When gospel met flash

Kirk Franklin has parlayed urban groove and spirituality into wide popularity


Kirk Franklin is tired.

Calling from the road en route to Indianapolis, the pint-sized gospel star performed the night before in Kansas City, Mo., sprinting across the stage, shouting, "giving it up," as he usually does. So, of course, the artist is drained the morning after. His voice is hoarse, gravelly and sometimes inaudible.

"Can you hear me? Sorry. Yeah, I'm fine, man," he says, sounding as if he's reassuring himself more than the reporter.

Franklin, whose "Hero Tour" stops at 1st Mariner Arena on Sunday night, has reigned over contemporary gospel since breaking out in 1993. That year, Kirk Franklin & the Family hit the streets and quickly sold more than a million copies, becoming the first gospel debut to go platinum. Since then, the native Texan has released six albums. With total sales in excess of 10 million, Franklin is the genre's most prominent artist.

On Hero, his latest CD and the first release on his Fo Yo Soul label, the songwriter and choir director continues his marriage of deep, urban grooves and lyrics of spiritual resilience.

"Most gospel is very vertical, up and down: `Jesus, we love you. We worship you,'" says Franklin, 36. "I really felt God dropped these songs in my heart to be more horizontal, to spread the message wider."

He's like the Sean "Diddy" Combs of gospel: Besides being an entrepreneur, Franklin is also known for his sophisticated, slightly street-flavored fashion sense. His productions (outside of his own, Franklin has overseen tracks for Yolanda Adams, Trin-i-tee 5:7 and others) are slick; some may say a bit flashy. And he's fond of using familiar samples to bolster his more celebratory cuts.

"Looking For You," the first single from Hero, borrows generously from Patrice Rushen's 1979 club classic, "Haven't You Heard." Like his previous hits "Why We Sing" and "Stomp," "Looking For You" has for months been a mainstay on urban stations, even garnering play in clubs.

Regarding the propulsive Rushen sample, Franklin says, "I was in Brazil last year when I heard the song being played on the radio. I was like, `Who's that?' I fell in love with it and had my DJ find it."

It's understandable that Franklin, who was 9 years old when "Haven't You Heard" was ubiquitous on black radio, wouldn't remember the tune. Back then, Franklin was being reared by his aunt Gertrude, a deeply religious woman who raised him as a strict Baptist. (At age 4, he had been abandoned by his mother, and he never knew his father.) Secular music was forbidden. But for a brief time in his teens, Franklin rebelled and started hanging out on the streets where he was exposed to R&B and hip-hop.

Years later, when the self-proclaimed "church boy" started making music, he melded hard, urban textures with traditional gospel messages. As his records flew out of stores and crossed over onto R&B radio, however, Franklin dealt with flak from gospel traditionalists - folks who thought his brand of "good news" music was too street, too bombastic.

"When I started, it was painful what people had to say about the music," says the artist. "But God humbled me. I don't say much now, because I've grown personally and spiritually."

During the past decade, as Franklin traveled the world with his choir singing songs of faith and hope, the father of four (ages 17, 16, 8 and 5) was battling a serious addiction to porn. As Hero landed in stores last summer, the gospel star made his struggles public. Looking calm and debonair, he frankly discussed his addiction on Oprah last year.

"It was something that I had victory over, something I've had victory over for four years," Franklin says. "I was blessed, and I was open with it. It was something that I had carried around for so many years. I felt like I had to be honest about what I've been through."

With swift gold-certified sales of Hero and a well-attended national tour, the artist doesn't seem to have suffered any backlash after revealing his nearly 20-year addiction. He says Tammy, his wife of 10 years, has been supportive. "You can't keep quiet about some things," he says, clearing his throat. "Especially in the African-American community, we have to be honest about all we go through and how we got victory over it. God didn't call me to be no celebrity or no star. God called me to be a servant. My position is to be a light to people, to plant seeds and inspire people."

See Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St., Sunday night at 7:30. Tickets are $39.50-$42.50 Both acts also perform at Constitution Hall, 18th and C streets N.W. in Washington, tonight and tomorrow night at 8. Tickets for each show are $50 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.


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