Kirk Franklin may be acknowledged by some as the most important gospel artist of the Nineties, but his influence and his connection to pop history stake a claim for him as one of the most important artists in pop history, period. First, his mission to take the acceptance and challenge of the Christian gospel to the mainstream has a parallel in one of the most important careers in rock and soul history. Second, his influence on music over the past decade, though hard to quantify, actually is quite profound.
Franklin's music may essentially be so powerful because it is born of experience that insists on hard-nose realism rather than simply the feel-good platitudes of so much contemporary Christian music. Franklin was left at a Fort Worth orphanage by his single mother when he was only three years old. As a teenager he had his first child out of wedlock and suffered the loss of a close friend who was shot to death. Since the age of twenty, he has dedicated his life to a conviction that gospel offers an essential path for those lost in an era of social and spiritual neglect. And his music breaks down walls between different styles of music to take that vision far and wide.
The significance of his career begins in 1993, at a time when popular music -- with the rise of grunge, the domination of black and female voices on Top 40 radio, the narrowed marketing of a generational split in the pop-music audience, and, perhaps even more racially significant, in the wake of the Los Angeles riots -- was fragmented. In this climate Kirk Franklin and the Family's debut single, "Why We Sing," took traditional gospel (tinged by hip-hop) into as much of a mainstream as has existed in the past decade.
At a time when urban contemporary radio represented the top of the charts like never before (such stations become the most popular with listeners in many markets), Franklin's 1993 single received regular airplay. This injection of gospel into a volatile mainstream mirrored Sam Cooke's more strategically coded efforts at bringing elements of the genre into a similarly fragmented (split between black and white pop) mainstream in the late Fifties and early Sixties. In both eras of social unrest and racial tension, gospel's sound and message of community and hope (in the Sixties veiled as soul) began to capture the imagination of a new, hungry audience.
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Since 1996 each of Franklin's three most recent albums have gone platinum, and his 1997 album, God's Property, sold almost three million copies after the singer took a tumble off a Memphis stage that almost took his life. His influence is directly demonstrable in the effect he has had on specific careers. His 1997 hit single, "Stomp," a collaboration with Salt-n-Pepa's Cheryl James (a.k.a. Salt), has become a centerpiece of that rap crew's performances and no doubt nurtured James's decision to launch her own gospel record label. An artist heavily influenced by Franklin, R&B sensation R. Kelly began building his concerts around a mix of the sacred and profane in 1995. By 1997 Kelly was working with Franklin and proclaimed himself born again. Kelly's most recent album, R, also is his most soulfully ambitious and critically acclaimed.
And it is even arguable that Franklin's influence has leaped across unforeseeable religious, genre, and color lines. With the Nineties' resurgence of the Nation of Islam, Franklin made a bold statement by appearing on Arsenio Hall's television show with Rev. Louis Farrakhan, and he contributed a song to Spike Lee's movie about the Million Man March, Get on the Bus. Just as Sam Cooke struck up a dialogue with groundbreaking white rock artists such as the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, Franklin's most recent album, The Nu Nation Project, featured a vocal by onetime unabashedly Christian rocker Bono (of U2). Finally anyone who attended one of the past year's Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's celebrations of community can't help but wonder what space an innovative artist like Franklin created for a generation-spanning rocker such as Springsteen to redefine his career and create the tent-meeting quality of his show.
Such notions come naturally when one hears Franklin's music. His work is accessible well beyond the boundaries of a traditional gospel audience. "Revolution," the song that kicks off his Nu Nation project, is a politically charged rave-up built on hip-hop scratching, funky keys, and Miami bass playfulness. That song leads directly into "Lean on Me" (not the old standard but a new quiet storm featuring R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, and Bono), a moving meditation on orphan children, homelessness, and AIDS.
The diversity of this rocking album illustrates why Franklin has rankled some fur in the traditional gospel community, but it also illustrates his central belief. As he told Jet: "Gospel music is not a sound; gospel music is a message. Gospel music means good news." And as those who have attended his dazzling, rowdy tent meetings -- featuring dozens of supporting artists as The Family -- can attest, the good news is concrete in the power of his show.