And Our Personality of the Day is...


"My message is simple and plain," Kirk Franklin insisted in the Los Angeles Times. "I'm trying to change the way people look at gospel music. It's not corny, and it's not hokey. We're not just running around here with some choir robes on, yelling and screaming. It's not about that anymore, kid." The charismatic Franklin has achieved mainstream success thanks to a fusion of hip-hop-flavored style and hardcore religious content. Where other gospel acts had replaced "Jesus" and "God" with "Him" and "You" in hopes of winning over pop listeners, Franklin has never blunted his proselytizing. At the same time, the recordings and concerts by the singer and his gospel group, The Family, have achieved sales that would be respectable even by secular standards and won a bevy of honors.

Despite his rise to stardom, Franklin has kept his eye on the real prize. "When I try to reach people, it's by any means necessary," he told the Tri-State Defender. "The purpose is to win them. I spread the word of God through my music, and that's how souls are won—regardless of where it's heard."
Franklin's own soul underwent considerable turmoil in his youth. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, to a teenage mother, he never knew his father and was adopted at the age of three by the only mother he ever really knew—his great-aunt Gertrude—who raised him vigilantly. "She taught me everything," the singer told Cheo Hodari Coker of the Los Angeles Times. "She taught me how to respect people and respect myself, and that's something I'll never forget." A devout Baptist, Gertrude recognized and encouraged the boy's profound musical gifts; money she and Kirk made from recycling cans and newspapers paid for his piano lessons.

 His obvious talent for church singing led to an offer of a record contract by the time he was seven, but Gertrude refused to consider such an offer, considering Kirk's age. His precociousness could not be kept under wraps forever, though, and by age 11 he was leading the adult choir at Mt. Rose Baptist Church. "It was scary," he recalled to Coker. "I was [in charge of] people 60 and older. Could you imagine someone that young telling their elders they were singing wrong?"

Despite his immersion in a religious environment, Franklin was not immune to the call of street life. "I was always a moody child," he reflected in Texas Monthly. "In the house it was just me and an older woman. When I got around my peers, I was just buck wild, because I wanted to be a kid, you know?" Fear of being called a "church boy," he has noted in numerous interviews, motivated his acting out. "I was more of a perpetrator than a hardcore G[angster]," he asserted to Gannett News Service. "I was always one of the brothers trying to be a gangster with all the other kids because I didn't want them to think I was soft, although I was." Though his behavior was hardly extreme by street standards, he hung around pool halls, smoked marijuana and got into fights; it was only when, at 15, he saw a friend die of an accidental shooting that he decided to change his life. "I didn't think anyone could die so young," Franklin recollected to Coker of the Los Angeles Times. "I knew what I was doing was wrong. That was a major trip for me."

The incident had profound implications for the singer's path in life. "It woke me up," he told Gannett. "At 15 I had been in church all my life, but it wasn't in me." Further hardship ensued when he and his girlfriend had a child out of wedlock; she was left to care for the baby, Kerrion, for several years. "What I had done was wrong," he reflected in Texas Monthly, "but God forgave me, so I was able to forgive myself." Ultimately Franklin managed to place all his focus on his calling. Noted producer Milton Biggham heard a home demo tape Franklin had made and invited him to write material for a gospel album by the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) Mass Choir. Franklin fulfilled this request on the Choir's 1991 release I Will Let Nothing Separate Me and on 1993's Another Chance. He performed similar duties for the GMWA National Mass Choir's recording Live in Indianapolis.

But the vocalist wanted to perform his own material; to that end, he put together a 17-member singing group, the Family, culled in part from the DFW Mass Choir. "I called my group the Family because it was the extended family that I never had and the sense of family I always wanted," he proclaimed to Coker. After turning down a deal with Savoy Records, they signed a recording contract with Gospo Centric—a label run by gospel music industry veteran Vicki Mack-Lataillade—and released their debut, Kirk Franklin and the Family, in 1993. Recorded at Grace Temple Church in Forth Worth, the album scored with such songs as "Why We Sing" and "He Can Handle It." The Los Angeles Sentinel cited Mack-Lataillade's advice to Franklin: "I told him I didn't want gospel music to remain status quo; I wanted to make it for everybody," she pointed out.

Franklin's uplifting, modern take on gospel refused to omit "Jesus" and "the Lord" from the lyrics—as many gospel artists seeking mainstream fame have done—but at the same time pursued hip-hop fans with its up-to-date grooves and vocalizing. Though some purists objected to the appropriation of secular styles, Franklin brushed their qualms aside. "We're doing it our way," he asserted in the Los Angeles Sentinel. "If it's different, well, get used to it, because it's music inspired by God and it's here to stay."

Initially, the debut album sold respectably for a gospel record. But over a year and half after its release, Drew Dawson—an urban-radio deejay in Virginia—began playing "Why We Sing" regularly on his program; as a result, other secular radio stations began picking it up. Speaking to the Tri-State Defender, Dawson compared Franklin to multifaceted R&B figure Babyface, another writer-performer-producer-arranger. "Because [Franklin]'s so talented as a songwriter and musician and because there's no one around in gospel music that is doing it all, his stuff stands out," Dawson insisted. It stood out so much, in fact, that Franklin soon became a sensation in the pop music world, becoming the first gospel debut to sell a million copies. "When my album started blowing up—I mean when God started blessing me—I started to go a lot of places," the singer related in USA Today, "but it was like a giving a diamond to a 4-year-old kid."

At a Glance …

Born Kirk Smith in 1970(?) in Forth Worth, TX; raised by aunt, Gertrude Franklin; married Tammy Renee Collins, 1996; children: four.

Career: Mt. Rose Baptist Church, Fort Worth, TX, choir director, 1981(?); singer, songwriter, arranger and producer, 1991–. Fo Yo Soul production company, founder, 199(?)–.

Awards: Dove Award, 1994, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002, and 2003; Grammy Award, 1996, 1997, 1998; Stellar Award, 1996. BMI Christian Songwriter of the Year, three-way tie, 2003; NAACP Image Award, Outstanding Album, for The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin, Outstanding Song, for "Brighter Day," and Outstanding Gospel Artist, 2003.

Share this: