Kirk Franklin: Gospel is medicine in a divisive climate

Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin

“At the core of gospel music is that we're trying to lovingly and compassionately push people to … a fact that you were built for something bigger than the moments that you live in right now,” says gospel singer Kirk Franklin. Credit: Stellar Awards

Grammy winner Kirk Franklin has been making gospel music inspired by R&B, hip-hop, and rap — and bringing contemporary gospel to a new generation. Some of his collaborators include Mary J. Blige and Bono. Franklin is now on tour and will be in LA and Orange County in November.

He tells KCRW that gospel is “medicine for hearts and souls that are often malnourished in a society that … the climate is so negative, is so divisive.” 

He continues, “I think that at the core of gospel music is that we're trying to lovingly and compassionately push people to a fact … that you were built for something bigger than the moments that you live in right now.”

It’s not his job to convert anyone to believe in Jesus, he points out, and instead the music itself should be honest and vulnerable enough to motivate big discussions. 

Franklin grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and was raised by his aunt Gertrude, a 64-year-old widow. She recycled cans and newspapers to pay for his piano lessons. That gave way to his start in gospel music at age 11, when he was conscripted as his local church’s music director. “I was making $25 a week. Man, I was balling. I had enough money for Lemonheads and Chick-O-Sticks and Skittles. Man, I was a boss in the sixth grade, you have no idea.”

But as he entered his teens, the singer felt angry about his situation and became a rebel who picked up drinking and smoking. 

“A lot of time in marginalized communities when there are no after-school programs and kids are left at home by themselves, it's not always the healthiest introduction to things. … I fell victim to those things and lived with a lot of anger because I didn't have a mother and father.”

At age 15, Franklin’s life was heavily impacted by the sudden shooting death of his friend. “It was a freak accident. And I knew that I was not living … right. And summer of 1985, I got on my knees and just asked Jesus … to come into my life.” 

At that time, songwriting became an outlet for his emotions, he recalls.

“I was taking R&B songs and hip-hop songs and turning them around [into] gospel songs. But then when that moment happened, the gift of songwriting really came very quick and fluid for me. Songwriting really became my therapy.” 

To Franklin’s surprise, his music attracted fans. And with the monetary help of a local church deacon, he recorded his first album and secured a record deal. 

Up to that point, he had been struggling financially. He was evicted and had his car repossessed. With the extra cash, he got back his car and caught up on child support payments for his son. 

Today, Franklin has four kids, but the relationship with his eldest — who was born when the gospel singer was just 17 — has been strained. He still works to be as present as possible for his children, even while on tour.

“I never wanted them to feel the pain that I felt not having a daddy. So if I'm on tour, every off-day I’m flying home to a soccer game. We've been homeschooling the kids for quite a few years because I was so busy. They were … taking classes in South Africa, taking classes in Finland, taking classes in London. … I hired a full-time tutor just to travel with us because I wanted them to be with me all the time.”

He emphasizes, “The way that God wired me, the way that my compass was already preset, tragedy made me want to make sure that nobody around me felt the same thing.” 

Franklin also aims to help others as much as possible too. “I'm always trying to find moments to serve. … You've got to be intentional to seek out those moments that remind you that it's not about you.”