FADER Magazine Credits Kirk Franklin With Revolutionizing Gospel Music and Making Hip-Hop a More Spiritual Place

Getty Images / Kevin Winter
Getty Images / Kevin Winter

Before I knew anything of hip-hop, I knew the gospel. Growing up in a southern Baptist home can be an insular experience. God and Christianity were a serious affair, and a conservative, largely unquestioned way of life tended to follow. Dresses and suits were required to step into church, profanity and promiscuity were considered sinful. That pretty much made hip-hop the devil. Still, maybe ironically, it was a gospel song that first ushered rap into my household: Kirk Franklin’s 1997 “Stomp (Remix)” was an unprecedented megahit, slyly blending Christian messages with secular sounds. It featured a new jack swing beat built around the funky disco of Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under A Groove,” as well as a little hip-hop courtesy of Salt of Salt-N-Pepa. Anchored by “Stomp,”God’s Property from Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation, the songwriter and producer’s fourth album, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and topped the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts. Both feats were a first for a gospel album.

Franklin had stirred interest after the breakout success of “Why We Sing,” a 1993 single released with his original ensemble The Family. But it was his collaboration with God’s Property, a youth choir comprised mostly of students and alumni of a Dallas performing arts high school, that set things off. The members of God’s Property were significantly younger and more culturally aligned with Franklin than The Family had been, and he found his voice by giving praise music a shiny veneer. “I think [our age] was one of the things that made him gravitate to [God’s Property],” says Shaun Martin who was a keyboardist for the choir and is now Franklin’s music director and producer. “We recorded that album in 1996 — it was two weeks after I graduated high school. That’s how young we were.”

Himself a 20-something at the time, Franklin felt the potent pull of hip-hop culture, going so far as to call himself a “holy dope dealer” in a 1997 Vibe cover story. Despite the surface-level incongruities, he didn’t resist rap and R&B and the style they had catapulted to the forefront of black culture. Instead, Franklin embraced the hip-hop generation, transforming its influences into gospel music that was fresh and hip. His iconic 1998 ballad “Lean On Me” strategically called on R&B/hip-hop mainstays Mary J. Blige and R. Kelly. That same year, the video for the Rodney Jerkins-produced “Revolution,” whose lyrics nod to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” looked like it took its cues from Missy Elliott’s groundbreaking visual style. By adopting a style that appealed to so-called “urban youth” sensibilities, Franklin gave gospel a much-needed facelift.

In 1997, teenybopper pop, R&B, and hip-hop dominated the charts, but the contagious spirit of “Stomp” made it undeniable. MTV, then the acting thermometer of youth culture, made it the first gospel record to enter the channel on heavy rotation. The uncool had suddenly become cool. But it wasn’t just the aesthetic that captured our attention.

For me, Franklin and God’s Property marked the first time the word didn’t feel force-fed. When his Nu Nation tour stopped in my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, I proudly attended and leapt at the opportunity to “stomp” on stage with other kids. Several years later, when I joined my church’s youth choir, nearly every song we took on came from his catalog. Though gospel had already been a staple in many black households — my own life was soundtracked by my father’s Shirley Caesar and Yolanda Adams CDs — Franklin simply made music that resonated with young people.

Vicki Mack Lataillade, founder of GospoCentric Records, a once-independent label now owned by Sony, said in a 1995 interview with Billboard that “[Franklin’s] music is straight up gospel. If there’s an R&B flavor, it’s him. He’s young, and his presentation is young.” A few months later, she doubled down on the widespread appeal of “Why We Sing,” saying “the secret is finally out: Gospel lovers listen to urban radio — not a little, but quite a lot.”

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SOURCE: Fader Magazine
Briana Younger