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The Suffers' Kam Franklin on her new album, racism and why it's hard to rep Texas

The Suffers perform for Lone Star State of Mind: A Celebration of Texas at ACL Live in May 2021. Though the Suffers are featured on tourism ads for Houston, lead singer Kam Franklin says "a small group of straight white men that don't want to acknowledge that Texas is about to be super diverse" make it hard to rep the state.

“It Starts with Love,” the latest from Houston powerhouse the Suffers, is a bold collection featuring the seven-piece Gulf Coast soul outfit's strongest work to date. The band's third full-length mixes jubilant big band dance tracks and steamy bedroom serenades with deep soul numbers like the epic “I’m Not Afraid,” a song that clocks in at almost seven minutes and features electrifying vocalist Kam Franklin at her most powerful and her most vulnerable. 

The group launched the album with the breathtaking requiem for Black lives lost, “How Do We Heal.” The latest single, “Yada Yada,” is a brash industry diss track with a healthy kick of creole seasoning. Over 13 tracks, the band will help you party, pray, lean into love and draw the line when it’s time to walk away.

“We're about to go into our 11th year (and) I feel like this is the tightest we've ever been, the most connected that we've ever been,” Franklin said when we caught up with her in March at the South by Southwest Music Festival. “We are just ready to show a healthier, more energetic, more free version of the band.”

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Franklin talked to the American-Statesman about her personal journey during the pandemic, the inspiration behind "How Do We Heal" and how it feels to be the face of Houston in the current political climate. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.    

Suffers vocalist Kam Franklin, seen here performing at Emo's in 2020, said she used the classic fight film “Rocky” to inspire her during the pandemic’s darkest days. She put herself through a “training camp” that included an intense daily vocal practice.

American-Statesman: Why do you say the band is more free now?

Kam Franklin: The lockdowns were the first time in my life where I was able to go days without feeling oppressed. I'm a Black woman in America in the South. I tour all over the world. I am a big girl. I am 5 foot 8. I am not quiet. I have been called every name in the book to my face. I have been assaulted, I have been abused. 

To be in a space where I was forced to be inside, I wasn't around anyone trying to touch me without permission. I wasn't around anybody trying to touch my hair without permission. I wasn't around anybody telling me how not great my ideas were, or how impossible they were, because the only person that was there was me. It was a monumental, monumental opportunity to just release anything that was holding me back and to really heal.

Talk to me about people touching you. 

It's a big problem for a lot of Black people, especially if you have an Afro, dreadlocks, any type of natural hair. We live in a country where the Black woman has historically been treated as a (person who) exists at the bottom of the totem pole. 

At times, it was almost comparable to a (expletive) petting zoo. I would play shows sometimes and I'd have people that would say good job or hug me or whatever, but then they'd go straight for my hair. I've had people that don't know anything about what I do touch me from behind, touch my skin. I know a lot of men that have experienced similar things, especially men with beards. It's not okay, touching other people without permission. 

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It's a part of what I've had to endure throughout my life. And I was abused as a young child and part of me used to wonder if I was still attracting abusers, which is kind of (expletive). I know that's not the case. There are just really weird people out here. 

Again, that time inside allowed me to get more confident about (expressing) simple things like, I'm not a pet. I'm not an animal. I'm not a property. …

I try not to let (it) hold me back in my overall life. I know that every day is a new opportunity to do life better. That's really what keeps me going. And knowing that I've come out of whatever the hell the last two years were with so much more confidence, so much more self awareness and care and empathy for myself and other people.

Kam Franklin calls the 2022 version of the Suffers,  "a healthier, more energetic, more free version of the band.”

How did the lead single for the album, “How Do We Heal,” come about?

“How Do We Heal” was written in fall 2019 in New Orleans with my friend John Michael. I had been going through it on the road. I was just really tired of seeing Black people get killed by the police. And we had driven through Ferguson, on the way somewhere in the Midwest, and I had a full blown anxiety attack in the van. 

I'm like, none of them even understand what is going on. None of them understand why I don't feel safe right here. None of them understand why I don't want to stop in this town. I'm about to pee myself, but we’ve got to drive like another 100 miles before I can go to a truck stop where I feel comfortable.

(I was) the only Black woman in the band at the time. As we were touring, I would see things that my bandmates weren't raised to understand or be aware of. (I was) feeling like we were driving into pits where I could be shot at at any moment because they had just killed another person that looked like a family member.

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I just let it pour out of me. It wasn't a hard song to write because I had so much to say. I wear hoodies a lot now, but at the time I remember being really afraid to leave my hoodie on when I would go inside places. We would go into McDonald's (in a) middle-of-nowhere town, and (I’d see a) volleyball team, a bunch of white girls wearing hoodies wearing sports stuff – baggy, Billie Eilish-type (expletive).

I'm like, they don't have a care in the world. And meanwhile, I was (expletive) cold, and could have fixed the problem, but my anxiety was so high thinking of Trayvon Martin. ... 

(Editor's note: Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old Florida boy killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, was wearing a hoodie when Zimmerman shot him. Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges; the death of Martin, who was Black, sparked a outrage across the country.)

I had been so consumed with so many stories in the news at that time, (that I had) to talk about what's going on. I've been raised by really just amazing, educated Black folk. … Reading was always encouraged … I knew about the stories of Emmett Till. I knew about the stories of James Byrd Jr. It is something that is burned into my memory. It is a constant fear that exists still within me today, but I had to release myself of that. 

You talk about, what does it mean to be free? Writing about what is keeping my freedom from me in the music, telling all these (expletive), talking about what it actually takes to get past this, which is acknowledging what's happening in the first place.

I don't think there's a ounce of blame in the song, but this is what keeps happening. If it's going to keep happening, I'm going to keep asking the question: How do we heal if it doesn't stop happening?

You wrote the song in 2019. And since then …

I changed the names later on, because it was important for me to include Breonna Taylor … With Breonna Taylor, it was like, wait, what's going on? Louisville is an amazing, amazing city, and it was heartbreaking to hear about this happening.

(Editor's note: 26-year-old Taylor, an emergency room technician in Louisville, Ky., was killed in her home by police in a botched raid in 2020. No officers involved were charged in the death of Taylor, who was Black.) 

Then to find out that even though Louisville is an amazing city, Kentucky is still Kentucky, just like Texas is still Texas,

These are states that used to enslave the ancestors of people that look like me, and there are people doing their best to try to go backwards towards the light of hate, rather than the realm of togetherness, which is what we really need. I think not focusing on healing and acknowledging history so that we won't repeat it is dangerous, very dangerous.

The Suffers mix elements of funk, R&B and bayou blues in a blend they call Gulf Coast soul.

During her SXSW keynote, Lizzo said she’s proud to rep Houston, but she’s not proud to rep Texas right now. Your band is literally the face of Houston. You’re on the city tourism ads. How does that statement sit with you? 

I feel that 1,000%. I feel like the people that are repping Texas, in terms of our governor, our senators, are not representative of most of their constituents. We're not being heard on many things from women's health care to cannabis, which should have passed unanimously. …

It's so hard to represent this state because it's changing, but just like it once was, there's a small group of straight white men that don't want to acknowledge that Texas is about to be super diverse. Everyone from everywhere is moving here, because of all those tax incentives, the affordable living, whatever they've been advertising. 

The only (expletive) thing at this point, aside from the racism, sexism, limitations of women's health care rights, and… oh, wait, no, there's a lot of bad things. But people don't mention that (expletive). It's like, “Austin’s so fun, Houston’s so cool.” If you're going to mention those things, can you also mention that they would be far more fun, if you could have fun there without worrying about getting shot up, because there's no license, no required training, no real background checks on guns? … 

(Texas) holds itself back with old school ideas masked as conservatism. Once upon a time, conservative to me didn't mean a hateful person. It didn't mean a person that was harmful toward others. But our leadership that exists right now seems to be very, very focused on harming people that don't think and live like them. 

I feel like it is not representative of Texas. I personally don't feel very safe here. I feel safer literally everywhere else right now. …

I know this isn't about a rant on Gov. Abbott or whatever, but (expletive) all of them. And I hope they all lose. And you can quote me on that. Simply just because they're not nice people and they've gone out of their way to showcase that.

If you go

The Suffers celebrate the release of "It Starts with Love" 

When: 7 p.m. on June 4 

Where: The Mohawk, 912 Red River St. 

More info: $20 in advance; mohawkaustin.com