and secular and attempted to deliver the gospel message to the masses beyond the ways of the church. Franklin’s work might best be considered commentary on the tradition of gospel music: His lyrics elaborate on the gospel message, and he creates a space, both inside and outside of religious institutions, from which to sing with a sense of love, hope, joy and possibility.

His song “Joy,” later recorded by Whitney Houston for the soundtrack to the 1996 film The Preacher’s Wife, is an excellent way to think about the desires Franklin had for the entirety of his work. Throughout the arc of his career writing, performing and leading choirs and groups, he has practiced the joy that accompanies the act of spreading the gospel message by delivering the gospel tune. In honor of Franklin’s 50th birthday, here is a selection of his essential recordings.

“Why We Sing”
Kirk Franklin & the Family 
(1993)

From his first live album with the group he organized in 1992, the Family, the song “Why We Sing” has a chorus that states: “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free/His eye is on the sparrow, and that’s the reason why I sing/Glory hallelujah, you’re the reason why I sing.” This work is an important combination of the traditional hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” with original lyrics that aimed to update the song for his new audience. What was announced in this song — and on this Platinum-selling album — was Franklin’s desire to comment on the tradition, extend it and make it his own.

Kirk Franklin & the Family
Christmas
(1995)

Featuring songs with funky basslines like “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season,” the traditional sounds of a Hammond organ on “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and the holiday-season church staple “Now Behold the Lamb,” this Christmas album was certified Gold and further illustrated Franklin’s ability to mix old and new, traditional and contemporary.

Before the beat drops on this track, Franklin announces his message: “For those of you that think gospel music has gone too far, you think we’ve gotten too radical with our message, well I got news for ya! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”

“Stomp” is a break with the past. Franklin continues to explore the resources gospel’s message of Jesus and salvation provides, but here he stretches the lyricism and the sound of his music — note that grooving bassline — toward ’70s funk. The song uses Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” as its sonic foundation and Cheryl “Salt” James as its guest rapper. A landmark commercial success in the history of gospel music, the God’s Property album was certified triple-Platinum in 2001.

On his most recent album, Long Live Love, Franklin continues to craft the sort of ensemble arrangements that have inspired and challenged those who’ve attempted them. Here his strategies include the arrangement of unison single-voiced verses and three-part harmonic choruses, on songs like “F.A.V.O.R” and “Love Theory.” Franklin’s signature sound shows no signs of diminishing.

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