Music

Why Atheists and Agnostics Should Embrace Today’s Gospel Music

A guide for unbelievers.

Kirk Franklin performs onstage at the 2019 Super Bowl Gospel Celebration on Jan. 31 in Atlanta.
Kirk Franklin performs onstage at the 2019 Super Bowl Gospel Celebration on Jan. 31 in Atlanta.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images for BET

“Religion is a prison, but truth sets us free,” Kirk Franklin declaimed on the rat-a-tat-tat title track of his racially and politically incensed 2015 album, Losing My Religion. That’s the bait, here’s the switch: Franklin—as a (deep inhale) composer-lyricist-arranger-producer-conductor-impresario who fronts choirs and bands as a combination preacher-rapper–hype man—is one of the dominant figures of the past quarter-century in gospel music. His music, which has won 13 Grammys, features swelling harmonies, anguished testimonials, and infectious rhythmic chants, but always with a streetwise contemporary attitude and, usually, backing that brings the funk. Losing My Religion has spent 166 weeks (and counting) on the Billboard gospel album chart, 16 of them at No. 1, and also made the top 10 on the R&B and pop album charts. “Love Theory,” the advance single from this week’s new Long Live Love album, is currently in its 18th week atop the gospel chart. Franklin is also a leading architect of gospel-to-mainstream crossover, hand in hand with huge names in unholy hip-hop and pop.

So was he losing his religion? Nah. What he was doing in that monologue was hustling sidelong to the progressive evangelical commonplace that organized religions, as creations of mere mortals, should not be venerated above a believer’s personal relationship with the Almighty and compassion for the downtrodden. “I’m losing my religion, thank God!” he rounded it off. “Helping you lose yours is my job.” (Always fond of a pop-culture name check, Franklin also shouted out the band he bit his title from.)

Still, if a proposition like “religion is a prison”—or, later on that album, a holy-ghostly sample of a crowd chanting “Black lives matter!”—scandalized any of his core churchy audience and helped lure any nonbelievers like me, that suits Franklin’s divine plan just fine. He often says his mission on this plane is to “make God famous.” Proof of concept came when his 1996 song “Stomp,” with his group God’s Property and a guest rap by Salt of Salt-N-Pepa, nudged the top of the charts neck and neck with Biggie Smalls and Puff Daddy, and the video went into heavy rotation on Mammon’s own MTV. Stones were thrown by purists who didn’t want to witness New Jack Swing beats and hip-hop streetwear sullying their songs of praise. But between Franklin and his urban-gospel peers, such as Bebe and Cece Winans, those new recipes gradually became daily bread for many houses of worship.

Today Franklin is called on to comment whenever scuffles break out around new-minted sounds like “trap gospel.” He’s reliably enthusiastic. He may lead choirs, but he’s never been content to preach only to them. Though he led Christian music services from the time he was a prodigal teen, he also lived rough on the streets of Fort Worth, Texas, for a while after exhausting the patience of his devout aunt Gertrude, who took him in after both parents bailed on him as a toddler. He gets who needs ministering to the most. But there’s another kind of hunger he can’t quite shut down. As the dapper, driven dynamo he is even at age 49, Franklin has a worldly star quality he struggles to quell for humility’s sake. Half the fun is watching him fail.

Whether you think religion’s a prison or a paradise, that’s a fun I’ll argue you should experience. Maybe even need to. And by providence or coincidence, right now I have some curious cultural momentum on my side.

Franklin’s M.O. was too familiar by 2015 for much of anyone to mistake his intent with a track like “Losing My Religion.” But he soon found another way to confound the pious: He was discovered consorting with Kanye West. As Franklin revealed last month, he’d been in private communion since 2012 with the (for starters) foul-mouthed, blasphemous rap imp. But he’d declined offers to collaborate, worrying they’d each be misunderstood, and maybe that West’s level of stardom could lead him into temptation himself. But then came “Ultralight Beam,” the radiant curtain-raiser to Ye’s 2016 album The Life of Pablo, and Franklin found himself unable to resist an invitation to add his own vocal arrangements. He even dropped a spoken benediction at the end of the song’s tonal rainbow. Next, he joined West and Chance the Rapper on Saturday Night Live to repeat that prayer over Kanye’s prone, writhing body onstage.

The outcry from gospel circles forced him to defend their dalliance. But he’s stayed loyal even through West’s subsequent, troubling MAGA-hat phase. Franklin makes sure to say he can’t co-sign his wayward friend’s antics, but that God doesn’t cancel anybody.

Franklin didn’t stop there. In 2016, he also contributed to his super-fan Chance’s acclaimed mixtape Coloring Book. Those two collaborations, along with the outpouring following the death of Aretha Franklin (no relation) in 2018—with her gospel-packed, marathon homegoing service, followed by the release of her long-lost live concert film Amazing Grace—seem to have heralded a new morning for gospel in the mainstream. With Kirk Franklin smack in the thick of it.

Last fall, for instance, none other than Snoop Dogg released Bible of Love, a 32-track album stuffed with sacred music stars that jumped right to the roof of the gospel chart. Franklin then chatted with the porn-producing, weed-devouring ex-gangsta about gospel in a trio of videos sponsored by BET. Franklin also joined forces with Pharrell Williams on the inspirational track “I See a Victory” for the movie Hidden Figures, featuring gospel star Kim Burrell. (Williams already had pitched in a remix of Franklin’s “123 Victory” for Losing My Religion.)

Meanwhile, outside Franklin’s purview, unlikely figures such as rappers Nicki Minaj and T.I. have been turning up as featured guests on gospel-charting songs, and Christian rapper NF had a 2018 mainstream hit with his track “Let You Down.” And that’s not to mention Kendrick Lamar, who could pass as a Christian artist save that he won’t trim back his contradictions to fit anyone else’s catechism.

This year, West himself, perhaps in a repenting mood, has gone back to gospel, with the series of weekly, invitation-only “Sunday Service” events he began hosting in January at Casa Kardashian-West, and then then on a grander scale Easter morning at Coachella. Williams, for his part, also incorporated a Sunday “Pop-Up Church” into his Something in the Water festival last month in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with Franklin on hand.

These upticks for gospel come along on an irregular cycle. There was the late 1960s and early 1970s with Edwin Hawkins (“Oh Happy Day”), the Staple Singers, and of course Aretha—with Simon and Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”) and the Beatles (“Let It Be”) clambering non-believingly aboard. You can find the professor-preacher-pundit Michael Eric Dyson fretfully watching gospel coming “out of the church, into the streets” in the New York Times in 1991, just before Franklin himself arrived at the party. And in a sense, too, sacred music never entirely exits the spotlight. Not as long as Grammy and Oscar broadcast producers remain committed to gussying up awards-show performances with unearned profundity by throwing in choirs-for-hire.

On this go-around, is it people grasping for faith in turbulent times? No doubt, but gospel’s mini-boom also feels like an outgrowth of music audiences’ growing agnosticism on genre. Online, streaming means there’s little to lose in opening your ears to every species of sound, especially with a familiar face’s say-so. And with hip-hop’s ascension to the status of reigning caliph of all genres, its tent is swelling, as rock’s did at its zenith, to admit a greater diversity of styles, slants, and aspirations, even celestial ones.

For a portion of us, though, in-your-face God talk can still be one of the higher lyrical hurdles.

As a child, my first exposure to religious music was at the Catholic church my third-generation Irish-Canadian mother dutifully but far from fervently carted me and my brother off to on Sundays. The singing of the choir was only slightly less wan than the parishioners’, and most of the hymns were post–Vatican II numbers that in the name of vernacular accessibility had been stripped of the mystique of their stuffier but more opulent forebears. What I really liked, and lobbied for, was when we’d drive across town to the newer church with the funky architecture, where there was a folk choir with acoustic guitar and tambourines. They played happy-clappy post-hippie hymns that sounded like (and sometimes were) songs from Godspell or Hair and tended to be much more about brother/sisterhood and love-love-love than about serving heavenly Fathers. (My dad, for his part, didn’t go to church.) The congregation there sang along with gusto.

But when I chanced on more serious-minded sacred music, I found it kind of scary. I contracted a serious case of the creeps when I spent a couple of summer weeks between grades six and seven, already a doubter, staying with my cousins’ much more traditional, large Catholic family in Toronto. On longer car trips, instead of license-plate-spotting games, my aunt would break up the monotony by having us collectively recite the rosary, which I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t even how to do. Then she would put on the most eerie religious music I’d ever heard. I realize now that it was one of Johnny Cash’s 1970s Southern-gospel albums, probably 1973’s The Gospel Road, which featured creaky baritone biblical recitations that sounded to my fallen ears like Halloween. This wasn’t the coolly assertive Man in Black, beloved of every music fan today, but the God-fearing Depression-reared Arkansas apostle. That shivery timbre fused in my memory with the day my aunt sent me to confession at their church. Instead of the quick trade of minor misdemeanors for a slack penance that I was used to, this priest gravely admonished that masturbation (which I hadn’t brought up) would damn my soul to hell. I had to say so many Hail Marys.

I feel guilty now about how medieval I judged my relatives’ quite ordinary faith to be. But back then, even regular country music was alien to that sheltered little nerd. Mocking evangelical preachers was a staple of the comedy and rock music I heard. Growing up in the Reagan 1980s with the cresting power of the religious right, you knew you were on their enemies list as a liberal unbeliever, so they were on yours too. And the radical underground culture I was discovering at the library and the record store, and was intent on joining as I moved into young adulthood, was sneeringly anti-religion as a matter of principle. Blasphemy was doctrine.

That didn’t mean excluding all faith-based art—few of us were deluded enough to dismiss the reverberations of black gospel, with its clear through-line to R&B and rock ’n’ roll. (For a primer on that history, I highly recommend the special podcast series that NPR and partners released in February, Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul, hosted by Cece Winans.) And we’d accept it when it came mixed with the sexy and secular, as from Aretha or Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder, or with the floridly strange, the way scratchy prewar folk, blues, and country gospel often sounded to urban ears that conflated “old” with “weird.”

What raised hackles for me then was any new music, especially pop music, that seemed too churchy, for instance Whitney Houston. And while U2’s all-too-obvious Christianity may not have been the main reason I disdained them, it’s not like it wasn’t on the list. The worst, though, was whenever an artist we loved fell into a “religious phase.” The ur-case (a bit before my time) being Bob Dylan’s late-1970s fundamentalist conversion, when his songs suddenly turned into fire-and-brimstone sermons.

But in the early 2000s, when I heard an amazing collection of traditional gospel choirs doing Dylan’s holy rock ’n’ rollers, called Gotta Serve Somebody, I had the revelation that whatever their content, many of those songs were musically rapturous. That revisionist impulse has become widespread among fans and critics, reinforced recently when Sony’s ongoing official Dylan Bootleg Series gathered together even stronger examples of the period on 2017’s Vol. 13: Trouble No More, 1979-81. And of course the whole incident was consistent with Dylan’s compulsion to kick listeners’ feet from under them and contradict any consensus version of him that took hold. Getting outraged about it was to be as suckered as the notorious concertgoer who yelled “Judas!” after Dylan went electric.

If you are concerned (or perhaps hoping) that I’m building to a confession of a road-to-Damascus moment, rest easy. It’s not that I found God but that I finally, slow-wittedly, figured out a couple of basic facts.

First, that given the eons of deep integration of religion in human culture, any urge to avoid music (or literature, film, theater, etc.) with prominent theological content means cutting out of your life vast swaths of the greatest art ever made. I don’t imagine many people are reading this who can’t stand Bach, Michelangelo, Mahalia Jackson, or the canonical music of many other cultures around the globe because of “all the God stuff.” So it’s logically absurd to apply a different test to what’s newer and more nearby. Neither is religion monolithic, as in the caricature I bought into in my youth. While the religious right is sponsoring abusive abortion bans, other churches are volunteering as sanctuary spaces for immigrants (who bring their own religious values with them), offering aid to the poor, and just helping people endure the emotional brunt of everyday life. Ignoring that would be to make of anti-religion a religion, the way that the tedious “new atheists” did a few years back, and to strap on another set of blinders.

And second, the more grown-up fact about art is that it’s not there for you to agree with. There’s nothing wrong with looking for art that validates and confirms your identity and worldview. It can be lifesaving. But it’s too limited always to require it. It’s counterproductive to the crucial claim that one of art’s great purposes is to bring us places we’ve never been, to encounter other minds, and to foster empathy across difference. Casting objectionable religious material out of your cultural diet is too similar to the “forbidden” lists of artwork that churches have imposed on their constituents, leaving teens hiding books and records under their beds. Seeking the worth in art that discomfits you—while vigorously criticizing its faults—isn’t a social studies sideline to your culturally engaged existence. It’s a basic plank of the platform.

Whatever a work of art is nominally “about” is minuscule compared to what it does, how it creates its unpredictable effects. Listen to any of the compilations of raw old-time gospel to which the connoisseur and critic Mike McGonigal has dedicated years of his life for an instant demonstration. Better yet, consider whether any feminist, queer-positive (etc., etc.) listener could cope with the history of hip-hop without tolerating some very dodgy shit in the interest of affirming the restless, burrowing drilling of that art form through the hypocrisies of American life. Being a white boho fossil who listens to rap helped train me to be an atheist who can listen to contemporary Christian songs. All told, do I “agree” with, say, Future or Rico Nasty so much more solidly than I “agree” with Kirk Franklin? No, and who cares? By that measure, I’d be confined to the likes of Kendrick and Noname and lose the plot altogether.

While Franklin himself has been righteous on many social justice matters that make more conservative congregants uncomfortable, he has been mealy-mouthed about LGBTQ issues, usually landing on some subtler variation on “love the sinner and hate the sin,” though I think there’s cause for hope he’s evolving past it. Ironically enough, as the great gospel chronicler Anthony Heilbut outlined in his essay “The Children and Their Secret Closet,” church music has often served as refuge and sustenance for gay and lesbian members of those communities. My colleague Ann Powers makes an even broader case in her 2017 book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music that gospel’s effect always has been erotic in a feminine way, with its mounting climaxes that tease and diminish and then rise again, arousing the urges of the body to serve the needs of the soul.

And of course for Americans, gospel has too much history echoing in it to ignore—a nation’s sins and tragedies reaching out for rescue. James Baldwin was a teenage preacher, and though as a politicized gay adult he left the church behind, he still yearned for those vibrations. As he wrote in 1962, “There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord.”

How can you read that and not want to know what sounds are coming from those churches’ successors in the 21st century?

I know that long before this point, readers who grew up in deep faith cultures have been rending their garments, protesting, Yeah, how dense can you be? But for much of secular America, the impression persists that gospel is an artifact of the past. As NPR’s series, beautifully done as it is, suggests by leaving its narrative off in about the 1970s, it was where rock and soul came from, but who needs that anymore? But outside of privileged music-education institutions, the church is still where many black musicians, among countless others, get their start. Listen to Snoop Dogg explaining his motivation to make Bible of Love to Franklin: “Gangsta rap comes from gospel music. … Ninety-five percent of the gangster rappers were born and raised in a church, and the first style of music that they heard or were introduced to was church music. … That’s why, you notice, when every gangsta rapper wins an award, what’s the first thing they say?”

Tensions between profane and sacred, between the charitable and the for-profit, have been a widening gyre in the engine room of gospel ever since its inauguration. In the 1920s and 1930s, Thomas A. Dorsey, under the name of “Georgia Tom,” was writing bawdy hits for the brothels of Chicago, while penning hymns like the Magna Carta of modern gospel, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Church-raised but worldly-attracted artists have had to navigate backlashes all over the compass for generations. Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward were chastised for playing rock and jazz clubs. The soul generation was given the evil eye by many elders for selling out to the devil’s music (and some, like Al Green, eventually came back to the church again). It’s a brawl whenever someone crosses over. Meanwhile many artists, however strong their faith, chafe under both that artistically restrictive pressure from within and the stigma against goody-goodies in the commercial world. Just this January, hip-hop cult favorite Lecrae published an essay explaining why he didn’t want to be called a “Christian rapper” anymore.

As for Franklin’s own new record, Long Live Love, there’s little sign of the genre-jumping boldness that not only agitated fans in 2016 but marks his best albums, such as the 1997’s God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation, 1998’s follow-up Nu Nation Project, 2005’s bracingly personal Hero, or the uncompromising oomph of Losing My Religion itself. Long Live Love isn’t a bad record, musically or morally, but many of its highlights are buried in codas after extended shows of piety. Overall, it feels like his nerve has been chastened by getting too near to the flame of pop culture—who could blame him, given how exposed he became to Kanye’s multimedia meltdown? It feels like a tactical retreat.

Still, even here there’s plenty to savor for us unbelievers. Opener “F.A.V.O.R.,” for instance, is a thorough demonstration of how rousing Franklin’s group jams can be, where the words don’t have to stand in your way one iota. “Strong God” is one of his better blends of dissent and deaconry (“The government keep lyin’ to me/… Heaven, please, we’re in a state of emergency”), with the same kind of prismatic harmonies that saturated “Ultralight Beam.” On the outro to “Spiritual,” which up till then is enervatingly pious, the music fades back in with a New Orleans jazz reprise that, all too briefly, summons the ancestors from their graves to witness their descendants keeping the greater faith of American pop. And “Father Knows Best,” its patriarchally suspect title notwithstanding, soars through an effortless-feeling six and a half minutes with crisp choral parts that wrap dizzily around your ears, plus Earth, Wind & Fire horns, barrelhouse piano, and Franklin keeping the spirit up throughout with his shouts and exhortations. You won’t be sweating whether you endorse the message when the groove transports you out the window and into a better day.

Franklin is far from the only captivating presence on the contemporary gospel scene—younger blood is always on the come-up, and I have a lot more exploring to do myself. As that big old book of ripping tales, bad ideas, and some bona fide eternal verities puts it in Psalm 24, “Lift up your heads, you gates/ And be lifted up, you ancient doors.” Ideologically, religion may be a prison. But artistically, all kinds of truths can set people free.

Long Live Love cover
RCA Inspiration

Long Live Love

The new album from Kirk Franklin