A gospel maverick shakes up the charts; Pop: Kirk Franklin's brand of holy hip-hop and righteous rap may not fly with traditionalists, but his music is reaching kids and, he hopes, bringing them back to God.


By most standards, Kirk Franklin is a raging success.

At 29, he's the biggest-selling artist in gospel music. Where most gospel stars spend their time on the revival circuit, preaching to the choir, Franklin and his crew, The Family, are in the pop mainstream, with videos on MTV and cameo appearances by the likes of R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige and U2's Bono.

His funk-based, rap-schooled gospel sound has clearly struck a chord with pop fans. Franklin's current album, "The Nu Nation Project," has moved more than a million units to date and continues to sell steadily. Its predecessor, "God's Property," has sold more than 2.5 million copies and included the rap-tinged hit "Stomp."

At the moment, Franklin and his group are in the midst of a major tour, packing arenas all across the country (he performs at the Baltimore Arena tonight). And on Feb. 24, the young singer will be in Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards telecast, as his latest hit, "Lean On Me," competes against "My Heart Will Go On," "You're Still the One," "Iris" and "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing" for Song of the Year.

Clearly, the man should be feeling on top of the world. Most pop stars would kill for that kind of success.

Franklin, though, casts a skeptical eye over such secular measures of achievement. "I'm very careful with words like 'success,' because the measure I use for success is not the same measure that, probably, you would use," he says, over the phone from a tour stop in Toledo.

"To me, the album sales and all that other kind of stuff is not really success. The success that I choose to live through is when you see lives changed, when you see these kids who were crackheads and gangbangers and that kind of stuff sitting there and saying: 'This music brought me back to the church, and now I understand what my relationship with the Lord is. I realize that he loves me. Even though I make mistakes, his arms are wide-open for me.' "

Franklin's utter devotion to evangelism ought to make him a hero in gospel circles, but his taste in music -- which includes healthy doses of hip-hop and funk -- has left some of the faithful up in arms. "There are still people in the church that have a problem with the secular sounds -- the beats and scratches and rapping, and all the other things that come along with hip-hop," he says.

"They associate it with going to the club, with dancing, drinking, smoking and the like. They associate it with cursing and things that are negative."

Naturally, Franklin doesn't mess with any of that bad stuff himself.

But he understands that if he wants to reach kids who do, he needs to speak their musical language. So he gets down, in the hope of lifting others up.

"These are rough, crazy times, and people need a message of hope," he says. "So many people have just really given up on hope. Some people feel like racism is never going to change, some people feel like they're never going to get a chance to stand up on their own feet. I think that's why you have so many young kids that don't care. They don't mind picking up a gun and blowing out somebody's brains, because they don't have too much to live for.

"I mean, look at it. In the black community, a person gets out of jail and gets more respect than a kid who comes back from Morehouse or Princeton."

As much as he wants to help such people find a source of hope through religion, Franklin stresses that he's not preaching any particular brand of Christianity.

"I'm talking about the message of Christ in its purest form," he says. "It doesn't have a color line. It doesn't have a gender line. It doesn't have any [boundaries] to it or anything political. It's about loving everyone the same way that Jesus loves you."

Although spirituality has become quite fashionable in pop music circles of late, Franklin is a bit annoyed that Christianity isn't considered as cool as some more esoteric sects.

"What's fascinating to me is, you look at Madonna, you could never tell that she's a Buddhist now," he says. "With the rappers, it's cool to talk about being a Five Percenter, it's cool being a Muslim.

"But whenever people see me as a Christian and talk about Christ, it's like, 'OK, let's shut all that stuff up ' It's almost cheesy to talk about, 'I'm a Christian.' "

Franklin admits that he's frustrated by that "ho-hum, he's Christian" attitude. "I'm very excited about [being a Christian], and I don't do it to have mass pop appeal," he says. "I do it because that's where my heart is."

Still, he's worldly enough to understand how the pop music world works -- even if he doesn't always agree with the process.

"As a Christian in pop culture, I walk a thin line," he says. "Some of the commercialism is important to get the message across. But at the end of the day, I want people to get the fact that it's not about me as an artist. It's about me trying to share a message.

"At the end of the day, I would want the message to get the attention. And that's a passion with me."

Kirk Franklin

When: 7: 30 tonight

Where: Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.

Tickets: $35, $32.50, $25 and $20

Call: 410-481-7328 for tickets; 410-347-2010 for information

Sundial: To hear excerpts from Kirk Franklin's new release, "The Nu Nation Project," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6102. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B. Pub Date: 1/28/99

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