Kirk Franklin Shirley Caesar GRAMMY tribute: What songs will he pick?
Fort Worth, Texas, native and GRAMMY winner Kirk Franklin is arguably the current leading light in contemporary gospel music. He is a pioneer in mixing traditional gospel with contemporary R&B and hip-hop in a way that prefigured the likes of Chance The Rapper, among others.
He'll lend his talents during The Recording Academy's PBS TV special honoring the 2017 Special Merit Awards recipients, "GRAMMY Salute To Music Legends," with a medley celebrating the career of Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Shirley Caesar at the live concert taping on July 11 at the Beacon Theatre in New York.
Ahead of the concert, Franklin reflected on the honor of representing music royalty, performing in New York City and his own formidable GRAMMY legacy.
What made you decide to perform at this year's "GRAMMY Salute To Music Legends" awards ceremony and live tribute concert at New York's Beacon Theatre?
The Recording Academy wanted me to pay tribute to Shirley Caesar, one of the honorees. She's such an icon. I said I was honored that they trusted me to put together the whole segment, a medley of eight of her hits. We've got a choir, a full band, led by my man Paul Shaffer as musical director, and an incredible young gospel singer, Le'Andria Johnson. She's a beast.
What are some of her songs you'll be performing?
"Jesus, How I Love Calling Your Name," the "Hold My Mule" remix, which went viral last year on Instagram, "Caught Up" [originally sung as a duet with Caesar] and "Satan, We're Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down." We're going to try to make Ms. Caesar proud.
She was one of the legends who embraced me as a gospel artist from the very beginning. She encouraged me, and let us know we could really do this. She didn't criticize the fact our music was kind of hip-hop influenced and had a lot of swag to it. She was always very supportive, and got behind it very, very early. I've gone to her church, she's been on my albums, she wanted me there when she got her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We've been friends for many, many years. I owe her a lot. She's an incredible woman.
Do you have any personal or professional connections with any of the other artists being honored?
I've always had a lot of respect for Nina Simone. She's a great legend, and what she accomplished is impressive. Her music spoke to a great many deep creative issues that artistic people go through. Her music was very relevant and transparent to that in those times. I've always been a Nina Simone fan and loved her music.
With 12 GRAMMYs and 22 nominations, do you have a particular award you're most proud of?
To be very honest with you, any time you win a GRAMMY it's memorable. I remember being 10 years old, watching the GRAMMY ceremony on the itty bitty TV in my bedroom when Christopher Cross won all those awards, and just being blown away by that. It really impacted me. To now come into a room and see these GRAMMYs I have been blessed to receive, they all have a strong, significant meaning. I never thought there'd come a time in my life when I'd have even one. Just the fact that I'm sitting here with 12. … I've been blown away every time I've been awarded one.
"[Shirley Caesar] didn't criticize the fact our music was kind of hip-hop influenced and had a lot of swag to it. She was always very supportive, and got behind it very, very early. I owe her a lot. She's an incredible woman."
Any memorable experiences of performing at the Beacon or in New York City?
I first performed at the Beacon in the late '90s. It's an old-school venue. I enjoy performing anywhere. I've always loved New York. It's one of those cities you're a bit intimidated because the audiences are used to seeing the very best in music. You never want to go and not represent well.
The Special Merit Awards honors those behind-the-scenes individuals — producers, engineers, songwriters, record executives — who contribute to an artist's success. Anyone like that in your career?
Reverend Milton Biggham, who ran a legendary gospel label, Savoy Records, through the '80s to the '90s. They had James Cleveland, Mississippi Mass Choir and released many albums that were very influential in the gospel genre at the time. He gave me many opportunities as a very young songwriter, choir director and piano player. I really owe him a whole lot because he was really there for me. He's never been celebrated at the level I feel like he should be someday.
How do you feel about hip-hop artists like Chance The Rapper, Lecrae and Kendrick Lamar employing gospel in their music?
They're doing a very good job. I'm very, very proud of them. I think they're dope and I'm really, really loving what they're doing. They are the next movers and shakers who continue to push the barriers and show people a new level of creativity.
Have you ever thought about doing a secular album?
I'm very happy doing what I do and very happy where I am. If there's a song God gives me, and it's natural and organic, if it happens to find its way into other worlds and different mediums, that's because I believe that's what God wanted it to do. I'm not doing anything on my own to leave where I am. I enjoy doing what I do.
(Roy Trakin is a veteran music journalist whose work appears in Variety and Freedom Leaf, and still holds out hope for Suicide's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)