Kam Franklin, the charismatic frontwoman of Gulf Coast Soul act The Suffers, is a de facto ambassador for Houston and one of the most recognizable faces in the city. But lately, she’s enjoying her side hustle: public speaker.
Over the past year and a half, she’s been dropping knowledge locally at the Creative Mornings speaking series, at the Houstonia Woman Up! Weekend; and nationally, as a panelist for the Americana Music Festival and for NPR.
Two speaking appearances this month are on tap, the first as part of the University of Houston Women’s, Gender and Sexuality department’s 22nd annual Table Talk series. The second comes when she leads a talk entitled, 20Hertz: Betting on Yourself, set for March 28 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, which is open to the public.
The H-Town crooner is not holding back in her new duties under a different kind of spotlight, hoping to inspire and encourage other young, female, and minority artists with the lessons she’s learned coming up through the local music scene on the way to stages and critical acclaim across the globe.
“I speak about a lot of issues that affect me as a person, I speak about a lot of black issues, a lot of women issues, youth issues, a lot of issues about musicians that aren’t getting what they need,” Franklin said over the phone from Minnesota, in the middle of another Suffers U.S. tour. “I try to only speak about things that I know about, but beyond the obvious, I just try to be 100 percent myself. When I say it’s not so much of a challenge, it’s natural, and I feel as though the audiences that I speak to feel that same thing.”
Franklin isn’t afraid to speak her mind (her Twitter account is a must-follow), and when she does, it’s like listening to an Amy Sherman-Palladino script, expressive and free-flowing. Anything goes, and over the course of a 30-minute interview with Byline Houston, she discussed how she had to hustle to earn everything she got — from leaving a comfortable oil and gas job in corporate America to chase her dream of being a performer to learning to practice self-love in order to be the person and musician she envisioned. What a lot of people don’t know about Kam Franklin, however, is that before she found herself on stages all across the globe she had to fight back against a music scene in Houston that often would rather drag down talent than support it.
Despite her band now playing shows as far away as Indonesia, the transition to artist was a difficult one. Like most music scenes, Franklin recalled, without naming names, a few individuals sought to use their positions of power to influence the direction of the local landscape, or simply to assert themselves. Franklin pointed to a major promoter in town who sought to keep her from playing any of his venues and performance spaces.
“It took years of me being discredited, years being kept off of line-ups, years of me being kept off opening slots before I realize what was happening,” Franklin said.
Years of hard work, album sales, and universal recognition of her and The Suffers’ collective talent were all healing salves to put the experience in the rearview. But she has not forgotten. She said she’s much more inclusive to a wide-range of local artists trying to make their mark in the city and beyond because she knows how much support from others is key to success.
“If I want to do an event, I can do it without any issue,” Franklin said. “But I’m trying to create a space, not only with myself, but with events I produce where it’s not so damn hard. I also try to support the events that other people I know that tried to not make it so damn hard for other musicians, other women, other minorities, other non-binary folks. Music is already hard enough without people throwing extra bullshit into the game.”
The many different voices telling her she and her band wouldn’t make it past the confines of the Houston city limits only made her more determined to find a way, to think outside the box. She now practices what she preaches, working hard to separate herself from those who might otherwise sap her personal joy — even if it means cutting off others she once considered friends when they step over the line.
Franklin made the decision to do so when two women went public with accusations of sexual assault against former Free Press Houston owner Omar Afra, as well as others claiming he created a toxic work environment. Full disclosure: Free Press Houston was rebranded and relaunched as Byline Houston after creditors bought the rights to the business following the fallout.
“I had no idea how awful it was, I had no idea all that stuff was happening, and when I found out, I was mortified because he was one of the few people that did support me and went out of his way to get me into certain places,” Franklin said. “But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter what the fuck he did because he was still out here hurting women, and hurting other artists financially, and hurting others who worked for his team emotionally.”
She felt it was the right move, and, thankfully, it paid off with new relationships and friendships with others who shared her creative experiences and desires to become successful within their craft as artists.
“As a result, I met so many amazing people to fill the void,” she said. “So many people that haven’t been given a fraction of the opportunity they deserve because a few small people in the industry think they run everything in Houston, when that’s not necessarily the case. There are five, six million people in the city with that many artists, that many avenues, that much money to be made — it took me a long time to realize there is room for all of us.”
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry is hard, but the fact that Franklin is also African-American isn’t lost on her either. She feels it whenever she’s walked into rooms and faced the stereotypes that she’s “angry or ignorant or loud.” She now takes it all in stride and seems to revel in changing perceptions by just being her radiant self, a lesson she’ll sure to be sharing with others at her upcoming public speaking engagements.
“The only difference is that because of the history of discrimination and the bullshit double-standard in this world, I have to deal with everything,” Franklin said. “It sucks, but I accept it with pride. I look at it as this world should be lucky to have black women. When I roll into places, I acknowledge that I am light — I am bringing light into those places, I am bringing color and excitement into those places.”
Kam Franklin will be the featured speaker at 20Hertz: Betting on Yourself with Kam Franklin of The Suffers at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, located at 5216 Montrose Blvd on Thursday, March 28 at 6:30 pm.