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The Secret of His Success

Recording superstar Kirk Franklin finds his greatest fulfillment at home with his wife, Tammy, and their kids

Kirk and Tammy Franklin have a lot to smile about. Last year Kirk won a Grammy Award for his hit song "Stomp." Last fall he released his fourth album,

The Nu Nation Project. It shipped platinum, reflecting the widespread acceptance among music fans that made his previous three albums sell 4.5 million copies. His first book, Church Boy, was published to coincide with the release of his CD.

But that's not all. Kirk is also starring in the pilot episode of a network TV show about a washed-up record producer who returns home to Chicago and rediscovers the church. In the six years since Kirk's debut album, his gospel music and image have transcended religious circles and landed smack dab in the arms of a welcoming secular world. His Christian message now saturates radio airwaves and cable television, with both VH-1 (Video Hits-One) and BET (Black Entertainment Television) airing his music videos.

Kirk and Tammy are delighted to be where God has put them, and they're happy about his success. But it's the joy they experience at home that really thrills them. In fact, they say the biggest surprise in their three-year marriage has been how much they like to be with each other.

"I love hangin' out with my girl," Kirk says.

"I had no idea that not only would I look at Kirk as my husband, but I'm like, 'He's my boy,'" Tammy says. "We have fun together. We're the same way with our kids. Some people even look at us as strange because we look happy."

They acknowledge that the strange looks may also be because people are shocked to see Kirk Franklin and his family out and about their suburban Dallas community.

"If we lived in L.A., people wouldn't even notice us because it's an everyday thing there for musicians and people being out," Kirk says.

'Some people have a total misconception of who we are because of what Kirk does," Tammy says. "They're surprised we're nice.'

A Rough Start

As much as they love being married and finding joy in the simple activities of family life, their lives haven't always been smiles and surprises. Kirk, for one, feels blessed that he survived long enough to be born. His unmarried teenage mother planned to abort him, until her aunt stepped in. Kirk's great-aunt Gertrude then adopted him when his mother gave him up. He never knew his father.

Kirk showed musical ability at an early age. This gift led him to play piano and conduct choirs in churches beginning when he was a teenager. Though he was raised in the church, Kirk didn't fully commit his life to Christ until his late teens. By then, he had fathered a son by a former girlfriend and lost a friend to an accidental shooting.

Unlike Kirk, Tammy grew up in a stable home, secure in the love of both parents. She was raised in the church and gave her life to Christ around the time she had her daughter, as an unwed mom, at 19. After her daughter's birth, however, Tammy struggled when the church that had become a refuge for her became a place of ridicule. Too many unsympathetic saints singled her out as a good girl gone bad. But even through that experience, Tammy believes Christ was working in her life, drawing her closer to him and equipping her with the skills to minister to unwed mothers.

The Long Haul

When Kirk Franklin first met Tammy Collins at a Dallas water park, at age 18, enough sparks flew that they recognized each other four years later when Tammy's cousin invited her to a taping of Kirk's "Why We Sing" demo.

"At the time I didn't know who my cousin was talking about," Tammy says. "She was just ranting and raving about this guy who was short like me." Tammy giggles here as Kirk objects to her bringing up their height. She's four-eleven-and-a-half. He's five-four.

Tammy went anyway, and while at the taping, she recognized Kirk from the water park years earlier. "From that day on we talked on the phone … ," she says.

"You're leaving out the good stuff," Kirk interjects. Tammy's not making the story as "snazzy" as he would. "You're leaving out the fact that you came in the back and gave me your number. I called her because, of course, I noticed her. I thought, 'She's bad.'"

'Some people have a total misconception
of who we are because of what Kirk
does. They're surprised we're nice.'

For several weeks after their reunion, Kirk and Tammy dated "pretty seriously" until Tammy moved to Minneapolis to pursue her singing career with the R&B group Ashanti. After she left, they tried maintaining a long-distance relationship. Though they saw each other occasionally when she would visit family in Texas, their romance faded and they developed a friendship via telephone. Both agree this was frustrating because a friendship wasn't what they'd had in mind.

After a while, tired of struggling with a long-distance relationship that seemed to be leading nowhere, Kirk stopped returning Tammy's calls. While the break in regular contact disappointed Tammy, she says now she believes God was letting them mature spiritually during their three years apart.

But he started bringing them back together for good one night when Tammy was thinking about Kirk. She hadn't talked to him in a long time and decided to call and leave him a message: "You haven't been returning my phone calls. I just wanted to say hi and see how you were doing. But I'm not going to call any more."

"That made him come running back," she says.

"Oh, was there a plot there?" Kirk laughs. "I've been hoodwinked."

That was March 1995. From there things moved quickly. By January 1996, Tammy was back in Texas to marry Kirk. In their wedding ceremony, Kirk and Tammy not only committed their lives to one another, but to their children, Tammy's daughter, Carrington, and Kirk's son, Kerrion.

In Sickness and in Health

Kirk and Tammy have ridden out their fair share of storms in the first three years of marriage. In the first year alone, they dealt with the difficulties of blending families and long separations. Their son, Kerrion, lives with his mom during the week and with them on weekends, while their daughter Carrington lives with them full-time. Kirk's recording and touring schedule was so tight that first year that they waited five months after their marriage to squeeze in a honeymoon.

Then, 11 months after they married and 14 weeks into Tammy's pregnancy with their third child, Kennedy, Kirk took a spill off a stage in Memphis resulting in a brain contusion that left doctors wondering if he'd ever be able to think or speak, let alone perform, again. Miraculously, he was out of the hospital and back on stage just six weeks after the accident.

They clung to each other and to their commitment through Kirk's recovery, which catapulted his career and tested and super-charged their faith in God and in what God had in store for their marriage.

"When I fell, it really showed me the other side of Tammy," Kirk says. "When you say your vows, 'Till death do us part,' and you're really faced with it … you know somebody's there for better or for worse. It's not just a saying."

Tammy agrees. "You say those vows: not only 'till death do you part' but 'for better or for worse.' It was like, 'Wow, Lord. So quickly?' It was a test of my faith.

"I can honestly say that the Lord gave me peace beyond understanding. Of course I was scared, but I just had this peace that Kirk was going to be okay."

Keeping Things Clean

When you listen to Kirk's music, unmistakable gospel lyrics set against hip-hop rhythms performed by Kirk and an energetic chorus, you would expect to find the Spirit alive and well, with joy and rhythm enough to twirl you around your living room. But when you talk to the Franklins, you realize that same joy and spirit of praise fuels the passion in their married life.

The Franklins don't separate Kirk's music from his ministry or from their marriage. They see all three as individual components that connect to let them serve God. That's because they approach both their outside ministry and their relationship with a desire to obey God and live in his Spirit.

'[God] wants us to be, in our
married lives, blueprints for
people, especially young people'

Kirk and Tammy take their roles as "married Christians in the spotlight" seriously. Because of Kirk's celebrity, they are all too aware of their public role-model status, and they not only insist that the projects Kirk works on comply with biblical living, but they want their marriage to set an example as well.

"God wants us to be, in our married lives, blueprints for people, especially young people," Kirk says. "The builders look at the blueprint to build the house. That's the price of being a blueprint. You can't take a blueprint and just throw it on the ground. You have to make sure you keep it in a place that's clean and covered because that's the only thing you have to build the house upon."

"God has given our marriage a platform through Kirk's music ministry," Tammy says. "He wants us to live a life of godliness before people and behind closed doors."

Still, there have been times when the stresses of Kirk's stardom have pushed the Franklins to wonder exactly where godliness lies. Kirk admits he struggles with all the attention, both from the Christian and the secular music industry.

The cross-over recognition he receives creates conflicts for Kirk "all the time because the rules of the world are totally different from the rules of my [ministry] work," he says.

Giving autographs in particular makes Kirk uncomfortable. He sees his talents as from God and uses them to praise him, so Kirk can't quite figure out how autographs should fit into the picture.

"I feel like I'm out of my element," Kirk says. "I use my marriage and my fatherhood to keep the balance and keep reality around me as much as possible."

The attention Kirk receives has also muscled Tammy into the role of protector of the family, to make sure that her kids and Kirk feel safe.

"I'll have somebody come and knock my kids out of the way [to get to Kirk]," she says. "You think, okay, we're at a Christian event. You would think people would be considerate of the children. Although I may be justified in saying 'Hey!' I just have to watch how I say it."

Kirk and Tammy both believe these are the prices they have to pay for fame, and particularly fame associated with spreading the gospel. They are aware that the world will be watching their marriage for any trip-ups to try to distract people from what Kirk's ministry is trying to say.

"Kirk and I learned a very important phrase, 'With privilege comes sacrifice,'" Tammy says.

"Marriage is built on sacrifice," Kirk says. "Sacrifice to say you'll apologize first, even when you think you're right. And when you really love somebody and you're willing to die for them, you sacrifice because that's the basis of our faith."

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Commitment; Marriage; Relationships
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 1999
Posted September 30, 2008

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