The arrival of Kirk Franklin on the gospel music scene is without question a watershed in gospel music history. His contemporary style of music and willingness to collaborate with Hip-Hop artists engendered great controversy (and still does). Young African-American Christians and non-Christians received Kirk Franklin’s style of music tremendously well, but older African-American Christians did not. One of the reasons why I find such a tremendous interest in examining Kirk Franklin’s impact on gospel music is how he unsettled, unnerved, and unhoused traditional and limited notions of art within gospel music. His ability to usher in a Hip-Hop-oriented fusion of gospel music evinces how gospel music has the potential to have a significant influence across racial, ideological, and theological boundaries.
While I love traditional gospel artists like Shirley Ceasar, James Moore, James Cleveland and Dorothy Norwood, their music does not have the power to reach a much wider audience than Kirk Franklin’s music has and can. Please, don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that traditional gospel music did not and does not have a significant impact and influence on people’s lives. In fact, without traditional gospel music contemporary gospel music could not have emerged. Traditional gospel music has been such a powerful medium of support, uplift, and deliverance for scores of African-Americans (and people of all races and ethnicities). Traditional gospel music, however, needed an update to make it more appealing and relevant to the postmodern period in which we reside. We live in a culture where Hip-Hop culture, particularly Hip-Hop music, is such a dominant force. Regardless of whether or not people embrace Hip-Hop, it cannot be avoided. Recognizing this social reality, Kirk Franklin revolutionized gospel music by merging the best of Hip-Hop music and culture with traditional gospel music.
Many proponents of traditional gospel music have posited that Franklin’s fusion of Hip-Hop music and culture with traditional gospel music is not gospel music at all. They see this type of music as turning gospel music from sacred music to more of a secular form of music. The contemporary gospel of Kirk Franklin still represents scared music: It maintains a fundamental commitment to the glorification, worship, and acknowledgement of God. What is different about Kirk Franklin’s postmodern Hip-Hop-oriented gospel music is it understands how times have changed in such a way that the music has to change in a way to reflect the times—while maintaining a core commitment to the same Jesus of the past, present, and future. Bishop Paul L. Fortson of Paradise Church of God in Christ in Forest Park, Georgia argues that any music that has “Jesus” in it is gospel music. I completely agree with him.
Today, I salute Kirk Franklin for having the willingness to unsettle, unnerve, and unhouse African-American Christians who hold limited views of what gospel music is. Because of his willingness to be a gospel music revolutionary artist, writer, and producer, thousands of lost souls have been able to be saved and know that there is a God looking out for them. Franklin has demonstrated that Hip-Hop culture does not have to be divorced from gospel music and the Church. He helps us to understand that Hip-Hop culture lives within the Church and the people who the Church serves and desires to reach. Without Kirk Franklin, we may have never been able to see R. Kelly singing a gospel song.
Antonio Maurice Daniels
University of Wisconsin-Madison