I grew up in a place called Lagos in Nigeria to a Christian family. Nevertheless, I didn't grow up listening to a lot of gospel music. In fact, I grew up listening to mostly hip-hop, some R&B and a bit of pop (I especially loved the King of Pop's dancing!). However despite my limited experience of gospel music, even back then, I knew (from observation) that there were a few certainties in life:
1. Drums are evil/inappropriate for church use
2. Loud music is evil/soft music is holy
3. Classical music is a foretaste of the angelic song in Heaven
4. Secular (or circular as some people call it) music is evil.
5. Kirk Franklin and his music should be avoided by all good Christians.
Looking back I find it funny that such an attitude was so prevalent in my experience in Nigeria. When I came to the UK and got baptised, I gave up the hip-hop, R&B & pop music, and I began to sample the delights of gospel music, primarily through the youth choir I was in. Interestingly I found a lot of the same attitudes, especially with regards to Kirk Franklin. Although we often sang some Kirk Franklin songs, there was always a reluctance and an air of uncertainty when it came to mentioning his name in relationship to the songs we did.
Why did Kirk Franklin prove to be such a controversial figure? People said his music was "worldly" and "secular". Perhaps it's because he sang songs calling for Revolutions, and songs which had hip-hop artists (Left-Eye), or because he said "booyakah". Or perhaps it was because his music videos looked like the hip-hop music videos, or because he did crossover songs with R Kelly, Mary J Blige and Bono? These things were often cited as evidence for why we should avoid his music, however the primary rationale given for this was the claim that his music was "worldly" and did not sound like gospel.
This left me in a bit of a conundrum because the more I listened to Kirk's work, the more inspired I was and the more I loved his songwriting and his songs. I didn't love everything, but enough for him to quickly become and remain one of my favourite gospel artists. However I always felt a tinge of guilt or a bit of apprehension when I mentioned it because you could feel the judgment stirring up from people whenever his name came up.
The more I listened to gospel and became involved in it, the more I became aware of a strange phenomenon. I'd meet or sometimes visit people who were very anti-Kirk and they'd play some of their favourite gospel music. To my absolute amazement, a lot of what I heard sounded surprisingly similar to the R&B I'd heard when growing up. The instruments used, the sound of the drums and the beats, the "wah-wah" and "muted guitar", the bassIines and the grooves, they were all used in ways similar to what I'd heard growing up. Time and time again, with artist after artist; from 'The Winans' to 'Commissioned' to 'Fred Hammond', my experience was replicated again and again: they all sounded like 90's R&B. Yet to my amazement, those who were quick to denounce Kirk for his alleged "worldliness" would be very content with bopping and singing along to these songs. Worldliness then was not the absolute standard I had been led to believe, except when it came to Kirk! That is the double standard.
It is very obvious to me that Kirk Franklin is definitely not perfect. How can he be, he's just a man! He still gets embroiled in different controversies (think of the recent 'I smile' lipstick-gate, his breakfast club interviews and his work with Kanye West). Nevertheless, we cannot write him off for any of the reasons I was given growing up. In many ways he has proved to be a positive role model to the next generation of gospel artists and uses his platform to mentor, encourage and speak some powerful words (see his blogs here: Great Divorce and here: Good is the enemy of great and check out his championing for other gospel musicians). On a personal level, he is one of the few gospel musicians of his era who is still happily married to the same woman which simply can't be taken for granted. You can tell that the older he has gotten, the wiser he has become and perhaps he would even regret some of his earlier antics in his youth. Our ultimate role model is Christ and not man.
Finally being able to see this double standard taught me much. It made it clear that using "worldliness" of the sound as a standard is very problematic. It's incredibly subjective, and consequently very inconsistent in it's application. If sounding worldly is the standard for judging music, then it needs to be consistently applied. If it falls down when applied consistently, we need a better standard.
This begs the obvious question, what is that standard? This is a really great question, and it's one we can talk about in one of the future blogs. Till then, stay blessed :)