'We need to be figuring out how we can come together': A conversation with Kam Franklin
Kam Franklin says she was raised in the land of Beyonce and Barbara Jordan.
She was raised, that is, in Houston. After a corporate career, she became a professional musician. Since 2011, she’s been the lead singer of The Suffers. That’s the part of her that made her famous, but she says she doesn’t believe in “one lane for one person, when our minds are capable of so much more.”
So The Suffers’ lead singer is also a speaker — and that’s the art perfected by Jordan, the Fifth Ward native, first Black woman to serve in the Texas legislature and congressperson who became an indelible figure of historical importance. (Her hometown’s still waiting on a statue.)
And Franklin’s a teacher, a writer, an actor, director, producer. She’s also a storyteller with the Houston Inspira project, organized by Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Office of Cultural Affairs and funded with a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. Five storytellers from five communities — Acres Homes, Alief, Kashmere Gardens, Near Northside and Second Ward — are working to create public art about environmental issues that reflects each community back to itself.
Here, she talks about Second Ward Healing Hours, her project, and why we’ve got to start healing. Before you read, though, please listen to “Giver” and “Don’t Bother Me.” They’re the songs she says best get at all she is.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
AW: So, how have the Healing Hours gone?
KF: My partner on that project has been Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, with Paige Powell and Charlotte Cisneros. And honestly, I've been having one of the most creatively transformative years of my life. It's all happened right here in town, and it's been a really beautiful experience.
The reason I say that is because I've been really able to reflect on what I can do with my art, in terms of educating people and helping others beyond writing songs about love and romance. PM 2.5 is not the sexiest topic, but I think it is important. How else are people learning about these things?
So, all last week I partnered with CEC to have five free community events. We interviewed about 50 people and invited anybody who had love for Second Ward to come in and talk about why they live there and work there, about what's in the air. We made it a fashion mart, had vendors, DJs. It was a really beautiful five days. But the whole time I was thinking that it's a typical day to be outside, but we were saying, Don't go outside without knowing what it is that's happening. Know what it is that you're breathing!
But we had a slideshow running, and while the DJ was playing, we had QR codes that your phone would take you to a link tree. These are the ways you protect yourself, these are the ways you can fight back. These are the organizations that can educate you more if you want to go deeper into the conversation.
AW: That was the second thing I wanted to ask you about. The Inspira project is inadvertently interesting to me, because it was really based on a single editorial cartoon.
KF: Which was intense. I saw that cartoon.
AW: Right, but it was just about concrete batch plants. But when you start thinking about environmental issues, it gets so much bigger than that. So that's why the healing hours are interesting to me, because that cartoon is a negative image. It's the image of a threat that harms people, but our lives don't stop at the harm. We keep living past it. So, I wanted to ask you about where healing comes from.
KF: The healing side came from all of us just simply coming together. I mean, I don't know the last time you got together five days in a row with people who have been trying to get a hold of you or get time with you. I knew I wasn't going to be performing at this. I knew I wasn't going to be doing the more scientific side of the communications. That's what CEC was there for. But I knew I was there to share what I had learned, and I knew that I was there to make people feel welcome.
I think that there is a loss of connection that happened during COVID and the lockdowns that we're still recovering from. That comes from sitting and talking to other people that share the same space with you. We had all the fans going, and it was the first week of really beautiful weather after a brutal summer.
If you didn't want to participate at all, that was fine. You could just come in and say, "What's up?" If you wanted to choose your own adventure and be in the room, ask me all the questions, ask Paige all the questions, go and participate in the market, jam to the DJ, that was an option, too. For some people, dancing is a form of release and healing and care and mental health buildup. That's one of the easiest ways for me to feel better. For some people, it's a libation, and the bar was open. We weren't trying to limit healing to one thing. A good time and a good conversation can leave me feeling good for days.
AW: I used to live in the East End, too. And I’ve started thinking more about what “environment” means, and it's not just Big Bend, right? It's the facilities along the bayou, it's the metal recyclers, it's the concrete batch plants, it's the diesel trucks that bring the concrete to the job site through people's neighborhoods. Sometimes I forget to think about how I could talk about this stuff with my mom, who's not in it every day. You're at the beginning of a transformation where you absorbed all this information, and now you're trying to disseminate it. But when you're talking with your bandmates or friends, what do you talk about when it comes to the city? Is it hurricanes? Is it climate change? Is it chemical explosions? Is it how bad the air smells some days?
KF: It's all of those conversations. I think everyone knows at the bare minimum, especially if you live in Houston, that this is now climate change. I don't work in oil and gas anymore, so I don't feel uncomfortable in any way saying that I feel as though a lot of those companies contribute to some of these storms we have. Some of my friends, we can talk about it at length. I think it's the same as when you're talking about certain types of politics, when you're talking about certain types of diets. There's going to be people who agree and don't agree. You're going to have these things happen until it starts to impact them directly. And when it starts to impact them directly, it might be a little too late.
But climate change and air quality have impacted me and my friends most of our lives. I know folks, and their family wasn't from here, but they moved here, and they're the first generation that has all kinds of food allergies and skin allergies, and they just happen to live a block or two away from some of these plants.
And there's some people who are like, "I work at 'enter oil and gas company here'. That's not true.” All I could think was that we learned so much about Texas history, but we don't learn a thing about these refineries until they're blowing up or they’re getting in trouble on the news. Why aren’t we learning? If those jobs are really such a foundational part of our community, and it seems like they are, why are there not direct pathways to the executive level? Why are we not learning chemistry until high school? A part of me feels like I don't know if they actually want people from these communities to work at those companies.
AW: I wanted to ask you about what it is to be the face of something. In the past, we've gone after influencer campaigns. We were trying to get Beyonce to post to Instagram, but it ended up being Mark Ruffalo. And it's fine. But you’re often on that same list. Like, "Oh, we got to get Kam, we got to get Kam." But when we were going back and forth and trying to schedule this, you said something like, "I'm trying to learn.” And I couldn't really believe that you said that.
KF: Oh, that's so funny.
AW: I was like, No, you're the famous one. You're supposed to influence us! Maybe I overthink it, but Mark Ruffalo’s privilege protects him from a lot of this stuff. And it's nice that he has this big megaphone, but you're from here. I wanted to ask you about the idea of authenticity. Who’s allowed to speak? How do you approach that as someone who’s in the public eye?
KF: Everybody's invited to talk. It's nice to have anyone, especially those with bigger platforms that want to. They might influence somebody else. It doesn't really matter. I think this is a topic that impacts all of us, whoever is the first person speaking on it, as long as they're being respectful and not trying to exclude folks, I think that that's the goal and should be the goal at the end of the day.
I'm not the celebrity police. Some days I am treated one way by people, some days I'm treated absolutely bananas by others. But all I've taken from it is how I treat myself and how I treat those around me and how I want to engage. When it comes to celebrities, it's heavy out here. And it's easy to just assume that people don't care. We never know what people are investing in or what they have gotten behind, because sometimes it's not behind a name anyone knows or it's complete anonymity. Everyone's not out here doing the Melinda Gates route.
So, I like to have in the back of my mind, hope and prayer and faith, whatever good vibe, that most people will try to not be an asshole if given the opportunity. I have to exist in that world. There's a lot of shit right now that would make it so easy to want to believe otherwise. But as I get older, I want to make sure that I am trying to do my best to lead with kindness and peace and understanding.
Let's keep it moving. We got too many things going on to be upset. We need to be figuring out how we can come together to stop having all of our shit flooded and freezing to death, our rights being taken away and other things that truly do impact us in ways we just don't understand because we're not being taught them anymore. Education magically disappearing. Opportunity, funding, magically disappearing. It's a tough time to exist as a Texan. And I try not to get defeated. And I think projects like this one have made it a lot easier for me to fall in love with my town in a different way. I love seeing the talent that comes out of our city and what really happens when people are given an opportunity. And it's my hope that 50 years from now, we won't be in a position where it's too hot to go outside or too cold to go outside, or there's no more outside. I don't know. It seems dramatic, but maybe we all need to start being a lot more dramatic about what's going on.
West is writer and communications manager with One Breath. You can find them on Twitter @allynwest.
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