“Give me that power to walk away when another God takes your place,” Kirk Franklin intones on an early June evening in New Orleans. The lights have gone blue in the Orpheum Theatre; he’s on the sixth night of the southern leg of his 20 Years In One Night tour, which began in March. The 41-song career retrospective set is loosely arranged like a church service: First, nine exultant praise songs to wind the crowd up, and then the darker repertoire, the songs about human failure. Franklin and his six backup singers perform “Give Me,” a martial call-and-response confessional. “Anyone can be saved,” he says. “Even Kanye.” Everybody reacts. Hisses, laughs, gasps, and the kissing of teeth fill the Orpheum. Franklin seems satisfied that the reference hits and proud that it may have scandalized.
Every night of the tour, Franklin makes this joke, and every night it gets a response. In the three months between the release of Franklin’s 11th studio album, Losing My Religion, and the beginning of the attendant tour, the veteran gospel musician collaborated with West on The Life of Pablo. “I didn’t call Kanye,” Franklin tells me later — West reached out to him. But Franklin’s work with West speaks louder than words. Twenty years ago, Kirk Franklin was the enterprising upstart putting himself forward as a medium between hip-hop and gospel. Now he’s doing it again, this time as a legend.
Performing on the 20 Years tour, Franklin evades strict categorization. He is a motivational speaker, urging people to “find their own way” if conventional religion isn’t working. He is a comedian, ragging on the teen version of himself, when he had “messed-up teeth and a Jheri curl.” Predominantly, Franklin is a consumed hype man, shooting ad-libs while his singers carry his set; he himself sings rarely. He interpolates Tyga’s “Rack City” and Kendrick’s “Alright” into his set. (Kendrick, he tells me later, is his favorite rapper.) He wears tight white skinny jeans and a red button-down flannel shirt. Audiences rave when he slips in Total’s “Can’t You See.” When Franklin does stop to sing, performing “Pray for Me” on the piano, his voice is grainy and commanding. And he dances: Throughout the nearly three-hour show, the 46-year-old musician moves across the stage, built to replicate an urban tabernacle, like a teenaged Vine star. His Milly Rock is enviably sturdy.
This boyish vitality is what broke Franklin through to the black mainstream a generation ago. In the mid-’90s, Kirk Franklin and his choir, The Family, were a commercially successful, face-value gospel act, netting two Grammys and gaining recognition well outside of the Southern gospel circuit. In 1997, Franklin collaborated with another choir, God’s Property, to produce the album God’s Property from Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation. This Franklin was different. He no longer sported tense vests; the trendier Franklin wore baggy Gore-Tex jackets, smoldered through tinted lenses. “For those of you that think that gospel music has gone too far … Well, I’ve got news for you. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” Franklin announced on the intro to “Stomp (Remix).” The single, which featured Salt (Cheryl James of Salt-N-Pepa), and sampled Funkadelic, went to No. 1 on the R&B charts. The God’s Property album would peak at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.
Franklin’s next effort, The Nu Nation Project, veered even further toward mainstream hip-hop and R&B, with production from Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins and features from R. Kelly and Mary J. Blige. “Revolution” promoted a contextual solidarity between gospel and rap, two genres apparently antithetical to each other. The song also endeared the musician to a younger, MTV-guided demographic, who were often estranged from the strident politics of the church. Listening to Franklin was noncommittal, nondenominational, and fun.
Franklin’s modernizing efforts were the culmination of a cultural synergy that had been aligning for years. Black gospel music began to secularize in the ’80s; later, artists like the Winans family, Mary Mary, and Yolanda Adams chipped away at the etiquette and production barriers separating church music from popular music. Even Marvin Sapp, a preacher, would embrace a slinkier R&B sensibility toward the end of the ’90s. A sort of lax religiosity permeated black pop culture at the time. Bishop T.D. Jakes, whom Franklin has worked with, was making movies. Tyler Perry’s straight-to-DVD fables were selling well outside of the Chitlin Circuit. Receding conservatism opened Franklin up. “Being raised in the church and being raised in hip-hop, it was just a really natural marriage,” says Franklin. Hip-hop, too, was maturing thematically. Expectedly, the portion of Franklin’s back catalogue that showcases his most literal hip-hop experimentation has aged like musical theatre. But it’s precisely that earnestness that makes Franklin attractive to hip-hop’s least orthodox makers.
The day after the show in New Orleans, Franklin is drained. He’s got to recuperate during the two-hour drive to his next show, in Mobile, Alabama. Franklin’s speaking voice is faint, hoarse, when his tour bus pulls up into the half-empty lot of a Whole Foods. He’s wearing a tight, gray, deep-V-neck sweater. Much of Franklin’s wardrobe clings. His face is geometric, chiseled into two quadrants by the sharp lines of his beard. His hairline is vigilantly groomed by a trusted barber. Being trim, neat, and clean is important to him. “God made Whole Foods,” he says, walking into the market.
Franklin and his wife, Tammy, head to the produce section. She accompanies him on tour when she can, and sometimes the youngest of their four children comes along too, which Franklin likes, because their presence soothes him. Besides family and God’s grace, he believes in a ritual of hydrolyzed whey protein smoothies and fresh organic fruit. Franklin started eating well in the mid-2000s, when much of the country picked up body-conscious lifestyles like a soft religion. He and Tammy have been married for 20 years. “I can hear the whole story of our marriage in his songs,” she tells me later, when we return to the bus. They’re complementary, petite, an advertisement for the platonic respect that an expert Southern partnership brings. The 20 Years in One Night tour functions as a career summary, establishing Franklin as the most prolific gospel performer of all time. Yet the common narratives of struggle, redemption, and triumph that color his songs about God apply well to the progression of a marriage. They suit the middle stages of maturation in a man’s life, too: Franklin is 46, and three out of his four children are now adults.
The title of Losing My Religion, released in November 2015, would suggest the musician is at a provocative crossroads regarding issues of faith. Sectarianism was never really his thing, though. Raised Baptist, Franklin also directed choirs in conservative Adventist churches. Many of his compositions show Protestant roots. Franklin goes where his idiosyncratic praise practices are welcome, retrofitting his personal spirituality to existing spaces.
Tammy drifts off in search of presliced mangoes, while her husband loiters by the red seedless grapes. He opens the bag and starts sneaking a couple. Then more. “I’m testing them,” he says. A modest crowd, made up entirely of black employees and patrons, has clustered around him by now, almost squealing. “To see if it has crunch,” he tells his new audience, by way of explanation. Franklin peacocks for them.
Franklin bows down to a boy of about 6 years old, channeling the humility of a president doting on a stranger’s baby. Does he know the singer? The boy nods yes.
“What’s your name?” Franklin asks.
“Christian,” the boy answers.
Franklin’s eyes gleam. “That’s a good name.”
Click here to read more and to watch the MTV News short documentary on Kirk Franklin.