For more than 10 years, Kirk Franklin has been a trailblazer in the gospel music industry. He is one of the most successful artists in the genre, with multiple Grammys, Stellars, BET Awards, and an American Music Award. He has worked with some of the biggest names in Christian music, including Yolanda Adams, TobyMac, Bishop T.D. Jakes, and Shirley Ceasar, as well as mainstream secular music stars such as Bono, Stevie Wonder, and Mary J. Blige. With 11 albums, six of which have gone platinum, you’d think that Franklin wouldn’t have a care in the world. But he does.
There have been trials that have set Franklin back both personally and professionally. From an addiction to pornography that almost tore apart his marriage to the cancellation of the biopic based on his life, Franklin has endured and emerged stronger, like the champion in Christ he professes to be. And throughout it all, he has brought the drama from his life into his music. His latest album, "The Fight of My Life," details his struggle to keep the faith and continue to believe in the God who stays by his side. In this interview, Franklin talks to Beliefnet about the album, his life, and what keeps him fighting.
It seems like in all of your albums you document a different set of struggles, or some warfare that you're going through. What is it that keeps you fighting?
What I'm finding out is that my struggles are like so many other struggles. It's the struggle of life, where, it's the battle of our will versus His, our desires, things we love versus the things that He loves and having to sacrifice and surrender those things, and to have a place where we're so in love with Him and fully trust Him that we don't mind doing it.
That's a daily process—a daily struggle. And just being a Christian living in a world that more and more is just pulling away from everything that I believe in my core makes the battle even worse.
Is there a specific scripture that you turn to when you're facing trials and tribulations?
Romans 8:28. "That all things work together, for the good…" There are times I'm good at believing it. There are times I don't do as good. There are times that my faith is not as strong as it needs to be or that I want it to be. Sometimes I have a hard time remembering that that scripture's true.
What advice do you have for someone going through their own battle?
The first thing to do is to remember the victories that you have had. Sometimes it's so easy in the midst of the battle to forget that this time in the ring was not your first time, and that you came out before. It's so easy to be tricked and think that, "Man, what is this? What is God doing? I've never been here," and begin to doubt and forget that you've been there before.
[It's important] to always keep a stone of remembrance in your pocket to remind yourself that you've been here before, and God got you through it before. Then, from there, everything else is a choice. You have to choose to get in the ring. You've got to choose to put on the gloves. You have to choose to put on the breastplate of righteousness. You have to choose to put on the full armor. You have to choose to do it. And you can't wait to feel to do it.
Listening to the album, one song in particular really struck me— "I Am God," featuring Christian rocker TobyMac, one of your first rock songs on an album. Tell me about your relationship with him.
It was very just organic, very—natural. It wasn't, "Man, let's try to put Kirk and Toby together to try to win black and white people." It's like, that's just my dude. That's my guy.
And so, from there, our swaggers, our personalities just really clicked, and we just became boys. From time to time, we want to do a record together.
But how do you feel about gospel artists opening up and embracing the Christian Contemporary Music world?
I think that it's still very unfortunate that you do see separate Christian music, where in pop and hip-hop, it's nothing to see 50 Cent on pop radio, and it's nothing to see Eminem on black radio. Or Robin Thicke. His color did not stop black radio from playing him. I think that it's unfortunate that in Christian music we still have that.
What are the challenges you face as an artist in trying to keep that message and ministry fresh and applicable to everyone?
Just the biggest challenge that I always face, and seem to face even more, is the struggle of not loving the things of God more than God. Not using the gifts of God for acceptance and validation or approval. But letting the gift be used to glorify Him instead of using it as a tool for people to like me. That's my biggest struggle—making sure that I remember whenever I am in a mainstream environment, that that's not home. I'm only there visiting.
Your album really tackles the ills of our society, from people's self-image on "I Like Me," to the fatherless on "Whole Nation." What are your thoughts on how the church, black or otherwise, chooses to address these social ills?
I think that sometimes as Christians we live in a balloon and can be kind of closed-minded and not even be aware a lot of times of what's going on. I've always felt passionate about trying to speak about things from a Christian perspective that I think if anybody should be speaking about them, Christians should be. We're supposed to be the news reporters of the culture. We're supposed to weigh in on what's going on in society.
So you feel like the church could be doing more to address the problems in our society?
Not as much as we could, no. We need to be more informed and more aware. For the longest [time], we became this subculture because we were afraid to speak on the ills. We wrote everything off as the devil. When we did that, we disconnected ourselves, and that's unfortunate. So now we've got to show that we can be well-rounded in the marketplace and culturally relevant. That's something that we really need to start showing.
What are your thoughts on the division between sacred and secular music that some artists seem to ignore?
What makes the music sacred is the lyrical content. If a guy comes in with tattoos and body piercings, and his life is sold out for the Lord, versus the deacon who has the nice suit on and no piercings, but he's got some infidelity issues and he's got some money laundering issues… "To the pure," the Bible says, "All things are pure." If people don't like the music stylistically, that's cool. But don't take your preference in style and say that it's not sacred.
Do you ever feel like there's a time when it is appropriate to blur the lines between the sacred and the secular? For instance, if an opportunity presented itself for you to be on a record with Jay-Z would you do it for the sake of reaching out to a wider audience?
No, because when I do a song with an artist like Jay-Z, I'm not just collaborating in one song. I'm endorsing that individual. I'm endorsing everything that he does.
Is there a secular artist that you would love to work with on upcoming projects, like how you worked with Salt—from Salt n' Pepa—on "Stomp"?
There's nobody that I'm just burning to work with. I just try to make sure that I work with people who have the same mindset, same goals, same heart, and that their character is going to shine just a lot brighter than their music.
What are the limits in gospel music?
What the Holy Spirit reveals. I am an honest believer in grace, and the New Testament is full of it. When the Holy Spirit chooses to illuminate a scripture and to reveal what the passage says about something that we should or shouldn't do, that's what we respond to. But to roll out this list of dos and don'ts is a very legalistic approach, because God will reveal through scripture different ways to do things that may not be a certain person's taste or style, but if it still falls along just the lines of the text, then we are free to do it.
But then there may be some things that may fall along with the text that the Holy Spirit says "Don't do." That's why Paul says some things are lawful, but not all things are expedient. That's why you don't just make it legalistic. You need to make sure that you have a clear understanding of what the scripture says, and you have a very good connection to the Holy Spirit to be able to just illuminate to your heart what the scripture is saying.
Why do you use secular music samples in your music?
That's just something I enjoy doing. I've been doing this since I was a kid. The music that influenced me coming up as a kid was pop music, R&B, and hip-hop. I wasn't introduced to gospel music until I was 15 or 16. Even as a kid I was taking old Bennie & the Jets, Michael Jackson, and all the different songs and putting a gospel message on it. Sometimes mainstream music or big pop songs—especially songs from the '70s and '80s-- had a lot [more] musical flavor to them than songs do now.
The string arrangements were big, the horn arrangements were big, the bass lines were big, and the chord changes were huge. That's why I like doing it, because I think that the music was better produced back then. It just had so much more flavor and sauce.
Do you still listen to secular music now?
Oh, yes. I listen to all kinds of music, from Norah Jones to Yo-Yo Ma to U2 to even some clean versions of hip-hop. I listen to everything from Josh Groban to Carrie Underwood to Sting to some old Eric B. and Rakim, to some old LL Cool J, some Mos Def, Jay-Z.
I'll go to Wal-Mart and get the clean versions just to stay culturally relevant, to stay on top of what kids are talking about—to keep my swagger fresh. So when I get up and speak to kids, I'm not sounding antiquated.
The clean versions?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But, again, I listen to stay current. I want to know what's going on. I'm not driving around with the windows down, like, "Yo, this is the next song. This is what's hot, baby."
Often when your music makes the Billboard charts, it seems to fall into the "Hot R&B and Rap" category. How do you feel about that?
The biggest job is to never try to be there, not try to make it your goal in life. That's very dangerous, to try to make it your goal.
If that's a door that God wants you to walk through, then just allow Him to open [it], because, if not, it's just a very addictive door, and it can really become something that you're consumed with. When you do Christian music, there's not a lot of outlets for you. But sometimes doing gospel music, you don't have any other chances. When that happens, and when you see these mainstream shows and mainstream things, you want to be a part of that. You have to really fight very hard to always remember that this gift is not mine. I'm not here for my purpose, but for His.
And that's a daily battle.
What makes you continue to push the limits of what people would consider safe in gospel music?
You know what? I really don't know. I'm not trying to push envelopes. I'm just trying to do what I enjoy. It's got to be something that you love. It's got to be something that's organic and natural for you. It's got to be something that just flows out of you— that's not contrived. That's what happens for me. I'm just trying to do what God has put in my heart to do, and just trying to respond to those passions.
What's next for Kirk Franklin?
You know what? I don't know yet. I've just chosen to not be consumed with the plan, but just to keep my eyes focused on the purpose—to know Him and to be consumed with Him, and be transformed in Him. I know that it sounds very religious, but that's my ultimate goal. Everything else keeps you empty, and it always keeps you chasing—and I don't want to chase no more.