History of Hymns: ‘Why We Sing’
By C. Michael Hawn
"Why We Sing"
by Kirk Franklin
The Faith We Sing, No. 2144.
Kirk D. Franklin (b. 1970) has been hailed by Variety as the “Reigning King of Urban Gospel Music.” Franklin, a native of Fort Worth who was reared by his aunt Gertrude who recycled aluminum cans to raise money for his musical studies, demonstrated an inherent ability at a young age for reading music, composition, and improvising by ear. According to an Oct. 20, 1998 interview on Exodus Online, “By age 7, Kirk’s natural talent lured a recording deal, which Gertrude turned down. Joining the church choir, Kirk rose up to the ranks to become the music director at age eleven.” (web.archive.org/web/20100124163935/http://www.exodusnews.com/entertainment/Entertain008.htm)
The number of awards and accomplishments are too numerous to list here, but they range from platinum albums and producing recordings, to compositions for movies, including “Joy” which was sung by Whitney Houston in the film The Preacher’s Wife (1996). Of special note was assembling a wide range of the most prominent gospel artists to record his song “Are You Listening” in response to Haiti earthquake in January 2010 to raise both awareness of and funds for this disaster.
Urban Contemporary Gospel, a subgenre of Gospel music, continues to give voice to African American creativity found historically in African American Spirituals and traditional black gospel music represented by earlier compositions and writers such as Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993) known for “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” composed in 1932 (UM Hymnal, No. 474), “My God Is Real” composed in 1944 (Faith We Sing, No, 2147) by Kenneth Morris (1917-1988), and “Give Me a Clean Heart” (Faith We Sing, No 2133) composed in 1970 by Margaret P. Douroux (b. 1941). Urban Gospel strives to maintain these roots but incorporates more recent urban sounds and forms. Edwin Hawkins’s (1943-2018) 1969 version of the 18th-century British hymn “O Happy Day” by Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) and many of the compositions by Andraé Crouch (1942-2015) provided a bridge between the earlier traditional black gospel style the more recent Urban Contemporary Gospel sounds.
Kirk Franklin’s career is not without controversy. As a young man of 17, he fathered a son in an early relationship in 1988. He married his long-time friend Tammy Collins in 1996. He discussed his addition to pornography on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2005. (oprah.com/oprahshow/porn-epidemic/1) Franklin’s rhetoric is often polemical and designed to shock, or at least invites an initial doubletake in its intent to be authentic. His album Losing My Religion (2015), which won a Grammy for the Best Gospel Album (2017), distinguishes between the “MASK” of religion where people “go to HIDE”, and the “MISTAKE” of making the preacher God. “‘m losing my religion, THANK GOD . . . Helping YOU lose yours is my job.” (christianpost.com/news/kirk-franklin-is-losing-his-religion-and-wants-to-help-others-do-the-same-146116/)
Though acknowledged as a “Reigning King of Urban Gospel” in a Variety article posted on Jan. 26, 2003, one cannot think of Franklin as a “classic” Gospel singer; indeed, he doesn’t really sing! He preaches. The following is an excerpt of a Variety article describing a concert that also featured another Gospel talent, Donnie McClurkin (b. 1959):
Headliner Kirk Franklin is not a vocalist. He is a preacher and an accomplished cheerleader-conductor-mime who guides the chorus and band through such tunes as “Brighter Day” and “Riverside.” He proselytized on finding the Lord and eventually asked his wife, Tammy, to come onstage, where he thanked her for seven years of marriage. As Franklin waited for the right words to “sing,” crooner Brian McKnight’s “Still in Love” came on as Franklin mouthed the words. McKnight then stepped onstage to reveal himself as the audience let out a warm laugh for Franklin’s valiant attempt at singing. (variety.com/2003/music/reviews/hopeville-tour-1200543845/)
In a June 3, 2015 posting, Tanya Rena Jefferson listed “Why We Sing” as number 9 of “Kirk Franklin’s 10 Best Songs” (axs.com/kirk-franklin-s-10-best-songs-56388) for AXS, a digital marketing site for purchasing tickets for sports and entertainment events. She describes the song this way:
'Why We Sing' is a powerful, glorifying, and uplifting song that magnifies on why one sing gospel hymns. The song tells a story of how singing gives praises to Jesus, and how it is a part of worship. Singing gives joy and happiness as the song uplifts Jehovah. This song has a wonderful gospel flavor that will allow you to feel that you are in church as the melody and lyrics flow.
This song comes from an earlier time in his career not long after he organized “The Family” in 1992. “The Family” was a choir of 17 singers who were Franklin’s friends. They were signed to the record label GospoCentric soon after they began. By 1993, the group became known as Kirk Franklin & The Family and released their debut album Kirk Franklin and the Family (Live), an album recorded at Grace Temple Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Fort Worth, Texas on July 25, 1992. The album received a GMA Dove Award for Traditional Gospel Album of the Year in 1993 and reached platinum status, remaining No. 1 for 42 weeks on the Billboard chart for Top Gospel Albums. “Why We Sing” was the first track on this album.
“Why We Sing” is in many ways an extension of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” (1905) by Nova Scotia born Civilla D. Martin (1866-1948). The refrain directly quotes the words of Martin’s refrain. Martin’s stanza’s focus on a close relationship with Jesus as “constant friend.” We sing because of the promise that God watches over us just as he cares for the sparrow (Matthew 6:26). Franklin’s stanzas focus more on song as a part of worship (“When we lift our hands to Jesus . . .”) and a witness (“lift your hands and be a witness”) rather than a personal relationship. The extended refrain or coda tends toward a combination of the ecstatic and personal commitment: “Glory hallelujah! I give my praises to ya.” The final stanza takes a theological turn common to many traditional Gospel songs – the turn toward heaven: “When we cross that river/to study war no more” where “the song will never end.” Undoubtedly, Martin’s song was a part of the faith formation process early in Franklin’s life. Listen to Franklin sing one of his signature songs at youtube.com/watch?v=N0xAOGhv6lA. You will hear the influence of his preaching background and his work with choral ensembles.
In addition to links cited in the body of this article, another helpful interview prepared by a staff writer for MTV News covers additional information that could not be included above: Doreen St. Félix, “The Inspired Third Act of Kanye and Chance’s Faithful Favorite” (2015): http://www.mtv.com/news/interactive/kirk-franklin-cover-story/
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.