Kirk Franklin

Double Agent

by Brad Cope

The not-so-secret life of Kirk Franklin: Gospel’s hip-hop superstar.

When Kirk Franklin agreed to lead music at Mount Rose Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, the 11-year-old felt up to the challenge. He had started playing piano at age 4. Three years later, a gospel-recording studio offered him a contract. By sixth grade, his job at Mount Rose put another item on Kirk’s growing resume and $100 in his pocket each month. But the church didn’t know that their new music leader was living a double life: Kirk was spending a portion of his paychecks on marijuana.

Today, gospel superstar Kirk Franklin is on the right track, but he still moves through secular music circles like a double agent. His latest CD, The Nu Nation Project, raced up gospel, R&B and pop charts—and drew flak from conservative gospel fans for its funky style. He uses his wild past to speak out against secular critics. At one time schoolmates in his neighborhood would beat him up and call him "Church Boy." Now Billboard calls him the best-selling gospel artist in history. And this month the unpopular kid from the wrong side of town will wrap up a 56-city tour and release a greatest hits video. But unlike double agents, who betray one side to support the other, Franklin cares for both sacred and secular.

"My failures and my inability to resist the temptations I fell into are the proof that I’ve been there," the 29-year-old writes in his tell-all autobiography, Church Boy (Word). "But, thank God, today I’ve been set free…If I can break people’s hearts and touch them with music and laughter and love so that they’ll know, ‘Yeah, there is a better way,’ then I’ve accomplished what I’m here for."

The Mission Is the Music

The first track on The Nu Nation Project plays up Franklin’s dual appeal. On "Interlude: The Verdict," a mock prosecutor accuses him of "making gospel music too secular." A bell tolls three times, cueing up the CD’s first song, "Revolution." From the first beat, Franklin stands guilty as charged.

Lucky for us. Like "Stomp," his woofer-busting No. 1 single from his last CD, "Revolution" sounds more like the artist formerly known as Prince than the group still known as the Edwin Hawkins Singers. With guest vocals by Brandy producer Rodney Jerkins, the song slams deadbeat dads, religious hypocrites and lying politicians en route to a rap duet on the Second Coming. U2’s Bono, Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly and Crystal Lewis also crank up the volume on Franklin’s anthem of compassion, "Lean On Me." To put his money where his mouth is, Franklin donated $250,000 from the album’s proceeds to the Burned Churches Fund, set up to rebuild sacred buildings torched in the past several years.

Nontraditionalism abounds. The guitar solo that kicks off "Smile Again" would make Jimi Hendrix weep. "He Loves Me," adds a touch of smoky jazz to the mix. "Praise Joint (Remix)" samples Parliament-Funkadelic’s "Flashlight"and "One Nation Under a Groove." Throughout the disc, Franklin’s staccato outbursts—"yessuh!"—energize his two choirs, the Family and God’s Property. Upshot: This is not your mother’s gospel music.

Some critics say that’s just the problem. They point to suggestive lyrics on CDs by Franklin’s guest vocalists. Cheryl James, who rapped on "Stomp," makes up one-third of steamy Salt-N-Pepa. Several cuts on Blige’s "Share My World" promote premarital sex. And Kelly’s latest CD sports a parental warning label. Why include carnal artists on gospel albums?

"Jesus came for the sick and not the well," Franklin said. "I’m just trying to do what He did."

Vetting Church Boy

Kirk Franklin was born in a low-income neighborhood in Fort Worth called Riverside—and he almost didn’t make it that far. His unmarried mother considered abortion, but her aunt Gertrude convinced her to keep the child. After three years of baby-sitting while his mother went out at night, Gertrude adopted Kirk.

She made sure he knew his way around the church. The odd couple—Gertrude was 64 when she took in Kirk—went to church at least twice a week. While this experience exposed him to the music that would shape his career, it also led to beatings from kids in the neighborhood, who applied a twisted logic to these matters. They reasoned that boys who went to church were homosexuals. Kirk Franklin went to church. Ergo, Kirk Franklin must be a homosexual. The beatings continued for years.

It didn’t help that Gertrude made Kirk wear little suits with knickers and booties until he turned 10. It didn’t help that he grew almost 65 inches—then stopped. It also didn’t help that he lacked male role models. One day in fourth grade, he wrote a limerick to describe his life:

There once was a kid named Kirk;

The kids all called him a jerk.

When he went out to play.

It turned into a rainy day.

That goofy little kid named Kirk.

This downward spiral stretched beyond grade school. While his music career started to take off, the insecure teenager turned to drugs and sex. One girlfriend gave birth to their son, Kerrion. Kirk became a single-parent father at 18. He found himself taking his infant son on job interviews at churches.

Tragedy cut short his walk on the wild side. During the summer between ninth and tenth grades, one of his friends accidentally shot himself to death while searching for a tape in a closet. Kirk was devastated. A few weeks later, he knelt in Gertrude’s den and asked God to forgive his sins and to come into his life. He quit smoking weed immediately, but struggled with sex. When Franklin promotes sexual abstinence, he knows the difficulty of the challenge.

"Because sex is such a powerful thing, when it doesn’t have any boundaries it’s very destructive," he says. "You carry luggage. Teen pregnancy. Sexually transmitted diseases. It’s hard to learn how to become committed in marriage. And if you’re doing it, it’s never gonna get better. It’s only gonna get worse."

Full Disclosure

Now married with three children, including Kerrion, Franklin hopes to leave the past behind and realize some big dreams. Plans include the Nu Nation Convention, a Christian youth conference scheduled for Dallas next summer. He also wants to launch groups for young people called Nu Nation chapters in major U.S. cities.

While Franklin may play double agent in the church and the world, his lyrics leave no doubt where his true allegiance lies. On "My Desire" he sings, "My desire is to please You. To be more and more like You, Jesus. Each and every day, I lift my hands and say, ‘I want to be more like You.’"

And who can go wrong with that?

Breakaway Magazine, April, published by Focus on the Family. Copyright 1999. Focus on the Family. All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Used by Permission.