Running full speed down the middle of Gibbs-Green Plaza, Grammy award-winning contemporary gospel artist Kirk Franklin made a beeline for the crowd of Jackson State University students who had gathered at the main pavilion across from Jacob L. Reddix Hall on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017.
The visit was Franklin’s idea, and it garnered reactions that ranged from ecstatic shouts to tears of joy, but every face beamed with a broad, radiant smile.
“I was stunned to see him on campus,” said Alisha Newell, a senior integrated marketing major. “We had the best homecoming concert and now this. I’m so proud to be a Tiger.”
After viewing a video on social media that showcased JSU students and campus ministries singing his hit “Melodies from Heaven,” during the University’s homecoming earlier this year, Franklin shared the video on his Instagram page and asked for the identity of the school.
When he learned that the video originated from the HBCU located in the same city where he was scheduled to perform during “The Rebel, The Soul & The Saint Tour” with neo-soul singer Ledisi, he reached out to JSU administrators and scheduled the surprise appearance.
Students were told that campus ministries would be hosting a Thanksgiving holiday hotspot, so when Franklin showed up, the plaza was brimming with a horde of folks singing a variety of gospel songs accompanied by DJ Treon Young.
Franklin joined the JSU Mass Choir, the Rev. Maxine Bolden, students and some faculty, staff and administrators in reprising “Melodies from Heaven” before sharing an inspiring testimonial with the audience.
The singer with an infectious energy discussed his adoption, at the age of 4, by a 64-year-old woman who had a fourth-grade education. He praised students saying, “You are the bar to everything I couldn’t be” and he challenged them to persevere.
Music education major Gavin Hughes was the featured singer in the original video that brought Franklin to the HBCU. To date, the video has nearly 1 million views on Facebook, and 7,000 retweets on Twitter. Hughes expressed his elation over being a part of such a larger than life moment.
“I thought it was awesome. I was glad that the campus could get notoriety more so than me being on the video,” Hughes said. “It’s not all about me. It’s about the school as a whole. I was glad that our school was shown in a positive light.”
Jauan Knight, director of the JSU Mass Choir, was floored by the singer, and said: “Just to be in the presence of someone who is a legend in the music and gospel industry is an amazing experience all around.”
The senior political science major was also moved by the motivation and support Franklin offered the choir that had only been established three weeks ago.
“He encouraged us not only to sing and sing well, but he told us to live what we sing and to be a light on our campus. That when people see us and associate us with the choir, they should see something positive,” Knight said.
Later, Franklin agreed that watching the students engaged in worship confirmed that God was still relevant among the youth.
“It gives you hope to be able to know that there is a remnant; that there is a generation that still believes even though science tries to explain how it is not able to explain why,” said the “I Smile” singer.
He continued by sharing that the why’s of life have to be explained through a metaphysical lens that is divinely inspired so people can understand the reason for and their role in existence.
“So, when you see something like that (the video) especially on the campuses of institutions of higher learning it gives you great hope to believe,” Franklin said.
When it comes to the significance of HBCUs in today’s landscape, Franklin said they are more relevant than ever “because I think that there is a personal investment when people of color can groom and grow younger people of color.”
The Fort Worth, Texas, native points out that elders recognize that beyond textbook education, the youth need a greater 360-degree lens on life. He adds that African-Americans are inherently products of a village.
“That’s why black people never meet a stranger. If you run into someone black on the other side of the world, there’s going to be a hug, some dap, a pound, and it’s because we innately have the DNA of villages,” Franklin said.
The musician has released 12 albums — several going platinum — and has accumulated a dozen Grammys and 40 stellar awards, among other significant accolades. He has worked with the likes of Mary Mary, Bono, Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder and Lacrae. Still, he remains humble, shrugging off any suggestion that his style of mixing contemporary Christian and hip-hop culture greatly influenced the face of gospel music.
“I don’t think anybody can take credit for what’s happening in the atmosphere because we’re all standing on the shoulders of somebody before us,” he says. “We’re all individuals that are planting our seeds in the process, and we may see harvest while we live or we may not see it. We are all benefiting from the work of someone else.”
Franklin, a father of four, has been married for 21 years to Tammy Collins. In interviews, he has openly discussed his spiritual journey from adolescence until present day where he faced challenges that included a teen pregnancy and the murder of a friend.
However, the young, musician and choir director would eventually reestablish his strong connection with God. “I believe that your purpose finds you when you are mobile. I think a lot of people get in the corner; they sit on the couch and they clock-out. They don’t move. There is power in failing,” he said.
Franklin also wants students and others to know that there is character development and an immense lesson in making mistakes. He warns that people have grown overly cautious, lazy or entitled and no longer want to fail.
Franklin said, “We automatically assume winning comes as soon as we take our first step, but it’s the failing that is the building blocks of the winning. So, I want to encourage people to get out there and fail. The failing is what gives you the sauce — the failing is the sauce.”