Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.—Albert Einstein
I think I’ve mentioned a time or two before that I often listen to gospel music while editing photos, especially nudes. The juxtaposition may sound funny, but this is the music with which I was raised. We didn’t even have a secular album in the house until 1972; mother wouldn’t allow it and Poppa wasn’t inclined to argue in the first place. So those old-time gospel quartets, the greater majority of whom are gone now, were the music on which I cut my teeth. Regardless of the texts involved, the music is as comfortable as a pair of well-worn jeans; always has been, always will be.
When I heard the gospel singer-songwriter-producer Kirk Franklin had a new album, I was eager to listen. Mr. Franklin is not your average gospel artist; he likes keeping his music real and contemporary. He set Twitter on fire last week when photos emerged of him in the studio with Kanye West. Even I don’t like everything he does. You’re not likely to hear any hymns on his albums, and the sound is a long way from the Blackwood Brothers quartet of the 1960s or even the pop-church sound of Amy Grant in the 80s. The direction he’s headed, though, reminds me distinctly of the attitude the late Keith Green had during his short life. Kirk has equal amounts of passion and honesty that often grates against established religious structures.
This new album takes that honest reality a step further. The first track, which is also the title track, is a spoken word piece, something different for Mr. Franklin. This sets the tone for the rest of the album, and at the same time is a clarion call to would-be believers that this thing called religion is the empty antithesis of being a true follower of God. His real-world pop culture references give nods to Michael Stipe and REM (who had a hit song by the same name), Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson’s hit Man in the Mirror, raising the minimum wage, LGBTQ rights, loss of the middle class, police brutality, economic disparity, and even a throwback to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This is beautifully composed poetry that doesn’t need music to hit its mark.
The strongest lines may come toward the end. Expect some pushback as it takes a moment for these lyrics to kick in.
One nation under God
God, show us the way
The science of opinion
God is not a buffet
You pick what you want so no God on your plate
The preacher isn’t God
Religion’s first mistake
Serving stewards, shepherds, not kings
Has to die to his flesh everyday like me
Yeah, that’s not going to set well with the right-wing Joel Osteen/Creflo Dollar following, mega-church attending crowd that puts preachers on the same pedestal as deity. Mr. Franklin intends to not only knock them from their perch, but disassemble their temples of money at the same time.
The hard-hitting sound isn’t just limited to the first track, though. The second track, Miracles, delivers the Kirk Franklin sound one expects right up until the five-minute mark, at the end of the song, when the music fades to the unsettling screams of a woman pleading, “They shot my baby! What am I going to do? They shot my baby!” That dissolves into a news report of a theater shooting, which segues into a mashup of similar news stories over which the growing chant of “Black lives matter” begins to emerge. The track ends with a very strong declaration: “The revolution is now being televised.”
This is not your typical Sunday morning gospel.
Make no mistake, the album is still God-centered, but it’s a message of love and inclusion rather than exclusion and limitation.
National Public Radio (NPR) published an interview with Mr. Franklin this morning that is well worth hearing. In the interview, he explains his reasoning and purpose more concisely than I can regurgitate here. Take a listen. Even for someone whose agnosticism is as jaded as mine, Losing My Religion is a very welcome entry to the gospel music scene. I do believe that Mr. Franklin’s goal is something that could make a tremendous difference in the overall health of our country. Whether one believes or not, this is a good cause.
You can listen to the full album here:
Losing My Religion, an album by Kirk Franklin on Spotify