By ADIBA SEGAL
They don’t call Houston “Emerald City” for nothing. The city produces pure, unadulterated magic. It gave us Destiny’s Child, Beyonce’, Solange, Kelly Rowland and now it’s blessed us with yet another gift: Kam Franklin, lead vocalist for The Suffers. Dorothy thought there was no place like home, but for beautiful brown girls with some thickness and sass, there’s no place like Houston.
Kam was raised in Bryan, Texas, a suburb of Houston where the crawfish is hot and the rodeo is hotter. You spend Sunday nights riding “The Loop,” waiting to hear DJ Michael Watts drop the hottest chopped and screwed tracks, and you spend your Sundays in church. Kam is no stranger to any of this. She got her start like many artists before her, singing in the church choirs of both Galillee Missionary Baptist Church and Greater Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church. On any given Sunday you could find her belting out the Black church anthem, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow”.
So how does a girl go from “He watches over me” to “You want some lovin’ baby? I’ll give that to ya,” the racy lyrics to “Make Some Room”? Easily. Kam refuses to be pigeon holed.
“I could have gone into gospel,” she says. “It was probably expected. But my influences are all over the map—from Dolly Parton to Prince, and especially reggae. So I knew I couldn’t just have one sound.”
Kam has run the gamut of musical genres, including punk. Yes, as in CBGB. PUNK. However today, she finds herself providing the lead vocals for the 10-piece Gulf Coast Soul band, The Suffers. She has a sound we know—a sound we love. A sound our eyelids are rendered helpless to, as they close the minute we hear it. You know what I’m talking about: it’s that Luther mom and dad used to play after you were supposed to have gone to bed. It’s that Chaka Khan you would catch your auntie singing to herself as she poured her love into Sunday dinner. And today, it’s that Kam Franklin, with that smooth, sultry, from the gut sound that bounces off the percussion, and slides down the arm of the trombone, and all but dares you not to feel every single note.
Kam, age 29, is magic through and through, but she is also careful about how that magic is received by mainstream culture. “‘Black Girl Magic’ is something that has been popularized in recent years. I feel like this is the first time in my life that Black people as a whole are saying ‘F you. This is who we are. We are beautiful. We are magical. Deal with it.’” She says that what worries her about this newfound acceptance of our magic is the after. “What happens after the trend passes and the glitter settles? Are we all of a sudden deemed ‘less cool?’”
I pondered this question for a moment, wondering what *would* become of Kam after the fairy dust and unicorns we’ve been assigned disappear.
But then I remembered who I was talking to. This is Kam Franklin. She is unapologetic about who she is or why she is, reminding herself often of the women that helped place the stones in her yellow brick road. “I have to remind myself that there are women out there that are trying to get to where I am, and I have to be an example.” She says she didn’t have many people she could look up to aside from Queen Latifah, and Oprah.There weren’t many bigger ladies on the scene, trying to make it in the industry. There were no how-to books, or learning guides. “But I would hear Oprah,” she says “and Queen Latifah say (when asked about the secret to their success) ‘I stayed true to myself, and thank God I did,’ so that’s what I decided to do. I stay true to myself and you know what? It works. Now I want to be that for other little girls. I want to show them that all of this is possible.”
The “all of this” that Kam refers to is the EIGHT Houston Press Awards for Best Female Vocalist (2012, 2014, 2016), Local Musician Of The Year (2014, 2015), Best New Act (2012 – The Suffers), Best Live Act (2016 – The Suffers), and Best Reggae/Ska/Dub Group (2012 – The Suffers). The “all of this” is performing on David Letterman, and shaking the entire theater on the notoriously tiny stage, with her notoriously giant voice. It’s performing on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and coming face to face with Matt Damon, before she had her face beat to the gods, and grinning ear to ear with highlighter and contouring stripes all over her face. It’s packing to perform on a sold out cruise leaving out of Miami on the same day as the contentious inauguration of a controversial into the highest office in the land, and then heading straight into her very first European tour, followed by her Australian tour.
“All of this” is also being in a position to bring light to the otherwise dark corners of our culture—the things we do not speak about: mental health.
“Mental health is something that touches every single person in this country, yet in the Black community we don’t talk about it. We sweep it under the rug and ‘pray it away,’ but that doesn’t help the person suffering.” Kam says she grew up loving punk and metal bands and she would listen to the lyrics being sung by the white, male lead singers. She would hear these songs talking about sadness, and despair, and even suicide, and wonder why she never heard those topics being sung about on the Black radio stations. Today, she is on a mission to change that. For the first time in a very long time, Kam is heading into the studio to record a solo cover album. But she’s not covering Luther, Chaka, or even Whitney. She’s covering Korn, Godsmack, Perfect Circle, and The Deftones. And she’s putting the Kam Franklin stamp of sass on it, and giving these songs an R&B feel. Slowing them down, taking off the edge, opening them up. I can only hope that by her bringing these lyrics to our community, it allows us to do the same: slow down, take off the edge, open up.
However Miss Kam Franklin has no intention of slowing down. She’s clicking her cowboy boots together and easin’ on down the road her way, in her time, leaving a trail of magic for all of us to follow. We see you, boo. If there’s no place like home, and home is Houston, Texas, well, then there’s no one like Kam.
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Adiba Nelson lives in Tucson, AZ ,with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, and two teenage stepsons. When she is not advocating for disability rights, body love/size acceptance, performing burlesque, or writing her face off, she is busy ironing her cape and looking for ways to fit more shoes in her closet. She is also the author of the children’s book Meet ClaraBelle Blue, and is currently working on her memoir. You can find Adiba at The Full Nelson.