Gospel’s Kirk Franklin strives to make ‘Jesus famous’

November 9, 2017 GMT

In town for “The Rebel, The Soul & The Saint Tour,” gospel performer extraordinaire Kirk Franklin, who is rather soft spoken when not on stage, laughed when asked which of those descriptors referred to him.

“It’s more about people feeling welcome to come, whoever you are,” said Franklin, known for his down-to-earth nature and candor. “I think it’s more about the vision, about not leaving anyone out. I enjoy people, period.”

As part of the 27-city swing, the Grammy, Dove and Stellar Award-winner is appearing Friday at the Fox Theatre with R&B recording artist Ledisi and special guest PJ Morton.

And his audiences enjoy him back. His concerts — controversial, in some quarters — are camp meetings with a hip-hop twist, with Franklin — musician, vocalist and choir director — dancing and exhorting to a fevered pitch.

“I just love the way he gets the audience going,” said Charvon Brown, chief executive of Detroit-based talent agency Southwest Styles Management. “He gives it his all, and it’s always a feel-good evening.”

The tour will feature past hits, plus songs from Franklin’s 2015 album “Losing My Religion,” including “Wanna Be Happy?” The album, his 12th, is about pursuing faith without dogma.

His infectious high energy has not always served him well, however. Despite a strict religious upbringing, the Fort Worth, Texas, native rebelled in his teen years, getting expelled from school and a girlfriend pregnant.

“Oh boy, I was in trouble all the time,” he said during a telephone interview with The Detroit News while in Pittsburgh. “Back then it was considered wild and hyper, but I probably had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). It was not ever looked at as good or attractive, but now that energy comes in handy, I guess.”

That he’d lost his way for a while is understandable. After all, he’d been abandoned by his parents and was adopted at age 4 by his Aunt Gertrude. But then his fortunes turned, in a roundabout way. His aunt collected and sold empty cans to raise money to pay for piano lessons for him, and that’s when Franklin began to blossom. He could play by ear, as well as read and write music.

His path was set.

Although his aunt nixed it, he got his first contract offer while in second grade. By 12, Franklin was music director of an adult Baptist choir. Aunt Gertrude arranged an audition for him at a professional youth conservatory. He also studied music with Jewell Kelly and the Singing Chaparrals.

After his rebellious period and the shooting death of a friend, Franklin returned to church and choir directing. He also founded a gospel group, “The Humble Hearts,” which got the attention of gospel music legend Milton Biggham, who hired the 20-year-old to lead the choir at the 1990 Gospel Music Workshop of America convention, a major industry gathering.

Since then, Franklin, 47, has racked up a dozen Grammys, 40 Stellar Awards, 16 Dove Awards and a bevy of hits, including the crossover single “Stomp.” His song “Joy” was recorded by Whitney Houston and the Georgia Mass Choir. He’s worked with such artists as Bono, Stevie Wonder, Lacrae, Kanye West and Chance the Rapper.

Still, he’s humble.

“God has an incredible way of making sure of it,” he said, chuckling. “It’s beautiful, the way that he lovingly reminds you that he loves you but doesn’t need you. He lets you know that you don’t stop the party.”

He’s never shied from talking about the pain in his life. A recent attempt at reconciliation with his mother a few years ago didn’t end well, and he said he’s done trying. He has a sister who has been imprisoned and has struggled with crack addiction.

“Sometimes in life you can’t control the hurt. You just cannot control everything,” said Franklin, the father of four who’s been married for 21 years to Tammy Collins. “All I can share is the grace of God. My life has been a billboard for God’s grace.”

That extends to the music industry, which is steadily changing.

“Music has become kind of background noise to everything else in people’s lives,” he said “People used to stand in line to get the new album coming out. Now, it’s not so intention-focused, and that makes everybody scramble. It makes the label scramble, and the radio stations scramble. We’re all feeling it.”

The only genre that seems to be growing is hip hop, he said.

“When you look at black music across the board, it’s in a rough place. All we can do is do the music and ask God for new and creative ways to get the music to the people.”

Still, he said it’s never occurred to him to branch out to other kinds of music.

“I don’t do a lot of thinking like that. Any artist who thinks too much, I guarantee they don’t have much of an impact,” he said. “If you’re called to do something, you don’t have to think about it. It burns in you to do it.”

It’s the same with his relationship with Christ.

“There are days when I’m more focused than others, but I really think it starts with the beat of your heart, what pulls your heart. How can a man not think of his wife, or check on his kids? It’s not about religion; it becomes very natural.”

He remains excited about what he does, which he calls “making Jesus famous.”

He’s also hyped about every chance to come to Detroit. The city, with its rich gospel heritage, doesn’t abide half-steppers. And Franklin knows it.

It’s the holy Mecca, no doubt,” he said.

“You feel it every time you come.”

Mary Chapman is a Metro Detroit-based freelance writer.

Kirk Franklin & Ledisi: The Rebel, The Soul & The Saint Tour

With special guest, R&B musician PJ Morton

7:30 p.m. Friday

Fox Theatre

2211 Woodward, Detroit.

Tickets $29-$79 at OlympiaEntertainment.com, the Fox Theatre Box Office, the Little Caesars Arena XFINITY Box Office, and Ticketmaster.com.

(800) 745-3000 or (313) 471-6611