EVEN THE LAMEST PERFORMERS GET standing ovations these days, but how many singers can lay claim to three hours of body-swaying adoration? Welcome to a Kirk Franklin concert, a musical lovefest of remarkable dimensions. It's a Saturday night at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles, and Franklin's sold-out audience is packed with hip-hop kids in baggy pants and baseball caps standing with middle-age folks in Sunday-best suits and floral hats. The front row is filled with stars like Brandy, Angela Bassett and Stevie Wonder. It's an odd mix. But what's more surprising is that they've come together to hear a gospel singer. Franklin, 27, may dress in electric blue pants and psychedelic vests, but he says his nationwide Tour of Life is about redemption first and entertainment a distant second. ""I'm doing what it takes to get the attention of my generation,'' he says. ""Kids are killing their parents. They're lost. Someone has to bring them back.''
He certainly has people listening. The video for his single ""Stomp,'' a foot-thumping jolt with lyrics like ""You can't take my joy, devil,'' is the first gospel video ever to appear on MTV. His third album, ""God's Property From Kirk Franklin,'' has sold more than 1 million copies. Franklin has good reason to have faith in faith, but he's also devised a smooth and savvy style that appeals to the musical masses. On ""Stomp,'' Franklin and the 50-voice God's Property youth choir sing those God-fearing lyrics over the mesmerizing beat of Funkadelic's ""One Nation Under a Groove.'' Even on more traditional hymns like ""Why We Sing,'' he breaks out of the vocal pack with raplike interjections such as ""I Sing Because I'm Free!'' The result is a generation-spanning, gospel-pop potpourri that's spawning both hit singles and spiritual standards. ""His music is so inspirational,'' says Brandy. ""It helps me get through the day.''
Franklin believes in the power of music because it saved his own life. When he was 3, his single mother abandoned him at a church orphanage in Ft. Worth, Texas. He was raised by ""Aunt Gertrude,'' a lady who made Franklin participate in every church activity, especially the choir. Not surprisingly, he rebelled. At 16, he got his girlfriend pregnant. A close friend was accidentally shot to death. ""Those two things changed my life and got me in touch with the Lord,'' he says. And the Lord's music. He signed with a Christian record label at 20. His debut album went platinum. Now he's developing a Fox sitcom, based on his own story. In the last year, he began seeing his son. ""Black youth are looking for spirituality and a better way to live,'' he says. And Franklin is determined to lead the way.