Multiple Grammy Award-winning songwriter, recording artist, choirmaster and author Kirk Franklin has been dubbed the “reigning King of Urban Gospel” by Variety Magazine. We take a look at his 1998 album The Nu Nation Project, which openly addresses the challenges Christian artists face when secular success happens.
“I believe that I’m the pen and I believe that God’s the poet, and He writes what He wants to be said. I don’t believe that I’ve ever written a song in my life. It’s just God doing it in me because I’ve tried to write songs before and they are ugly.” ~ Kirk Franklin in Jet Magazine (2006)
Kirk Franklin was born in 1970 and raised in the tough neighbourhood of Fort Worth, Texas. Adopted by his 63-year-old great-aunt Gertrude when his teenage mother abandoned him at the age of 3, he grew up in a strict Baptist household. He was exposed to gospel music while attending church services; at home, as his great-uncle played jazz and hymns on the family’s upright piano.
Singing and dancing along in the living room to his great-uncle’s playing, Franklin began to mimic what he saw and eventually took to playing the piano by himself by the age of 4. Seeing Franklin’s burgeoning musical talent, his great-aunt sent him for piano lessons in their local neighbourhood. Unable to afford the lessons, she raised the money by collecting aluminium cans off the street and selling them to a recycling center.
As Franklin’s musical abilities grew, he was offered a recording contract at the age of 7 but his great-aunt turned it down, wanting him to stay planted in their local church where he was an active member of the gospel choir. Playing piano and singing in his church up to the age of 11, an opportunity arose for Franklin to lead the choir when its music minister left. Dealing with initial resistance from the choir members—some of whom had grandchildren older than him—Franklin won the group over with his raw ability and talent, and was installed as the church’s music director not long after.
Though he excelled in his music ministry, by his teenage years, Franklin’s personal life started to parallel others in his impoverished neighbourhood. Bullied at school for being a “Church Boy” and a “Mama’s Boy”, and taunted for his effeminate manner and his short stature, Franklin rebelled against his Baptist upbringing and pushed himself into promiscuous relationships with girls to prove his masculinity amongst his peers.
At the age of 15, Franklin witnessed the tragic death of a friend in an accidental shooting. Shocked at seeing someone die so young, he rededicated his life to the Lord and began leading the choir again. After a few false starts trying to get his life back on track (he attended and was later expelled from a professional youth conservatory; he also had to deal with the pregnancy of his young girlfriend), Franklin created a homemade demo tape of his music and it found its way into the hands of the renowned gospel artist and producer Reverend Milton Biggham.
Franklin was hired by Biggham to lead the choir at the 1990 Gospel Workshop of America Convention, and buoyed by the experience, Franklin went on to form a 17-piece gospel group called The Family, selecting singers from among his neighbourhood friends.
Franklin and his new choir caught the attention of the fledgling gospel record label GospoCentric, which took a chance on the then 22-year old choir director and signed him as their first recording artist. Under the guidance of the label’s innovative founders—husband and wife team Claude Lataillade and Vicki Mack-Lataillade—Franklin’s debut gospel album Kirk Franklin And The Family, was released in 1992, and became a sleeper hit.
Recorded live at the Grace Temple Seventh-day Adventist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, GospoCentric Records conservatively estimated that the album would sell no more than 30,000 units, but thanks to the strength of the call-and-response songs “Why We Sing” and “Silver And Gold”, the album went on to to be certified platinum, reaching number one on the Billboard Gospel Music Albums charts and crossing over to both the Billboard 200 and Top R&B/Hip-Hop albums charts. Hailed by critics as the rebirth of gospel music, the album’s surprise crossover success shook up the once dormant gospel genre, and sparked a renewed interest by major record labels to sign gospel artists.
Following on from the debut album’s success, Franklin and The Family released Christmas which went gold in 1995, followed by the R&B-tinged Watcha Lookin’ 4 album that went platinum in 1996. On his 1997 album, God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation, Franklin worked extensively with Dallas-based choir God’s Property, and thanks to the gospel/funk track “Stomp“, the album became an enormous success.
Featuring the rapping talent of Cheryl ‘Salt’ James from the groundbreaking female rap group Salt ’N’ Pepa, and with God’s Property belting out the lyrics like “I can’t explain, I can’t obtain it, Jesus your love is so, it’s so amazing“, Franklin cleverly tied it all together by using an interpolation from Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under A Groove” to give the song a deep and heavy hip-hop backing. The accompanying music video featuring Franklin, Salt and God’s Property jamming it out on an indoor basketball court, which became a major MTV hit. That album went triple platinum and to this day, remains one of biggest- selling gospel albums of all time.
In 1998, with the release of the album The Nu Nation Project, Franklin wanted to set the record straight on his affiliations with R&B and hip-hop, as well as respond to his many critics inside and outside the church.
Receiving vitriol from the gospel community who lambasted him for working with a rap artist (Cheryl James) and for going with secular label Interscope Records, which was home to many gangsta rap artists like Dr Dre, Eminem and the late Tupac Shakur, Franklin pulled no punches as he laid out all his grievances in the album’s intro track, “Interlude: The Verdict“.
It opens with a staged court trial, with Franklin being called to answer to the charges of: one, trying to take the gospel to the world; two, making gospel music too secular; and three, tearing down the walls of religion. With the verdict about to be given, the intro segues beautifully into the opening song “Revolution“, an astounding hip-hop battle cry for Christ, resplendent in its visceral impact and production values.
Featuring famed Christian rapper/producer Rodney Jerkins (Whitney Houston, Destiny’s Child, Jennifer Lopez), the song calls out the societal problems in American culture—black homicide, absentee fathers, sexual promiscuity and the religiosity of the church— and points to the revolution and the solution to it all, that is Jesus Christ.
There’s gonna be a brighter day
All your troubles will pass away
A revolution comin’, yes its comin’ common’ brother
A revolution’s comin’, yes it’s comin’
A revolution’s comin’, yes it’s comin’
After the sonic explosion that is “Revolution”, Franklin dials down the energy on the following track, the impassioned bitter-sweet ballad, “Lean On Me”. Franklin calls on the considerable talents of U2 frontman Bono, R&B heavyweights R Kelly and Mary J Blige and gospel singer Crystal Lewis to deliver a message on how Christians can show the love of Jesus by being a helping hand to the less fortunate.
Let me take you to a friend of mine
He’s waiting just to ease your troubled mind
Yeah, yeah, He loves you more than you’ll ever know
‘Stead of walking away
The song became a major crossover hit and was nominated for Song of the Year at the 41st Grammy awards in 1999. It was performed live in front of 1.5 billion viewers on the award night.
Mixing things up on the album, Franklin takes a step back to 70’s soul with his cover of Bill Wither’s classic hit, “Lovely Day”. Freshening the song up both lyrically and sonically, and christening his new creation “Gonna Be A Lovely Day“, the old skool vibe married to pure praise is just plain celebratory in every way as Franklin’s lyrics declare how Jesus has overcome the troubles we face in life.
Jesus, You’re the lover of my soul
The fire that burns deep within
You are the joy this world can’t take away
This spiritual love affair, it will never end
With the wonderful cascading backing vocals in the bridge from both the choirs— Nu Nation and The Family—accompanying a loping drum machine beat, it is almost impossible not to be caught up in the swing and groove as it carries you along.
“Something About The Name Jesus” circles back to Franklin’s roots, being classic black gospel in its purest form. With sparse accompaniment of instruments, this slow-burning worship song is led by Bishop Rance Allen with backing vocals provided by the gospel group, Men Of Standard,. Here we find Franklin paying homage to the music he grew up with, reminding us that he can honour the past by creating uplifting, spirit-filled music that touches the soul.
On the track “My Desire”, Franklin introduces legendary gospel artist Fred Hammond as “one of greatest gospel singers of our time”—it is apt that the wonderful talents of these two gospel giants would finally come together on an album. Hands are raised and feet are moving to this funk-filled, celebratory gospel jam raises the roof. Backed by both The Family and the OD Wyatt High School Choir, the track also features a full horn arrangement which amplifies the praise vibe.
My desire is to please You
To be more and more like You Jesus
Each and everyday, I lift my hands and say
“I want to be more like You”
The Nu Nation Project went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album in 1998. It also picked up the Album of the Year award and Song of the Year for “Revolution” at the 30th GMA Dove awards that same year.
KEEP ON CARRYING ON FOR JESUS
Even after the incredible success Franklin experienced during the 1990s, he never slowed down, quickly moving on to further projects and greater acclaim as he progressed in his career. Reinventing his music and sound in 2001, he became a successful and acclaimed solo artist who has charted albums and singles in the last 20 years.
Keeping humble, grounded and Godly in an entertainment industry that is renowned for its excesses, Franklin knows where the true source of his success comes from. In his 1999 autobiography Church Boy: My Music, My Life, Franklin wrote how humbled he was to see God use the hurts and losses and pain of his past to shape the voice and message of his music. In Matthew 7:20, Jesus said you will know a man by his fruit; now 20 years on, we see the fruit of Franklin’s music, which is leading people to the Lord year after year.
In March this year, Franklin collaborated with Maverick City Music, an Atlantic-based worship music collective, on a live recording at the Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami, Florida. The worship team—including Chandler Moore, Dante Bowe and Brandon Lake—and the 52-year-old Franklin, led a group of 1,300 male prisoners in worshiping God with his classic song “My Life Is In Your Hands”. The sight of the throng of inmates all raising their hands and their voices to praise Jesus melts hearts and brings tears to the eyes. Franklin and Maverick City are currently touring the US with their Kingdom album tour.
Knowing that God used his own setbacks to turn his life around, Franklin brought that same message of hope to these incarcerated men, who, like us, have all fallen short of the glory of God. In career that now spans 30 years, Franklin has unflinchingly centred on Jesus and His work of salvation, and it looks like he will be carrying that same message for the next 30 years and more.