How Kirk Franklin Remixed Gospel Music

ATLANTA, GA – JANUARY 14: Kirk Franklin speaks at 2017 BMI Trailblazers of Gospel Music at Rialto Center for the Arts on January 14, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for BMI)

In this era of music, there’s “trap gospel,” one of the biggest rappers of the last several years wears a “3” on his hat to represent the holy trinity and holds his own version of the altar call at the end of his shows, and the song “Jesus Walks” is an old school classic. But it’s easy to forget that way back in the 90s when Kirk Franklin’s music first hit MTV, the pop charts and the cover of this publication, church folks were scandalized. Easy to forget that a gospel artist dressed like a rapper or member of your favorite male R&B group wasn’t common. There was a wide chasm between gospel and secular music. Until Kirk. In honor of his birthday, today’s Music Sermon takes a look back at how he changed an entire genre–maybe two.

Gospel and secular music have a decades-old love/hate relationship. The genres have always influenced each other even as they’ve denied each other. Up until relatively recently, the best of black music’s singers, musicians and producers developed their craft in the black church, bringing the oil with them into the world to sprinkle some anointing on soul and R&B tracks. Then there were the greats, like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, who turned away from presumed gospel careers to seek pop success, but who had the spirit so imprinted in their voices they made everything sound like worship anyway. R&B has always reached back to acknowledge the church, in the way you swing by on event Sundays even if you haven’t been to service in a while: artists participated in gospel tributes, featured choirs on big songs and performances, and in the 90s it was an unwritten rule that an R&B album contained at least a gospel-feeling interlude. But gospel’s foray into secular music was much less frequent. It happened occasionally; The Hawkins Singers, The Staple Singers, and The Clark Sisters all had singles land on the pop or R&B charts. Then Andraé Crouch laid the foundation for contemporary gospel music in the 70s and 80s, using secular influences in his sound and working with pop and R&B stars including Elvis, Michael Jackson, El Debarge, Stevie Wonder, Madonna, Elton John, and Chaka Khan. (And composing/performing one of the livest TV theme songs of all time for Amen!) And then, Kirk. Kirk Franklin didn’t just bridge gospel and secular music, he combined them. The title “gospel rap” still isn’t commonly used, but Kirk Franklin is to whatever that hybrid genre would be called, what Puffy is to “hip hop soul.”