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The Suffers lead singer Kam Franklin talks about the tough road to their latest album


Kam Franklin heads up the big band The Suffers. They're out with their third album called "It Starts With Love."


CHANG: They've got horns. They've got cowbell. They bring fun and funk. And with Kam Franklin as their lead singer, they've got a big voice upfront. Their sound is eclectic, just like the town that she's from, Houston.

KAM FRANKLIN: I often say I come from the land of Barbara Jordan and Beyonce. I don't have a problem speaking up or asking questions because that's what I was taught to do.

CHANG: And being from Houston, it's a source of strength for Franklin, which she has needed because the industry did not always embrace her.


THE SUFFERS: (Singing) You are all up in my life.

FRANKLIN: I got told that it wouldn't be successful because there were already so many bands that sounded exactly like us. That was the exact quote.


THE SUFFERS: (Singing) Back in the days, they had rules about being a star. You weigh up or change who you are. These days, the industry moves so fast. Once more, change or not come over there.

FRANKLIN: It just started to really reek of racism after a while in that, being told that there were already enough, they were saying that there was already one big band with a Black female lead singer, and that was enough. So there wasn't room.

CHANG: Right. Like, check, we covered that box.

FRANKLIN: Exactly.


THE SUFFERS: (Singing) Most of these folks out here just playing pretend, talk behind your back and then call you a friend.

FRANKLIN: What happened, though, is that I started speaking up when I realized that, oftentimes, we would be the only act of color in a lot of these spaces or on certain days at festival. I would be the only Black woman there. And I'd start asking questions, you know, because that's what you're supposed to do when you get into a position of power, right?

CHANG: Yeah.

FRANKLIN: Especially as a minority - at least that's what I was taught - is that you get into your place, and you do what you can to make it easier for who comes after you.


THE SUFFERS: (Singing) Every day we struggle for the dollar, dollar, dollar, working harder, harder, harder. At the end of the day, b****es got to get paid.

CHANG: Well, I am so grateful that you fought through the inequities that you saw very clearly early on, that you were able to feel empowered to speak out because, I mean, here we are with your third album. And I know when it came to this third album in particular, this was a tough road, right?

FRANKLIN: Absolutely.

CHANG: Your band faced some real challenges trying to get this album done.

FRANKLIN: Yeah. It was three years of trauma and chaos and COVID, you know? And so 2019 was probably the most intense year as a band we've ever had. We lost two of our founding band members. We had $40,000 worth of gear stolen in Dallas.

CHANG: Oh, my God.


THE SUFFERS: (Singing) A thief stole our sh** in Dallas. For a second, wondered if we'd get past it. Tried to take us for our joy. Too bad we take it everywhere we go.

FRANKLIN: We also split from our longtime manager at that time. And having all of that happen, it's like the equivalent of a breakup. You know, we'd all been together for many years at that point. Then the pandemic hits, and we are forced to reevaluate everything we thought we knew about recording.

I made a plan for us, presented it to the band and told them, look, I really think this is going to work out in our favor, but if it doesn't work out, we don't have to release these songs. We can, you know, scratch it and try again. We can all get back together. And they said, all right, let's try. And we tried, and we did it.


THE SUFFERS: (Singing) I just got to get out. Most days, you see, I like walking around. It's good for me. But you tickle me, where we could go eat? Take me to the good times.

CHANG: And then as you were trying to put this album together remotely during most of the pandemic - I'm going to take you now to June 2020 - you are seeing protests across the country after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed. When was the moment for you when you knew you wanted to bring that piece of what was happening in the world into this album?

FRANKLIN: So we have a song on this record called "How Do We Heal" that was written in 2019. And I had been told by multiple people not to put it on the record because of how heavy the lyrics were and because of just the fact that I was talking about racism in a song. And I had been told many, many times by artists I really respect that if the song scares you or if it's the truth, you have to release it.


THE SUFFERS: (Singing) I can't feel safe in my own home.

FRANKLIN: I had written it after the death of Atatiana Jefferson and after the death of Philando Castile and all those people that have come before them. And I changed a lyric at the very, very end to include Breonna Taylor. I was not planning to write a song about 2020 is what I'm saying - is that it had already been happening for so long, it just happened to still be relevant.


THE SUFFERS: (Singing) Shalina, Sandra, Breonna, Corinne, we say your names till we get to see you again.

FRANKLIN: "How Do We Heal" came initially from how the Black community was supposed to heal from everything that was happening, from all the police brutality, the racial inequity. But now when I sing it every night, I look at it as humanity, as our society as a whole because there's no way we would be treating ourselves like this if we weren't all collectively hurting.


THE SUFFERS: (Singing) How do we heal from this? How do we heal?

CHANG: You know, something that you had said and something that I'd read about you is that you said lockdown during this pandemic was the first time you were able to, quote, "go days without feeling oppressed."


CHANG: Can you talk about that? Why was that?

FRANKLIN: Because I didn't leave the house, I was able to go days without being oppressed. I was able to go days without being sexually harassed, without being touched. I tour a lot, and I've been groped. I've been assaulted. I've had things thrown at me on stage. And in 2020 and 2021, when we were in the lockdowns, those things didn't happen.

CHANG: Is there a part of this album that reflects that freedom you felt during lockdown, when you felt safe inside your home and you didn't have to deal with oppression outside?

FRANKLIN: Absolutely. I would say "I'm Not Afraid."


THE SUFFERS: (Singing) I knew it was meant to be in the stars.

FRANKLIN: Every time I sang it, especially when I was working on the background vocals, I was just reminded that no one can get in my way except for me in this industry, and I am no longer afraid when it comes to being honest, when it comes to speaking up for myself and others in all aspects. And I am not afraid to continue doing this job no matter what hurdles it continues to throw at me.


THE SUFFERS: (Singing) I'm not afraid.

CHANG: That was Kam Franklin, lead singer of the band The Suffers. Their album "It Starts With Love" is out now. Thank you so much for being with us, Kam.

FRANKLIN: Thank you so much. I appreciate you.


THE SUFFERS: (Singing) I knew it was meant to be in the stars, so I don't question who I am or how far. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.