MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Five-time Grammy winner Kirk Franklin is a performer who tries to inspire and uplift. He calls it feel-good music.
(Soundbite of song "Why We Sing")
Mr. KIRK FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) I sing because I'm happy.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) I sing because I'm happy. I sing because I'm free.
Mr. FRANKLIN: (Singing) His eye is on the sparrow.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) His eye is on the sparrow. That's the reason why we sing.
NORRIS: Franklin stormed onto the gospel scene back in 1993 with this cut, "Why We Sing" from the CD titled "Kirk Franklin & the Family." It became the first gospel album to sell more than a million copies and it became a hit on the R&B charts. His new CD, released today, is called "Kirk Franklin: The Fight of My Life." He says he chose that title because of what he sees all around him.
Mr. FRANKLIN: It seems like the climate right now that everybody is in some type of battle, whether it's just keeping your home from being foreclosed or trying to keep you kids off drugs or, you know, just trying to keep your marriage together, fighting to believe in faith and seeking God for answers and just being afraid that it's always going to be like this, and so that's why I called it "The Fight of My Life."
NORRIS: Franklin admits he's had plenty of demons to fight off himself. More now from NPR's Elizabeth Blair.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: Since that first blockbuster in 1993, Kirk Franklin has produced nine CDs. And with every new release, he moved a little farther away from traditional gospel.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Little girl, where you going? Do you even know, you're too young for them clothes. I know you think you're grown, but let him see your mind not the crack of your behind. Baby, take your time and realize tomorrow has the trouble of the grown(ph).
BLAIR: Kirk Franklin was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. His dad wasn't around growing up and he barely had a relationship with his mom. He was a teenager when Kirk was born. He was adopted by his great aunt, a devout Christian who spotted his musical abilities early. The two of them did odd jobs to pay for Kirk's piano lessons. He got his first job at music when he was 11 years old, making $25 a week directing the choir at Mount Rose Baptist Church.
Today, Franklin believes everyone suffers even those who are well-off when people are struggling. That's the message of a song on his new CD called "A Whole Nation."
(Soundbite of song "A Whole Nation")
Mr. DONOVAN OWENS (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible) whole nation, you (unintelligible) generation. When you look out of the window, tell me what do you see, if it's a boy without a father when you're looking at me.
BLAIR: The singer there is 11-year-old Donovan Owens who Kirk Franklin met in Milwaukee a couple of years ago.
Mr. FRANKLIN: He came backstage at a concert. And was like, can I sing a song for you? Like, yeah, okay. Yeah. And I mean, he just opened up his mouth and he started singing one of my songs and I was just speechless, because I can't believe this little kid singing like that.
(Soundbite of song "A Whole Nation")
Mr. OWENS: (Singing) (unintelligible) I've been living here. I've seen mama crying more than many tears, watching mama see daddy while he slips away.
Mr. FRANKLIN: When I left him in Milwaukee, flying back to Dallas, the idea of the song came to my mind about using him as like the voice of a little Kirk, kind of talking about the stuff that I went through with not having a father. And then after talking with him and his mom and, you know, his experience with his father is shaky and is not solid. And so, then, it made me feel like he can come from a place of truth.
BLAIR: When you talk about the song as about the 11-year-old Kirk Franklin, what was the 11-year-old Kirk Franklin like?
Mr. FRANKLIN: The 11-year-old Kirk Franklin had no idea what life was and what he was doing and I didn't really have the privilege of thinking that the world was bigger than the hood, you know? I didn't have really, you know, much of a street swagger even though I tried, you know? I was always at piano lessons and were the one famous with the girls. And even at 11 years old, I spent a lot of my time just by myself.
BLAIR: But not anymore. Franklin has married for 12 years and have four children. It's been said that Kirk Franklin changed gospel music by making it edgy and cool. He has attracted a bigger, younger audience. Purists have criticized his mixing with sacred and the secular, but Franklin says he sees no reason why religious music can't be just as hard core as hip-hop.
Mr. FRANKLIN: What I'm really trying to do, man, is to thine own self be true. I think that there's a level of corniness and kind of weakness that sometimes is looked upon people that represents faith. And that's what's frustrating for me because like, you know, I'm a dude with emotions and feelings and I have a point of view and I have opinions, you know? There's nothing weak about me just because I'm a Jesus Cat.
BLAIR: Which also explains why this is the first Kirk Franklin album that includes a rock song. For the song "I Am God," he enlisted Christian rocker TobyMac and his band to back him.
(Soundbite of song "I Am God")
Mr. FRANKLIN: (Singing) It's like I'm fighting for my life. You hit me with another right. I feel like Jacob in the night, won't stop 'til you bless me. My flesh and my will, is yours not to kill. Praising(ph) myself to you, but living sacrifices more.
TOBYMAC (Singer): (Singing) Can I get up now?
Mr. FRANKLIN: (Singing) This (unintelligible) I know, I am God.
BLAIR: Ever since his first group Kirk Franklin & The Family disbanded several years ago, Franklin has worked with dozens of freelance singers and musicians, and on some songs, they are in the forefront. Franklin says he's happy to take a backseat if a song calls for it.
Mr. FRANKLIN: I just kind of like being wherever the song needs for me to be. Like a song like "Chains," I don't come in until maybe like about three and a half minutes into the song. And when I do come in on the song, it's really more than anything is just to let the song breath because the female singers on it are doing such an incredible job and are doing all the acrobats that, you know, is like I wanted the song to breath for a minute.
(Soundbite of music "Chains")
Ms. MELONIE DANIELS (Singer): (Singing) Oh.
Ms. NICKI ROSS (Singer): (Singing) Chains. I'm a heart full of sorrow. Chains. I won't sing well tonight because of these chains.
Mr. FRANKLIN: That's Nicki Ross singing right there. And the young lady before her, her name is Melonie Daniels. And these are like two icons in gospel music. True gospel heads will know those names and forefront ladies. But Melonie Daniels, she's Mariah Carey's vocal coach and sang background for Mariah for over 10 years. And there's another young lady, a singer - someone named Sherry(ph). Right there, that's Sherry.
(Soundbite of song "Chains")
SHERRY (Singer): (Singing) Chains of (unintelligible), addiction and fear being afraid to die…
Mr. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Chains. Chains.
BLAIR: Despite a strict religious upbringing, Kirk Franklin says he listened to a lot of secular pop growing up. The first single off his new CD is a cover of Kenny Loggins' 1979 hit, "This Is It."
Mr. FRANKLIN: Even as a little boy, I was always taking modern songs and putting my little Jesus messages on them. So, when I was working on this album and I remember driving in a street and I heard the song on the radio and I was like, oh, man, I remember that jam. I want to do something with that. And so, you know, there it is.
(Soundbite of song "This Is It")
Mr. FRANKLIN: (Singing) …crazy.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) If somehow I believe.
Mr. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Come too far to die now.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) …always survive.
Mr. FRANKLIN: (Singing) If you survive then get up.
BLAIR: Kirk Franklin's new CD is called "The Fight of My Life." A movie about his life is also in the works.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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