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By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

Saturday, November 7, 2009.

Kirk Franklin is surely the most influential gospel artist of the last twenty years. His career can be divided into the 1990s and post-1990s. It’s not just a natural division by decades but rather reflective of how his music developed and how he chose to present his music.

During the nineties he was working with “The Family”—a grouping of neighborhood friends and associates. Post-nineties he presented himself as a solo artist and producer who worked with nationally known artists, both gospel and secular. All the music in this week’s Mixtape are from the nineties.

Kirk Dwayne Franklin born January 26, 1970 in Fort Worth, Texas. In many ways he is a statistic. Kirk was reared by Gertrude Franklin, an aunt who stepped in when Kirk’s teenage mother, 15-year-old Deborah Franklin, was unable to take care of him. He evidenced early musical talent: he was playing piano at 4, had turned down a recording deal at age 7, and at 11 was promoted to choir director at Mt. Rose Baptist Church.

Franklin dropped out of high school because of behavior problems and after his girlfriend became pregnant.

In short: he was a motherless, fatherless, drop-out, troubled young black male. What saved him was his involvement in the church, which served as both a nurturing ground and platform for his musical talents.

In 1992 he founded The Family gospel choir. He signed with Vicki Lataillade who head a fledgling label, Gospo Centric. His debut album Kirk Franklin & The Family was released in 1993. What followed seemed to be an overnight success but it was really the result of years of hard work on the gospel circuit including a few years of leading the DFW Mass Choir at the behest of Milton Bigham.

Kirk Franklin & The Family was a huge hit on both the Gospel and the R&B charts. For 42 weeks the album held down the number one spot on the Billboard Gospel charts. All of the albums from the nineties achieved platinum status except for the Christmas album that went gold.

By 2008 Kirk Franklin had picked up eight Grammy awards, numerous DOVE awards from the gospel industry, and an NAACP Image Award. The upshot of it all was that Kirk Franklin was the most commercially successful gospel artist of the last twenty years.

The ups also had their downs. In the new millennium Franklin found himself facing multiple suits involving contracts and compensation. He also experienced an accidental fall from a stage that resulted in a concussion that threatened to permanently end his career. He also publicly faced an addiction to pornography, which he and his wife, Tammy, successfully fought.

What has attracted me to Franklin’s music is it’s range, diversity and excellence. From the very first recording the jazz and other secular influences were evident. By the third album, the hard core funk influences, particularly George Clinton/P-Funk stylings were pushed to the fore.

One of Franklin’s signature compositions is “Stomp,” which featured a rap by Cheryl “Salt” James of Salt ‘N Peppa fame. A follow hit was “Lean On Me,” which featured R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Crystal Lewis and Bono of U2. As was to be expected the songs were both widely popular but also were the recipient of strong invective from those who thought these songs were too secular.

I am immune to the arguments about the purity (or lack thereof) of the message in Franklin’s music. I heard the carefully crafted harmonies, the synchronicity of the ensemble work, the strong solo voices, and especially the plethora of rhythm elements that include Caribbean rhythms in addition to the more easily identified contemporary elements.

I understand the struggles of keeping a large ensemble together. The leader must not only be a master musician but also a strategist, a psychologist, and a business manager. It’s not easy, especially when one considers the consumer and industry pressures to focus on an individual at the expense of the collective. The leader can amass fame and fortune, but most of the group members languish in the gigantic shadows.

Regardless of how one evaluates the internal workings of the various choirs that Franklin led and produced in the nineties, what cannot be denied is that they produced stirring and inspirational music. In less than ten full years, Kirk Franklin definitely altered the course of gospel music.

In modern music, a decade is a full lifetime. This week’s Mixtape celebrates the first life of Kirk Franklin. Give thanks.

Kalamu ya Salaam is a writer, musician and film-maker based in New Orleans, USA.

Kirk Franklin will be performing at the Discovery Centre in Barking, London, UK, on November 18, 2009, at 7pm, as a guest of Trinity Chapel, London.

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