Kirk Franklin

by Dan MacIntosh

Kirk Franklin is a gospel music icon, although it's not always easy to describe exactly what he does. He doesn't necessarily sing, even though there are oftentimes choirs of singers on his recordings. He does a lot of talking in his songs, but he doesn't exactly rap either. Yet for nearly 20 years now, he's been making some of the most popular and memorable Christian music.

He's also a smart judge of talent as the host and executive producer for Sunday Best, a BET gospel music competition show.

Franklin's music has already won him seven Grammy Awards, 35 Stellar Awards, 11 Dove Awards, five NAACP Image Awards, two BET Awards and one American Music Award. The unique performer's most recent Dove Award was for his recent single, "I Smile," from his latest album, Hello Fear.

It's tough to put your finger on it, but Franklin just seems to have a magic touch when it comes to creating fantastic Christian music.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): This is for, and we're all about songs and songwriting, so I wanted to start by talking about your song "I Smile," which was a big winner recently at the Dove Awards. Can you tell me a little bit about how that song came about?

Kirk Franklin: Well, you know, they all have their beginning the same way. It's just an idea that God puts in the heart, and it's something that I may be messing around with for maybe a few weeks or maybe something that has been in my mind for a couple of years, and then when it's time to work on the album it just kind of all comes together. Sometimes it's just being blessed with the melody for a minute and not knowing what direction you want to go with it. And of course you talk to so many songwriters that you know that every song has its own process. Every song has its own birthplace. So it's kind of the same thing.

Songfacts: You sample an SOS Band song and also a Little Feat song. How did you come up with those two samples to create your song?

Franklin: I just thought they would be cute ear candy, like what if I use a little sample of something. For me it's always ear candy. And I just thought it would be really cool for the bridge of the song to be this familiar R&B song that everybody remembered. A lot of times when you're communicating a message like mine - which for the most part is a question - it's sometimes easier to digest or get that message across when you use familiarity. So that's what I was trying to do.

And of course, that's an era of music that was very close to my heart. I was raised with more hip-hop and urban music. My whole influence of Christian music came at a much later age.

Songfacts: So you're combining what you were raised listening to with what you're doing now and putting the two together?

Franklin: Yeah. That's not always done with conscious effort in mind. It's what was familiar to me.

Songfacts: You're one of the most interesting artists, because whenever I talk to people about your music, you're impossible to categorize. There are elements of hip-hop, there are elements of gospel, but I wouldn't call you a purely gospel artist, nor would I call you purely hip-hop. Have you ever come up with a really good genre to describe your music?

Franklin: I guess what would also make it even more difficult is the fact that I can't sing (laughs). So that's another dilemma. That's another challenge, because you've got all these legends in gospel music. Well, voices like angels. Just wherever you put me, I guess I'm cool.

Songfacts: You did some acting recently with Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah in Joyful Noise. How was that experience?

Franklin: It was more of a cameo. It wasn't like flat out acting. It was a cameo performance I did in a movie. And it was cool, it was good fun, it was really fun to have a chance to do it.

Songfacts: Is it something you would want to do more of, now that you have a taste of it?

Franklin: I've dabbled doing that stuff throughout my whole career, doing cameos on TV shows, reading scripts and doing walk ons. So if something came across that fit and was moving in the direction I'm trying to move in, I'm open to all mediums, as long as I don't compromise.

Songfacts: And you're the host of a BET show, as well. How do you feel about hosting TV shows?

Sunday Best is an American Idol-like singing competition on BET. It focuses on gospel singers and gospel music. There are no meanie Simon Cowells here, but gospel stars Yolanda Adams, CeCe Winans and Donnie McClurkin are its judges. Kirk Franklin is its version of Ryan Seacrest.
Franklin: That's really cool. I've been doing it for six seasons, and it's an incredible show with incredible talent. I've been really glad to be a part of that over the last several years. It's been great.

Songfacts: Is there anything you haven't done yet that you still want to try as far as the entertainment business?

Franklin: You know, there are a couple endeavors that I'm working on - just got to dial it down a little right now - that are more on the business side trying to expand the genre in some different ways. And they seem kind of interesting and appealing to me. We'll just kind of see how they play out. They're kind of playing out day by day, we'll just see what happens.

Songfacts: I read that you closed the NAACP awards with a tribute to Whitney Houston. I'm curious if you could give a little bit of background of your relationship with her and what kind of impact she had on you.

Franklin: Well, she and I met back in 1996, when she was working on The Preacher's Wife. She wanted to record one of my songs, this old song that I wrote back when I was a teenager, for a choir.

We met at Image Awards interestingly. And so first time meeting, there was so much love. It's mad love, she showed me so much love and it was so cool. And when I would go to Atlanta on tour, sometimes she would come to a concert and sit with the family. And it was the same sitting at a hotel, we'd sit in the lobby for hours and talk and chalk it up. So we had an opportunity to show each other love, it was really great.

Songfacts: And were you shocked when she died?

Franklin: Like everybody else, man. Just really upset. Very angry, very disappointed.

Songfacts: One of my greatest musical memories was I saw BeBe and CeCe Winans and she joined them on stage to sing some gospel music. And I could really tell by the way she sang the songs that she really believed what she was singing.

Franklin: Oh, yeah.

Songfacts: And it made me wish she would have done more of that music. And I'll bet if she had a chance she probably wanted to do more gospel music.

Franklin: Yeah. And, you know, I was fine just getting on my time this morning, and I don't know if you're a Christian or not...

Songfacts: Uh huh.

Franklin: Well, even you weren't, it's all good. It's all love. I was just this morning reading in John and it was talking about how great the love the Father has for us to call us the children of God, that's what we really are. And then the next verse says and the reason why they don't know you is because they didn't know me. And it's so important as a Christian artist to always keep that stamped on our foreheads. A lot of the doors that we don't walk in and the line of rejection of the notoriety, the lost opportunities that don't come have nothing to do, really, with us, and we can't take it personal, and we can't internalize it. It just has to do with the fact that our boss is not the most popular guy in the culture. The guy we work for, he's not the sexiest and the idol, so he's not going to be on the magazine covers. He's not going to be the cat in the VIP suite.

So when we're not invited - and the genre that we're part of is not always going to be the one that gives a platform for our people - we don't take that personal. We understand exactly what it is. It has nothing to do with our talents or our gifts or our opportunities, it has to do with our boss.

Songfacts: That's right.

Franklin: And it's the job we signed up for. We knew that we were hooking up with somebody that was not going to be class president, you know?

Songfacts: I like how you put that. I wonder if you can talk me through the process of how you create your songs. Because I don't imagine that you're somebody that sits down with a pad of paper and a pen and writes out the words. So can you tell me, is there a way that you normally create your songs?

Franklin: Well, it's different every time. Sometimes it isn't exactly that process you make. Before I had a computer, my first few albums, it was all paper and pencil. That's all it was. And matter of fact, I didn't start writing songs on a computer until 2000.

Songfacts: But I'll bet that's helped a lot.

Franklin: Oh yeah. What it does now is it lets me sit back and just look at the lyrics and kind of watch them for a minute.

Songfacts: And you have to sort of sit with them to make sure that they feel right before you move on?

Franklin: Yeah.

Songfacts: And actually turn it into a song. I talked to somebody one time and they said that they used their iPhone to sing or talk lyrics into it. Do you ever use devices like that?

Franklin: Yeah. All the time. I have a whole bunch of little tape recorders and iPhones. Before the iPhone had the app with the recorder, I would just call my cell phone and call back to another phone and call voicemail and just sing it on voicemail. Then you get back to the crib and you put your Dictaphone up to the cell phone and play the voicemail and record it. By any means necessary.

Songfacts: And does it come out of just like the weirdest places? I mean, can you be having dinner with somebody and all of the sudden they'll say something and you'll just think, Oh, that sounds like something I want to use in a song?

Franklin: All the time. All the time. Something happened in a restaurant last night. Me and Tammy were having a talk with our little boy. And while having a talk with him, an idea came to my head, and I'm trying to make sure I don't forget, at the same time being focused with them.

Songfacts: "I'm really trying to help you, son, but I've got this idea for a song." (Laughing)

Franklin: "You know, your dad's got ADD, so I'm trying very hard to..." (laughing) But when I finish, and he's such a big part of my life, what I'll do is when I went to the counter, I had him sit by me and ask him what he thought of this idea.

Songfacts: So you ask his opinion?

Franklin: Oh, yeah. That's my boy.

Songfacts: And how old is he now?

Franklin: He's 11. And he's awesome. He's a talented little dude.

Songfacts: Is he musical?

Franklin: Oh, man, he's a drummer for life, man. I'm telling you.

Songfacts: Uh oh. Drummers are dangerous, Kirk. You better watch out for them.

Franklin: Yeah, man. He's a drummer. He's bad.

Songfacts: I was in the marching band in high school and the people that were always late were the drummers. The people that were always kind of spacing out in their own world were the drummers. So you've got your work cut out for you. My son plays drums. So I know about that.

Franklin: Yeah. Well, I'm trying to make sure that I kind of discipline the gift as it grows. I'm trying to make sure that he has some tools that I didn't have, you know what I mean?

Songfacts: Yeah. Well, you've written so many great songs. And I'm going to kind of put you on the spot here. Can you tell me maybe some of your favorite songs, when you're performing live, what are the songs that you enjoy performing most?

Franklin: You know, I don't know, man. That's always hard to ask a dude. But there's this one song that for some reason it never gets tiring. It's a song called "Imagine Me." And that's a song that never really gets really tired of me performing. It's like I never get tired of doing it.

Songfacts: And why is that?

Franklin: I don't know. Maybe just because the personal-ness of the lyrics, and what it's saying, what it's communicating and what it means to me. That becomes very important to me. And so that has a very strong place in my life.

Songfacts: Are there songs that you do that tend to change over the years? Do the meanings change as you kind of go through different seasons in your life?

Franklin: Some. But they all seem to always be as real and as relevant whenever they happen. Yeah. It is by far a very humbling gift. It's a gift that I sometimes see myself get prideful in. A gift I've seen myself get secure in.

Songwriting is a discipline and a gift that I've seen go to many different levels in my life. I've seen myself be insecure in it. I've seen myself war with it. I've seen myself try to put my identity in it. I've seen myself try to put value in it. It is the most vulnerable place in my life, and it is the place that I've seen my need and dependency for God on a consistent level greater than any other space in my life, because I've tried on my own to write songs, and I know how whack they are and how ugly they can sound. And then I can hear a song that I know with no doubt is divinely inspired by Heaven. There's a new song that I just wrote for a young lady that used to sing for me (Tamela Mann), and she's doing an album. She's been trying to get a song all right for a long time. And I'm not the greatest person to be doing radio stuff, because that's a place that's very awkward for me, because radio singles are so weird. It's a very weird place.

So I was working on a lot of other projects and did not have time to really take with the song. I just remembered going, God, I really want a song for her. Can you really speak something? I had some old ideas on a tape, and I did some working on the song till 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, which is not a very good thing to do. But I had to do it because I promised her that she and I could get together the very next day. And I didn't want to break the promise. Because I knew if I broke the promise, it was going to hurt her feelings. I've got to be a man of my word, and I just have to trust I'll be giving you something.

Man, if I tell you, bro, this song is so freakin' incredible.

Songfacts: What do you call it?

Franklin: It's called "Take Me to the King." And gospel radio already has jumped on it and they're singing praises about it already.

Songfacts: Wonderful.

Franklin: I know that it was a God moment, but those moments are also a bit scary for me, because I'm like, Okay, Lord, don't let me get caught up in this moment and think that I can do this on my own next time. It's just a really weird dichotomy, dude.

Songfacts: Okay. My last question is tell me the story behind "Help Me Believe," because that was such a big song for you.

Franklin: "Help Me Believe." Well, you know, what's interesting is that it wasn't a big radio song. That just happened to be a song that the Grammy people picked as a big song. Well, it was a big song for me personally, but as far as career and radio and airplay, it wasn't. What somebody explained to me is that when the Academy is looking at a song, they're looking at the sonics and the production of it and the movement of it, and I didn't realize that, because I'm not involved in the award process like that.

That song came in 2007. I was having a rough year, man. I was going through some things with my family and just a lot of things emotionally, and a lot of disappointments. There were some things happening that were kind of scary, and I was really being faced with my faith: how much do I really believe and what do I really believe?

It was a lot going on, and it was a really, really, really hard time. The first line is, "I want to believe but I'm having a hard time seeing past what I see right now." For me, it was all about that first sentence. It's all about what are we saying? Like with "Hello Fear." "Hello, fear, before you sit down, there's something I need to explain." I mean, that's it, dude. That's it. Just in that statement right there, it's like, okay, where are we going?

Songfacts: So you plot your songs out and you know where they're going to go from the beginning?

Franklin: Well, not always. I just knew that that first line had to be significant. And sometimes it's the pressure of living up to the first line. If the first line is so dope, it's like where can I go? Like with "Hello Fear," I had that sentence for four or five months. Just "Hello, fear, before you sit down there's something I need to explain." Well, you don't really know what to say after that. But you know whatever you say you have the opportunity to be majorly impactful or extremely corny. (Laughing)

July 24, 2012. Get more at
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Charlotte Mcclease from Manteo North Carolina I write gospel songs I have two songs I think Mr Franklin would like
  • Deborah Smith Pollard, Ph.d. from Detroit, MiYour questions were great, and the answers are very insightful. Thank you for sharing!
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Bob Dylan Lyric QuizMusic Quiz

Think you know your Bob Dylan lyrics? Take this quiz to find out.

Jon Oliva of Trans-Siberian OrchestraSongwriter Interviews

Writing great prog metal isn't easy, especially when it's for 60 musicians.

Spot The Real Red Hot Chili Peppers Song TitlesMusic Quiz

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have some rather unusual song titles - see if you can spot the real ones.

Martin PageSongwriter Interviews

With Bernie Taupin, Martin co-wrote the #1 hits "We Built This City" and "These Dreams." After writing the Pretty Woman song for Go West, he had his own hit with "In the House of Stone and Light."

Gilby ClarkeSongwriter Interviews

The Guns N' Roses rhythm guitarist in the early '90s, Gilby talks about the band's implosion and the side projects it spawned.

Songs Discussed in MoviesSong Writing

Bridesmaids, Reservoir Dogs, Willy Wonka - just a few of the flicks where characters discuss specific songs, sometimes as a prelude to murder.