You might know Kam Franklin for her music. The pansexual singer-songwriter is the front woman of the popular Gulf Coast soul band The Suffers, as well as a solo artist in her own right. But if you don’t know her for her activism work, you’re missing out on what makes her such a powerful and desperately needed force right now.
The 35-year-old Houstonian attended both Texas Southern University and Lone Star College. “I studied the music business before diving into it,” says Franklin, adding that music has long been her calling. “I knew at 5 years old, when I got to sing on a mic for the first time.”
Still, Franklin was torn between following her dreams to be a rock star and taking an entirely different route by setting her sights on becoming a federal judge. “Growing up, we were taught [that a legal career] could make the most significant changes. But if you’re really trying to make the most changes, you need to go for the highest of the high, which would be a federal judge or a Supreme Court justice.”
But when she tested the waters by working at a law firm, it didn’t take long for her to see that working in the legal world wasn’t the right fit. “The law and the way that exists [with so many] restrictions and all of that is really not for me at all. I know that now,” she admits.
As for which rock star made her want to pursue music, she’s quick to answer. “Prince, for sure. We have the same birthday, so that was always a very fun thing to think about. I just loved that he played everything and wrote everything, and that he could sing. I thought he was so beautiful and just so different, in comparison to what I was seeing at the time.”
Growing up, she was also obsessed with R&B. “I was always really enamored with whatever Brandy and Monica, Destiny’s Child, Selena, and people at that level [were doing].”
The Suffers launched in 2011, and three years later when David Letterman’s show came calling, Franklin suddenly found herself working full-time on her music. The three-time recipient of a Houston Press music award for Best Female Vocalist has since performed on five continents, sung with the Houston Symphony and before an Astros game, and produced events promoting up-and-coming independent, minority, and female artists.
Franklin calls the music she does with The Suffers “socially conscious” funk and soul. “That funk, that jazz, that Latin everything—we’re not really leaning into one genre with that, in terms of cumbia or salsa or anything like that,” she notes. “We are really, really just going wherever the flow takes us.”
In February, she released her Bayou City Comeback Chorus EP, a social-justice album funded with a grant from the Houston Arts Alliance that features the voices and musicianship of over 20 local artists.
But her musical collaborations are a bit different from her personal projects. Before the year ends, Franklin plans on releasing a solo record and is currently working on capturing her truth.
“I’ve been hyper-focused on making what I feel is a true record, in terms of what I’m saying. But genre-wise, I think I’ll probably be thrown somewhere between Americana, soul, and country—and I’m okay with that,” she explains. “It’s a bit more than ‘socially conscious’ because I’m not just doing observational writing at that point. I’m doing a lot of self-reflection and a lot of storytelling for my family members. I’m doing work that is beyond myself.”
Franklin describes music as being healing, and a form of comfort for many. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. You just gotta find the right song. Music can be a vessel for change. Listen to the music of Marvin Gaye or The Staples Singers, or even Kendrick Lamar. Music has a way to communicate emotion while also encouraging people. It all depends on the message within the music.”
Franklin says The Suffers’ most recent album, It Stars with Love, which was released in June, discussed “oppression within the music industry, whether it applies to sexism, racism, pay inequity—just all kinds of things that exist there. I don’t think that necessarily only applies to music, [so] I call out a lot of different industries.”
When it comes to her solo work, every one of her mentors has told her to just tell the truth. “[That applies] not only as an artist, but as a writer and just as an observer of humans—to know that I could write down what I’m seeing and record it and release it,” she says.
“I think it takes a lot of guts, as I’m releasing a record, to talk shit about music journalists and call out the fact that there’s not very many [trained] music journalists left,” Franklin continues. In one of her upcoming song lyrics, she sings, ‘I know this album will be fire. I can feel it in my soul, but I gotta wait for writers who don’t even like their role. They should be working on their screenplay or off finishing their book, but the budget says they’re music writers that also review the cooks.’
She’s also working on a follow-up to It Starts with Love. “On top of this, I’ll be on tour the rest of the year with The Suffers,” she says.
As for how she manages to keep working despite the state of the world, she says, “I take a lot of breaks. I smoke a lot of weed. I hang out with my friends. I hang out with my family, and I try to stay out of the bullshit. I try to stay well-informed of what is happening in the world. However, I’m not interested in news. I’m interested in fact.”
Franklin hopes that all the violence and hate and disenfranchisement targeting underserved communities will ultimately lead to a better world for everyone.“That’s what it takes, sometimes. It takes everybody being torn apart. It’s going to take people having their rights taken away, it’s going to take people getting uncomfortable. I’ve been more focused on what I can control, because it’s very easy to spiral. It’s like, you’ve got to keep it moving. Got to keep it moving. The world’s chaotic, so I have a lot of things to write about,” she notes, adding that the state of the LGBTQ community is also one of her topics.
Queerness, she says, is “something that you just have to really normalize, because it seems as though people are working really hard to erase the work and connectivity that we’ve all worked so hard to create for one another, for [no good] reason other than hate.”
Hate is something Franklin has no time for. “All I want to do is just keep making more music that is reflective not only of my stories, but the people that can’t tell their own stories—which is probably more of a focus on my solo album. I’ve been working on it for the better part of a decade and was just waiting for funding, and I finally got that and I’m about to get started. It’s a cool time to be creating.”
Keep up with Kam Franklin on Instagram @bamitskam.
This article appears in the August 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.