Kirk Franklin Talks Bringing Peace Amid Civil Unrest With His 'Verzuz' Appearance

Kirk Franklin
Courtesy of RCA Records

Kirk Franklin

On Sunday (May 31), as protesters took to the streets for another day against police brutality, Kirk Franklin went live on Instagram in his studio with Fred Hammond, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Tamela Mann, and Marvin Sapp to infuse some inspiration into the day.

Wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts (a nod to the final moments of men such as Eric Garner and George Floyd, who have been killed by police), Franklin and Hammond played more than 40 songs, breaking traditional rules for the Timbaland and Swizz Beatz-created Verzuz series.

The two-hour Instagram Live was filled with moments of joy and reflection, ranging from Franklin doing the running man to arranging a call with the mother of Ahmaud Aubrey, the man who was recently killed by three white men in Georgia.  The event, which the men titled “The Healing,” also spoke to the staying power of both Franklin and Hammond’s music, both in gospel and beyond.

Following the Instagram Live on Sunday, Franklin released a video for his single “Strong God”, the latest release from his 2019 album Long, Live, Love. Another single from the album, “Just For Me,” recently reached No. 1 on the Gospel Airplay Chart, marking the latest achievement for an artist who has been a trailblazer in music for nearly three decades. “I’m just humbled and I give God all the glory because I know it’s nothing super dope about me,” Franklin relays.

Billboard caught up with the revered Gospel legend about how he and Fred Hammond injected calmness amid civil unrest, his musical legacy, his thoughts on President Trump’s recent photoshoot outside of a church, and more. 

I want to talk about the Verzuz that you participated in on Sunday with Fred Hammond. You reached more than 250,000 people at a time when people were literally in the streets protesting. What’s the impact of using an app like Instagram to reach people on their  phones in a time like this? 

Sometimes, we've thought that gospel music, quality, entertainment and production can’t be synonymous. I think that's a very unfortunate thing. A lot of times we don't get to have a bigger conversation because they can't hear us. The music is wack, the look is wack, the sound is wack, the presentation is wack, [and] the platforms don't connect. There have been times in history where if there is a streaming service, sometimes, Christians try to create their own streaming service. And, it's like, "Nah, let's engage people on the platform that they are on, instead of trying to have these little isolated islands."

In a previous conversation with Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, you called yourself a Fred Hammond “groupie.” Can you speak to his legacy?  

I think that Fred Hammond was part of major revolutionary moments in the history of gospel music -- first with Commissioned. Commissioned was very much outside of the traditionalism that was happening in music at the time [in the mid '80s]. The Winans were contemporary, but Commissioned pushed that even further.

Unfortunately, in an era where there were not a lot of music videos and not a lot of music platforms, a lot of people did not always know that impact. Those of us in music knew it — a lot of your rising gospel and rising R&B stars of the ‘90s [such as] Jodeci, Guy and all of these other groups. [Fred] continued on in the mid ‘90s when he started doing Pages of Life, and all these different things with this group Radicals for Christ.

He has been a trailblazer in different periods of these musical zeitgeists. That has to be celebrated. It's my job to remind people. It's my job to celebrate him.

In the black community, you can hear Kirk Franklin in a religious setting, but your music is also played at brunches and college parties. When you speak about earlier artists like Fred not having the luxury of music videos early in their careers, “Stomp'' was played on MTV in the ‘90s, and you've had Billboard Hot 100 crossover hits since then. How does it make you feel to know that your music has transcended genres for decades?

I think that those are great wins for gospel music. Whether it’s Fred or Kirk, we’re all standing on somebody’s shoulders. You’ve got to give a shout out to Edwin Hawkins and “Oh Happy Day.” You got to give a shout-out to The Clark Sisters and “You Brought the Sunshine.” We’re all standing on somebody’s shoulders. One of my heroes said ‘all we are are links in this great chain.’ 

Why was it important for you and Fred to have Tamela Mann and Marvin Sapp as surprise guests during the Verzuz?

The first thing that it did [was] it brought a level of a concert to the [Instagram] Live. Whenever gospel music is going to have a chance, I always have a hidden agenda. I want to remind people everybody you love came from gospel. You look at Justin Timberlake’s band [or] Beyonce’s singers, they’re gospel singers. Everybody that you’re a fan of, they’re a fan of gospel music. It’s just really important for people to celebrate the origin. Put some respect on gospel’s name.

There was also a touching moment where you called Ahmaud Arbery’s mom during the Live. How did that come together?

I contacted a couple of friends I have [who] are journalists and they were able to get me in touch with her. I asked her would she mind us calling her and celebrating her? She did not ask to join that club [of grieving mothers]. 

Earlier this week, President Trump was criticized by religious leaders after he teargassed protesters to go pose with a Bible in front of a church. Trump is certainly not the first person to use religion in this way, but was this frustrating for you to watch?

His duplicitous approach to Christianity is harming the message that has already been crippled by the weaponized version of Western Christianity. It already has an ugly history that does not reflect the true teachings of the historical Jesus Christ, not the colonized Jesus. I think that Donald Trump needs to read Psalms 119:11. It says, "Hide thine word in thine heart." Not hold thine word in thine hand. The Bible he held is the Bible he needs to read. 

I think a lot of people are struggling right now and might be wondering how are you getting through this past week? How have you been able to find moments of joy in this time of intense sadness?

The Verzuz night was a really great time out for me. None of us are doing concerts right now. It felt good to kind of be somewhat in [my] element. I've had to lean a lot deeper on what I believe. I've had to lean in levels that I have not had to lean in before, starting with the pandemic and then now starting with this [racial] pandemic. Whether that is being more intentional by going to the park and spending some time reading or going to therapy. I am a black man that goes to therapy. I've been going to the same guy for over 20 years. 

You released Long, Live, Love last year and it’s had great staying power. Was any of your work surrounding the album halted by the pandemic?

I was in the middle of several shows that we were curating and producing. There were quite a few TV properties that we were in the process of getting ready to start development in. A lot of things shut down. That was a huge disappointment, but how dare I overlook the 40 million Americans that don’t have jobs. You’ve gotta have revamped expectations.