Kam Franklin Stands Up in an Industry Telling Her to Sit Down
The Suffers' lead singer has been given some terrible advice while navigating a career dominated by white men.
All photos by Greg Noire
On January 30, 2015, I decided to quit my day job at an investment bank to chase my dreams of becoming a full-time touring musician.
While I've known tons of musicians who have been doing this way longer than me, I didn’t know any at the time who had gone about it the way I did—working a day job for years and then taking the leap of faith. So, with no real guidance, I set out on the journey of a lifetime with my band, the Suffers. That first year on the road was really fun, eye-opening, and, honestly, so fucking hard.
So many people counted us out in the beginning. They’d say things like, “Your band is too big.” “Your body is too big.” Perplexed by our decision to stay in our hometown of Houston, Texas, they'd ask, “Why haven’t y'all moved to Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville yet?”
The most frustrating thing I heard, though, was some version of, “There’s already one Alabama Shakes. Why do we need two?” “There’s already one Sharon Jones. Why do we need two?” These are actual phrases people would say to my face (and online) with regularity. A lot of them were well respected in the industry, and a lot of people in my life thought I was crazy to ignore their advice or perspective. They’d often tell us we should just stop while we were ahead because the industry already had “enough bands that sounded like us." What? Who were they talking about, and how many is “enough”?
While it was an honor and a privilege to be compared to the late, great Sharon Jones and the amazing Brittany Howard, I found it hard to believe that in an industry filled with festival lineups that had tons of young white male musicians, wearing the same outfits, and playing similar chord progressions, there was no room for me and my band. It was a double standard so bright it blinded.
It was hard some days to not feel numb to the disrespect, to just accept it as being one of the downsides of my job. At times I felt overwhelmed by it all. I was tempted to just stop and accept that no matter how hard we work, how great we look, or how talented we sound, there will always be someone around the corner waiting to undercut or block us women from reaching our full potential. But that's bullshit. Change doesn’t come with silence.
That was a lesson I learned over time and with experience. When our band first started, I was so hesitant about sharing my ideas. I’d write them down in journals, or discuss them with my female friends. But for the most part, I went with the flow of what I thought would get me to the career I thought I wanted to have. It didn’t. Being silent in the moments I should have been standing up for myself, and/or presenting my ideas, did nothing for me. In the end, I’d always find myself irritated by the final product. I’d think about what I could have changed, or how I could have made it better if I'd just said something. Why was I doing this to myself? Why was I questioning myself? Why was I not betting on myself? I realized it was because I didn’t really have anyone that looked or sounded like me to look up to, and that if I wanted to accomplish the things I knew I was destined to do, I had to become my own motivation.
At first, I let the little chip that my critics had left on my shoulder grow. I worked so hard to prove how different I was and how good I was, that in the end, I was exhausted and left uninspired. It took about two years on the road for me to learn that in this industry, the people who have convinced everyone around them that they know all the ways to be successful are full of shit. Those “rules” of success in the industry are meant to be rewritten, and most of the people who will tell you you’re not good enough are meant to be ignored. I started to regard them like I do the little orange construction cones you occasionally see on the road—maneuver around them, be cautious, and avoid the distraction. Carry on getting to where it is you know you ultimately have to be.
There isn’t only one way to be successful, and that applies to any industry. Each day that passes offers another reminder of how wrong those eager to give me their two cents in those early days were.
Flash-forward to now, and Google some of these acts: Tank and the Bangas, Nikki Hill, Lyric Michelle, SATE, the Seratones, Dazz and Brie, Genesis Blu, the Tontons, Lizzo, Lianne La Havas, Dirty Revival or Blame the Youth. Not only are black female artists out here doing the absolute most, we’re selling out big rooms, selling tons of merchandise, and touring just as hard as anyone out there. The market hasn't turned its nose at us, hasn't told us "I've seen this before." It clearly hasn't seen "enough."
Once I stopped trying to please the people who weren’t supportive of my success to begin with, my life and my career got so much better. I started treating myself better. I started dating better men. I started writing better songs. I started believing my art was good enough. My gigs got better. Everyone who came into contact with me was able to see that joy. I surrounded myself with highly driven, like-minded individuals. I sought out mentors who I could reach out to when I was feeling lost or overwhelmed, and I accepted that I needed help from people who believed in my vision to get it all done.
Since quitting my day job and ignoring all those people who said I wouldn’t make it, I’ve since performed on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and The Late Show with David Letterman. I’ve performed on five continents. I sang in a superjam with my punk rock heroes: Bad Brains, Fishbone, and Living Colour. I’ve performed at Newport Folk Festival three times. I sang the National Anthem at the Houston Women’s March. I sat in with Jon Batiste and Stay Human, Questlove, and so many other talented individuals at the 2017 March for Science on the National Mall.
Along the way, I’ve had no help from a record label. It’s been nothing but my band, my team, my family, and my friends convincing me that that my dreams are all possible. Now that I’ve been able to see what can happen when I choose to bet on myself, I look forward to accomplishing even more things, inspiring others to take the same leap.
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