The Suffers Confront Racism and Sexism in the Music Industry

Singer Kam Franklin discusses hardships that inspired Houston soul band’s new album, ‘It Starts With Love’
The Suffer
(Credit: Agave Bloom Photography)

Kam Franklin isn’t afraid to say her piece. As the singer for The Suffers, a Houston-based seven-piece soul group, she’s shared the stage with Chaka Khan, toured with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and received advice from Mavis Staples. But when she’s spoken up about the inequalities of the music business, it hasn’t gone over well.

“It’s really scary to talk about racism and sexism, and gender pay inequality, and payola in journalism,” says Franklin over the phone from a tour stop at BottleRock festival in Northern California. Outside of singing, she serves as the governor of the Recording Academy’s Texas chapter and as a board member of HeadCount, a nonprofit that works with musicians to get people registered to vote.

“Now [I’m] an activist,” she says, with a touch of bemusement. “I didn’t want to be a fucking activist. I want to be a singer.”

The Suffers
(Credit: Agave Bloom Photography)

On the Suffers’ new album, It Starts With Love — their third full-length that’s out now — Franklin and her bandmates channel their own travails in the industry into a how-to guide for other artists, complete with an elaborately colored 12-step pictorial on the inner sleeve. “I wanted to make sure that there’s a piece of art out there encouraging you to go to that next level,” she says. It was particularly important to her that the album be released during June, which is Black Music Month, a celebration devoted to the influence of Black musicians on American culture.

“It is not lost on me that I’m existing in a time, not only as a Black woman that can release an album and be in the front of a band, but every time [I tour] I get to sit in a tour van or sleep in a hotel,” Franklin says. From the many readings she’s done on the subject to conversations with the likes of Staples, she’s come to have a deep appreciation for what Black musicians of prior generations had to go through. “I know that artists in the ’50s or ’60s, some of them weren’t allowed to stay at hotels. They’d stay at funeral homes or on floors.”

Reared in a large extended family — her mother is one of eight children, her father one of six — Franklin was surrounded by strong, Black women and began singing in an adult gospel choir at the age of 5. “Every Sunday, I’d lose my voice trying to compete with these ladies,” she recalls with a laugh. That voice, she says, was “a tool to take me wherever it was that I wanted to go.” So, too, were books: From fifth grade on she served as a junior librarian in her school, and for a time entertained a career as a federal judge.

Music, however, was her one true path. It became a needed refuge when, as a 10th grader, she transferred from an arts magnet school in Houston to another high school in the suburbs. “My first day of school I got called a n—–, and called a ‘good n—–‘ because I was so nice,” Franklin says. Before long she was mixing it up in the local punk and reggae scenes and got her first gig singing in a ska band. She prided herself on her versatility: One night she’d sit in with a hip-hop act, the next it might be Tejano, country, or Zydeco. “I was trying to get in literally where I fit in,” she says.

Those experiences primed her perfectly to join the Suffers, which was started in 2011 by bassist Adam Castaneda and keyboardist Pat Kelly. They grew into a sprawling, multiracial ensemble complete with a permanent horn section and developed a richly eclectic sound they describe as “Gulf Coast soul.” The buzz of a debut EP and full-length landed them on The Late Show and The Daily Show, but soon there were rumblings “that there wouldn’t be space for another band led by a Black female singer,” Franklin says. She responded by penning an op-ed in 2018 that called out these comments.

“[Afterwards, we were] told that the reason we weren’t being booked for festivals, by pretty good sources, was because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut when it came to ‘the Black thing’ [or] about the pay gap,” Franklin says. “That’s not just something that impacts us. It impacts all artists.”

There was more turmoil to come. Later that year, an executive made the band an offer they seemingly couldn’t refuse, but when they asked for time to consider he grew hostile, then abruptly went silent. Franklin, deflated by the episode, sketched out three songs in one night that eventually formed the backbone of It Starts With Love: “Yada Yada,” “I’m Not Afraid,” and “Nunya.” In 2019, Castaneda and Kelly left the group; the band lost $40,000 in equipment when their van was stolen after a gig in Dallas; and at a festival in Nashville that fall, Franklin was repeatedly mistaken for British R&B singer Yola, with one producer drunkenly accosting her for not recognizing him. She went on Twitter to voice her frustration. “My texts were blowing up,” she says of the aftermath.

Without Kelly, her longtime chief songwriting collaborator, Franklin committed herself to articulating her personal experiences as a woman of color in the music business. “I didn’t seek out specific themes, but my overall goal was to tell the truth,” she says. Songs like “Yada Yada” and its companion piece, “Bitches Gotta Get Paid,” blossomed into fiery rebukes of racism, sexism, and double standards; “I’m Not Afraid” into a smoldering, seven-minute power ballad of perseverance. Alongside them, the unfettered joy of “Take Me to the Good Times” and opener “Don’t Bother Me” — with its Latin- and disco-infused rhythms — feels that much more hard-earned.

If taking on the industry required more “vulnerability” than Franklin was used to, she dove even deeper on “How Do We Heal,” inspired in part by the relentless loss of Black lives at the hands of American police officers.

“Philando Castile’s death was haunting me. Like, freaking haunting me,” she says. “It became a thing where I was like, damn, I am on edge everywhere I go right now, because I feel as though Black people are not being treated with care. And I feel like I’m starting to see a reverse of a lot of things that I remember reading in these books, in terms of victories for us and civil rights.”

The Suffers
(Credit: Agave Bloom Photography)

At the same time that It Starts With Love was coming together, Franklin spearheaded a side project called the Bayou City Comeback Chorus, a social justice-minded collective of other artists of color from the Houston area. “That particular album allowed me to show up on the Suffers album in a way that I would not have shown up [otherwise],” she admits. The project was intended to be educational for those involved, with Franklin making a point of walking her collaborators through how to receive proper pay and credit for their work. It was also a way for underrepresented artists to tell their stories.

“I’ve always truly believed in the theory that we all have our own story,” says Franklin, “that we’re all on our own little individual timelines, and they’re all worthy of being told. I do not believe that every story has been told.”

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