Kirk Franklin has a holy mission: save modern gospel music

The singing star and host of BET's 'Sunday Best' worries about commercial pressure to dilute the message in the music.

Gospel superstar Kirk Franklin can't relax, even when he's supposed to, between tapings for his latest project, BET's "Sunday Best," the channel's gospel version of "American Idol."

Dressed in patent-leather pink sneakers, designer jeans, a stylish vest, and newsboy hat, the self-confessed man of God speaks backstage with passionate agitation about his current mission: wooing young, black men back into church, specifically the choir. Echoing the preshow pep talk he gave to the nervous contestants, he says that "everyone knows the best singers come out of the church."

But Franklin, who hosts the show, would like to see them stay and sees "Best," as yet another venue to forward that goal. "Gospel has become pretty much a female-dominated genre," says the Texas native, who sprang to fame nearly 15 years ago with the first gospel album ever to go platinum. He took home a passel of awards this year, including two Grammys, for his CD "Hero."

A musical conundrum

This push comes at a time when big record companies and major radio chains have begun to pay attention to gospel's drawing power. According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales in the genre have risen from $6.7 million in 1996 to nearly $40 million this past year. But Franklin says he's not measuring success by dollar signs.

Rather, he worries about the heart, and yes, the soul of true gospel. Commercial success bedevils him, he says, for the compromises it requires. Often, to get tunes played on mainstream radio stations, he and other gospel artists have been encouraged to tone down the "God" language, substituting more generic inspirational messages. This is the conundrum that keeps his fingers twitching and his legs shaking as he talks.

Jesus, he says, never pursued the limelight. His entire life signaled the opposite message, says Franklin. "He's from Nazareth, this hick town," says the singer, popping handfuls of trail mix in his mouth as he speaks. "But somehow, this little Jewish dude from a small town, some 2000 years later some people think he's a rock star and the savior of the universe."

The singer-songwriter knows he may be sending a mixed message with a show to spotlight the next gospel diva (winners receive a recording contract, a car, and a $300,000 gift to their hometown from the makers of Tide).

The format of "Best" follows the template of the Fox megahit: regional auditions, 10 "sing-off" episodes to winnow the field, and a small panel of judges who critique the contestants after they perform. The biggest difference in this version is that the judges are major industry stars: Bebe Winans and Mary Mary.

Carrying the gospel tradition

There is also plenty of talk about the spirit and message of the song, which Franklin uses to bring home his point – this competition is not about fame so much as it is about getting to the heart of the song. The singers are judged on how well they get that across.

Nonetheless, he says fame is not the point of true gospel. He underlines that message further in his pep talk when he reminds the contestants that they're already winners by walking with God. "We should try to live such attractive lives that fame pursues us," adds Franklin.

This tension between the church and Hollywood is as old as popular entertainment itself. For decades, the best and most talented have deserted the choir ranks, drawn by the siren song of fame. "The list of names is long," says Robert Darden, author of "People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music."

But the issue takes on a new urgency with this generation, he says, because gospel lives through the singers who keep it current. If one generation drops out, then the torch gets harder to pass. He points to the dwindling number of old-style gospel groups such as "The Blind Boys of Alabama," and wonders who will carry that tradition forward.

This is no minor issue, adds the Baylor University professor, who heads up a newly created multi-year gospel-history project at the school's Texas campus. This is not just black music. "This is the foundation of American popular music," says Mr. Darden, without which there would be no rock or hip-hop. Darden applauds Franklin's work, calling it vital to the future of gospel.

Just as Franklin himself had to find his voice amidst a life of addiction and poverty, young men such as 24-year-old contestant Jermaine Sellers says Franklin's message is not easy, but it is possible.

Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, he says he's had to fight his way here.

"My skater-boy friends, they don't want to hear about God," he says. They don't go to church and think that anything religious will kill their street cool.

But Mr. Sellers is on a mission of his own. He points to his Converse sneakers. God doesn't care what we look like, he says, "He only knows what you are on the inside." The singer with the skater-boy look says he's doing the show to show his friends "they can come as they are."

The next generation

While Franklin encourages all the contestants, he clearly has a special hope in his heart for Sellers. He embraces the slender young man after he sings, telling him he's the future of the church.

Later, perched backstage in his director's chair, the host says it's not easy bringing gospel into the 21st century. "People don't want to think too hard about their entertainment," he explains, but this is precisely what he tries to do.

"Entertainment shouldn't be comfortable," he says, "it should make you think. It should make you ask, am I a better person today than I was yesterday?"

But that message is a tough sell for modern musicians and audiences.

Trying to find something that can get people moving but doesn't sound old and antiquated – that's the challenge, he says.

Then, the intercom call comes for Franklin to report onstage. The singer hops down, excusing himself with a "God bless you."

BET president of Entertainment Reginald Hudlin watches from the wings as the show ramps up. Franklin changes people's minds about God in modern life just by the man he is, he argues.

"Viewers see the intelligence and craftsmanship and ability to express himself and think, 'that person is just like me, he seems like a fun person to be around,' " he says. "This gives kids another look at what it means to be a committed Christian."

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