Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Dare to Lead. Oh my gosh, I’ve got such an incredible conversation for you today; I am talking with Kam Franklin. She is a singer songwriter, music producer, activist and the lead singer for the Houston band, The Suffers. And if you’re wondering who are The Suffers, you hear one of my favorite songs from them, “Take Me To The Good Times,” every time you listen to this podcast. We talk about what it means to set audacious goals to know disappointment, to go for it, to fall, to get back up, and also what it means to lead a creative team. It’s so funny, one of the questions I ask her is, “Tell me about conflict,” and she said, “Oh, it’s every day, every hour.” And then offer some really incredible thinking about normalizing that conflict and understanding it’s part of the magic. I’m glad you’re here. It’s going to be a great conversation.
BB: Okay, before we jump in, let me tell you a little bit about Kam, and so you’re going to learn a lot about her in the interview, but an overview, she’s a singer-songwriter, a music producer, an activist, a writer, an orator, a model, a visual artist and an actress from Houston.
BB: She’s best known for her work with the Gulf Coast soul band, The Suffers, but she started performing at five in Gospel music. She has been performing, I think, her entire life. She tells us the story of The Suffer… She tells us the story of being an energy and power trader for an Australian-based company that was here in Houston, I mean, she’s been an executive assistant, she’s been a power trader… I don’t even know…
Barrett Guillen: A bartender.
BB: A bartender. She said, a crappy bartender. That’s me right. I’m like, “You can’t order anything where the ingredients are not in the name, like scotch and soda? Okay, I got you. Rum and Coke? Got you.” Anything else? Go somewhere else. So she leads The Suffers now. She’s been featured by both Forbes and VICE for her activism and business ventures that seek to create a more equitable and inclusive environment in the arts for Black queer fem artists working in all mediums and from all backgrounds. She joined the board for headcount.org in 2018. You can read about her fashion sense. Did you know this, Barrett? Her fashion, her style and just the way she dresses and… It’s so incredible. It’s been featured on BuzzFeed, Refinery29.
BB: She’ll tell the story of David Letterman, which is a great story. She’s been on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Jimmy Kimmel Live, in addition to speaking about The Suffers with Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered, just an incredible… Everything. She’s here with us today. Let’s dig into the conversation.
BB: Okay, first of all, I just have to say, I think you’re amazing. Welcome to the Dare to Lead podcast, Kam Franklin.
Kam Franklin: Thank you. The feeling is mutual. So, thank you so much for having me and for putting this podcast on because it’s awesome.
BB: I’m so excited to talk to you because we’re both Houstonians, I don’t think we’ve ever met in person.
BB: Everyone that listens to the podcast, hears “Take Me To The Good Times” from The Suffers, so they all know you too.
KF: Which is awesome.
BB: Which is awesome. I had the great fortune of listening to an early release of your new album.
KF: Ahh, yes.
BB: It Starts With Love. I don’t have words. Every time a song came on, I was like, “Oh God, this is just the best one. Oh, no, no, no, this is… ” No. I mean what an album.
KF: Thank you. Thank you so much, it took a lot to put together and I’m really glad that it’s actually coming out and going to be a real thing.
BB: It’s going to be a real, real thing. Okay, before we jump in, because I have so many questions for you about leadership and the intersection of leadership and creative efforts.
BB: Right, yeah. And I think you can speak to that, but you’ve got the most interesting story, so tell us your story.
KF: Yeah, I’ll give you a condensed but still kind of long version of it. I have been produced my whole life. I started singing at age five in the church, and I was in every choir that was accessible to me, both in church and school, and that included both for God and for competition, because that was a free way for me to get training that my parents basically saw in me as a gift. And everyone around them were constantly telling them, “Put her in this. Put her in that,” but… My dad worked as a business manager in retail, my mother worked for an airline and has worked for that airline since I was a baby, and it’s not that easy to just take your kids…
KF: And put them in something. Right? Especially if you don’t have that kind of money, but they were lucky enough to get me in magnet programs pretty early, and that allowed me to expand my knowledge and get the training that I needed, and so towards the end of high school, I started… I’ll call it moonlighting, but I started ditching school my senior year to go and jam, as I was calling it. My mom was not having it, no one in my family was supporting me skipping school, and I don’t support the skipping of school to go and do this, but a lot of those people that I was jamming with back then are my peers today, who I work with. Some are in my band, like 20 something years later, but it was the beginning of something that I knew and always believed in, but it was very hard to sell, especially when I was in a city that didn’t have that type of resources.
KF: Houston is a city that has had so much incredible talent come out of it, from Lyle Lovett to Destiny’s Child to ZZ Top to Khruangbin to us. We’re… Lizzo, so many people. But a lot of people leave Houston to go and pursue their dreams. A lot of people leave Houston because the resources are not available here. A lot of people leave because it’s just told to them that it’s not possible. And I have always been one of these people where if you tell me something’s not possible, I just… I don’t believe. It does not compute to me, I just… [chuckle] I just… I live in a very optimistic, maybe fueled by all the science fiction that I read, or just fiction that I used to escape within, but I have always believed that as long as I worked for something and really, really believed in the vision that it would happen, and I’ve really yet to be proven wrong in that regard, but it is incredibly hard.
KF: And so speaking of the hard, me moonlighting in school to do this music thing eventually made graduating pretty difficult, even though I had the grades, laws changed, I had skipped too many days of school. I get sent to the bad kid academy, which I also learned doubled as the, if you have money, you can skip a grade or if you have money, you can take all these classes that I was skipping during the summer, so that you can go to college or whatever it is that you’re trying to do sooner. Or if you did what I did and you skipped school, it was your summer, basically. And so I’m still, to this day, proud that I skipped chemistry so that I could go to this bad girl school, because I met one of my best friends while I was there, and one of my earliest promoters, shout out to Amy, and earliest make-up artists, she… It was just… It was a mess. But I learned a lot, and I’m glad that I went through the process.
KF: But when I first started going into the real clubs, I felt confident because she had shown me how to do my make-up, she had shown me all these things that I knew I would need. And I started just gigging with anybody that would let me get on their stage. So, one night it would be an open mic, the next night it would be a country band, the next night it would be Tejano, next night soul music, something that I think, honestly…
BB: This explains so much. [laughter] This explains so much.
KF: Yes. And so I looked at it as an opportunity. And I was so young and I had so much energy that during the day, I was going to community college, but then working one of the three jobs that I had that weren’t music. I was a horrible bartender, I worked in retail, and I was always someone’s admin, sometimes at a law firm, sometimes in oil and gas. And eventually, I got this really big touring opportunity with this group called The Very Best. And in my mind, I was like, “This is it, y’all.” This is like 2007, 2008. And The Very Best was this group from London and Africa, Malawi, to be specific. And they needed two back-up singers and dancers for a show that they were doing at South by. And one of their dancers couldn’t make it. And I’m a little thicker than most dancers, but I could dance, and I could sing from all that training. I could learn the language, and at least phonetically sing it enough to be enjoyable. And they allowed me to come with them.
KF: And so I did a couple weeks with them, and then broke my leg. Broke my leg, I just… I’ll go ahead and say it, I was out partying with some friends, and I was drunk and I was on a bike and I broke my ankle. And it was bad. Like real, real, real, real, real, real bad. It’s okay. Now, I’m walking, I’m recovered. It’s fine. It’s 10 years removed. But it was a lesson. And a lot of opportunity eventually was taken away and passed on. I got to play Pitchfork with them in a wheelchair, which was kind of cool. But they needed a dancer. And they needed what they had requested. And I wasn’t healthy enough to go on the road with them. I needed to rest and recover. Anybody that’s a… I was literally in my wheelchair, convinced that I could go on tour post-op two weeks.
BB: As a dancer and a singer. Yeah, yeah.
KF: Yeah, yeah. And I couldn’t. I came back with an infection. I came back with a mandatory stay-at-home from my physician. And then the next two years were dark. I watched a lot of my friends start to get those calls and get those tours. And I had the skillset from being an admin and all the other jobs that I had had. And so I got a job at an oil and gas firm here in town as an executive assistant. And I worked in that role for about two years before I got promoted to an entry-level training job as a gas and power trade analyst, where I was taught from…
BB: [laughter] Can we just pause here for a minute?
KF: Shout out to my friends at Macquarie Bank. [chuckle]
BB: Okay. So… [laughter] Okay. So… Okay. So you’re an oil and gas trade analyst.
KF: At an Australian investment bank that had a gas and power trading house here in Houston. My specialty was power though.
BB: Okay. Of course.
KF: Mm-hmm. [laughter] But all of that to say, I thought that that was going to be the job for a while. And I stopped sitting in with people, I stopped doing music because I was making money. I was like, “I don’t have any… A degree. They’re paying for me to do this.” And anybody that’s really…
BB: Did you love it?
KF: I loved it at first, because I had never had money before. Everything’s great. When you’re poor… When people say, “Money can’t buy you happiness,” I’m like, “Screw that. Screw that.” At least for like 45 minutes, it’ll bring you that temporary like, “Yeah, we’re doing it” joy. And so, woo, I was doing it for a little bit. And after a few years, those same friends that had never stopped working in the music industry would check in on me like, “What’s up? What’s going on now? You’re still working at the bank? Okay, cool.” I’d go visit my friends in New York on my exotic bank salary vacations. “Oh, you’re not singing? Oh, you’re not? Okay.” And they weren’t doing it in a condescending or a mean or any kind of, ‘This job is a bad choice’ kind of way, but more so like they remembered who I used to be when my drive for the music industry was there.
KF: And it wasn’t just, “Oh, I wanted to be in the music industry.” Part of me being in those magnet programs, they always would give you some kind of elective to not get in trouble, just something to keep you busy. And I was Ms. Talkative in my classes, and so my elective became library. But I loved library, because I looked at it as an opportunity for me to get that music education early, because at that time, my biggest influence was Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child and Brandy and Monica. And so in my mind, I thought I was going to get signed by 14, and I needed to learn how the music industry worked, because all I knew was that at some point, Brandy and Monica got famous and Prince had the word Slave written on his face and I didn’t understand anything in between. And…
BB: Yes. Two routes, you have got to make the right choices.
KF: Exactly. So at this point, I’m just reading anything that has music on it. Music business, music this. And one of the first books I had my hands on that had anything to do with the business side of the industry was by this guy Donald Passman. And I read the book and I was like, “All right, I got the skills. I’m ready to enter at 14.” And when I started talking to my friends as an adult, I realized, “Huh, I’m making this money, I have the knowledge, I have the skill, I just… I’m out of practice. No, I’ll just stay at the bank. I’m just not even really thinking about it.” And I get a call from one of my old friends at the time that I used to jam with, saying that he wanted to start this new super group of artists around the Houston area that he had played with that were mainly in ska and reggae bands. And he started telling me the names, and I’m like, “Oh no, I’m coming. I’m coming to the rehearsal.” And I go to the first rehearsal, and I knew I was in a band again. And I went home and I told my then partner at the time, I was like, “I’m in a band.” And he goes, “How many people are in the band?” I said, “I don’t know, really. I’m actually not sure how many people are in the band.” Because at that first rehearsal there were like 12 or 13 people there. And for the next few weeks there were about that many people until we resided on 10. And that first year, it was literally just ska, reggae covers of popular music.
BB: What’s a ska cover?
KF: Ska music, for anyone that doesn’t know what ska is, it’s a traditional form of music that comes from Jamaica. And it was originally influenced by doo-wop music from the United States. But it was Jamaicans putting their own spin on it. And actually, for anybody that’s like, “Oh, I don’t know any ska,” so they immediately think of third wave ska, which would be more like Sublime or Reel Big Fish, they have been misinformed and mis-educated, because actually, when Bob Marley and the Wailers, a very popular reggae band first started, they were initially a ska band, and…
BB: Got it. Okay.
KF: When you look back at those earlier photos, you’ll see Bob with the fade and he’s wearing a suit. And that was that era. And it initially started off as imitation and became its own form of music, and… Sorry, this is my freshman year essay on the history of ska that no one asked for, so…
BB: No. I love it, because today, I’ve got a son in high school, and some of his friends are huge ska fans. Y’all did a lot of ska in the early days.
KF: We did a lot of second wave ska and rocksteady. Rocksteady is a blend of ska, reggae, roots rock and traditional soul. And so we would incorporate a lot of that into our music. And we all had a shared love for all of these bands, all of these things combined. And while I was at the bank and vacationing to see my friends, I started getting those feelings. And after those initial rehearsals with the band, it became, “All right, we have to share this. We have to share this with somebody.” And so our first show ever was in Houston, Texas, at this place called The Mink. It was free that particular night, and so it was packed. It was my birthday party. Basically, we were trying to be able to say, first show, sold out. And we’re all dressed up. And it left an impression. And so after… That was 2011, so after four years, in The Suffers, we were all still working our day jobs, I worked at the bank, my guitarist Kevin was a contractor for NASA. We had a couple teachers in the band, welders. We were all working… We had benefits, 401k’s.
BB: Yeah. We had health. Yeah.
KF: I told you, I… When people tell me something’s not possible, it makes me kind of malfunction a little bit. And so we get an invite to go play South by Southwest. We go and we kill it. And we end up getting a booking agent. And we didn’t know what that meant at the time. A lot of people, when they hear the word booking agent, they think of a blend of what a manager, a business manager, or they think of, “Oh, this person is going to take all your money or whatever.” In the modern music industry, your booking agent is your right-hand person for making your money, because most people in our industry make their money off of touring. And at this particular time, we didn’t have a need to tour. We had jobs. Like, What?
KF: And so this guy, his name is Aaron, is trying to basically convince us to sign with him, and our manager at the time is also trying to convince us to sign with him. And in retrospect, I understand how crazy we sounded, because some bands wait their whole lives to get booking agents, and we’re just like, “Whatever. We’ll think about it.” After South by, someone told me, while we were still in the midst of our, basically, it’s like the end of Rudy and we’re all just cheering because we just crushed South by, it’s like, “Woohoo.”
BB: It’s a big deal.
KF: Someone’s like, “Oh yeah, you… It’s cool. Austin’s pretty easy. But until we see all of y’all up in New York City, it doesn’t mean anything.” And I’m like, “What?” And he says, “Yeah, until you’re up in New York City, it doesn’t mean anything because that’s the real city where if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” And I’m like, “Crap, he is right.” And I don’t know if he was right, but in my heart, I was like, “He’s right.” And actually, in retrospect, yeah, he was right. So two weeks later, without even really throwing it out like that, we get an invitation to come and play at the CMJ Music Festival in New York City, which was kind of similar to what South by did, but it more so catered to the business side of the music industry, rather than the fans. And the discovery aspect, I think, was a lot stronger at CMJ at the time. Anyway, we end up playing like six, maybe seven shows, and…
KF: At our very last show, which was at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City, which is… It is a legendary venue. If you’ve never been to New York City and you’re like, “I can’t get into this, and I can’t get into that,” go to whatever show is at Rockwood Music Hall. It doesn’t matter who’s playing that night. It’s going to be one of the greatest musical experiences you’ve ever had. It’s a super tiny room. So, we book our show there, and we get there, we’re all tired, we’ve played seven shows this week, we’re exhausted. And we get to the venue, and everybody’s putting their clothes on and getting it together and we see the stage and it’s this tiny stage. There’s 10 of us. We’re like, “How are we going to make this work?” Everybody has their individual meltdowns, even though we’ve been warned about how small it… And everybody told us, “It’s legendary, it’s game-changing,” blah, blah, blah. You don’t want to listen when you’re irritated.
BB: It’s tiny.
KF: It’s hard to listen when you’re irritated. And so I go to the bar to get a drink of water, and this guy approaches me and he says, “Hi. I’m with the David Letterman show. I’m a producer, and I’ve come to watch your show tonight.” And again, I told you I’m irritated. I’m coming from Texas in a city where I’ve been scammed my whole life on and off. I’m not taking the first person I meet in New York city seriously, when they tell me… And I was like, whatever. I just assumed he was kind of trying to hit on me or be friendly. And so, I really just kind of blew him off and was like, “Yeah, sure. You can buy me a drink.” Whatever. Gross. And so, I… [laughter] I thought about it for a second, and I was like, “Oh wow, I might have misread that. Let me go warn my band real quick.” And I go to the green room, and they’re kind of not arguing, just everybody’s irritable, and I’m like, “Hey, I don’t know if this guy was telling the truth or not, but he says he works for the Letterman Show. So, let’s try to give it what we can. I know y’all are already bringing it.” And I was just trying to give that pep talk. And so we play what feels like the show of our lives. And I look around, and the guy is not there. [chuckle] And so I feel like real dumb, like I just lied to my band. I was like, “I promise y’all, he was here.”
BB: He existed.
KF: Yeah. And I’m trying to describe him, and I’m describing half the room. And so it’s just not going very well. And two weeks later, we get a call. I say, we. I get a call. And I can tell this story now because the Letterman Show doesn’t exist anymore. But I get a call, and they ask me if I have a publicist. And I say, “What?” And they said, “Oh, sorry. This is “so and so”, with the David Letterman Show. We’re inquiring about The Suffers. We’re trying to get the phone number for your publicist.” I called my… The only publicist I knew and also loved her very much, and we had worked with her previously, but I didn’t know any other publicist. I knew Shoshi. And I believed in Shoshi, and I called her like… Just full-blown panic attack was like, “Someone from Letterman just called my phone and I lied and I said you’re my publicist. Please answer the phone. They’re going to call you in five minutes. They’re going to call you in five minutes. Please answer the phone.” She’s like, “I got it. I got… ” We didn’t have no money, Brené. It’s like making me emotional because she really took a risk on us because we were broke and couldn’t afford that. But she answered the phone, and then we didn’t hear from them for three months. And I thought that they forgot about us. I was aggressively watching The Letterman Show every night, and I was like, “Oh my gosh. All right. They forgot.”
KF: And so then we get the call, right before Thanksgiving. They were like, “We’re going to call you back with a date, but it’s going down.” And I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s going down, it’s going down.” And they said it would happen sometime after January, I think, 15th. So in that happening, they said that we had to have a release… Some type of music release happen, because I didn’t know that playing these late night shows…
BB: Oh yeah.
KF: It’s a commercial. We’re not taught that. We just think, Oh, you’re on TV, and you’ve made it to the big time. They don’t tell you, Oh, this is a commercial for this product that you as a creative or whatever it is that you’re coming on for, is supposed to be advertising. Thank God we had been recording something, so we had something to release. Thank goodness my roommate at the time was this incredible artist who literally just drew up what eventually became the EP that we played that show with, and it just all came together. And by the time we played the show, he had something in hand, and it blew my mind that it actually happened, because we just kept getting bumped and things kept happening. And because I had watched the show so long, I was just like, “Bette Midler is going to bump us, Julia Roberts is going to bump us,” just all these irrational things, but also very possible things being a Letterman fan.
KF: And it ended up happening on March 30th. And we were the last independent band that he had on. And I was waiting for him to say something about the drums because it kept… That’s what he would do. And then instead, he said, “If you can’t do this, get out of the business.” And no one in my band heard except for me and my drummer, and I dang near had a heart attack.
BB: What did that mean?
KF: It meant that we had to quit those jobs. It meant that we had to go on the road for a long time, and it meant that our lives, as we knew it, were definitely going to change. What he meant by, “If you can’t do this, get out of the business,” I’d say, just watch the performance. It’s on YouTube. But it’s…
BB: If you’re not bringing this…
KF: I feel like it was just pure energy. And I think that other artists are very capable of bringing that type of energy. And I don’t think it’s mandatory because art is all relative. But it meant a beautiful byline on all of our… [chuckle]
KF: On all of our press stuff that happened after that. And so it changed a lot, but it also didn’t change a lot. It didn’t… [chuckle] It didn’t change the fact that we had to learn how to become a touring band. It didn’t change the fact that we had to learn how to exist as 10 people, sometimes 11 on the road. It didn’t change the fact that America is America, and our band was a majority Black and Brown… A majority Black and Brown group, and it didn’t change the fact that I as… What I didn’t know would eventually become a leader for this band had to go through a lot of personal change and development and growing up. When the band first started, I was 23 years old, so if you think about starting your business at 23 and…
BB: No, I can’t.
KF: And being the only woman at your business, and me being the only Black woman at my business, the only Black person at my business, it became a learning experience every single day, and the first three years on the road were the hardest years I think imaginable. There would be really great things that would happen, there would be horrible things that would happen. We’d be seeing a little money here, and then it would be, “Ah we’re broke.” Because I didn’t mention the fact… Didn’t mention two very important parts of the story. When this started happening after Letterman, we got approached by a lot of different labels, some big, some tiny that wanted me to replace my band. They wanted me to replace my band, they wanted me and the name and they wanted me to fire everybody. Or they wanted me to do whatever this was with the band, and then leave the band and then go do whatever it is that I was going to do.
BB: Who did they want you to replace the band with?
KF: Hired guns.
BB: Got it.
KF: Hired players. And there are a lot of artists that do that. Any artist that you see that is just a name, for anybody that’s listening, when you see an artist that is just a name, the majority of the time, if they are not up there with the guitar and they have a full band behind them, those are hired players, right? But these people that were approaching me didn’t know that I was writing songs with people in the band, and they also didn’t know that I listen to my… I call them my music industry spiritual guides that I meet along the way. Our first massive opening slot that we got was for Lionel Richie, at a show that he did in Austin, and after we got done, he went out of his way, even though he didn’t have the time, and his poor manager was really trying to rush him out, he came over and spoke to us and was like, “Y’all stay together, don’t let them break you up,” and I’m like, “What?” It didn’t register at first, and he says, “They tried to kick me out of the Commodores,” and I said, “What?” And he goes, “They didn’t know I was writing songs,” and I’m like, “What?” And these are…
KF: These are the gems that… I haven’t seen him since then, but that five-minute conversation completely changed my trajectory. It’s hard not to look at someone that has been in this industry as long as he has, that has the reputation that he has, that is just notoriously kind, he is that… I don’t listen to… I might take it with a… I might take it with a grain of salt, I might apply it where it needs to be applied, but it’s like… These guides don’t exist for us. The music industry has only been around as we know it for so long, and it’s constantly changing. Constantly changing, right? And there are so many things that we could go on for hours about, in terms of what’s wrong with it, but the thing is, is that most people that argue about what’s wrong with it, don’t even know step one of how it all works, don’t even understand the business side of it, and have only worked within one side of it, either they’ve only worked on the major side or they’ve worked on the indie side only, or you have those few that have kind of hopped in between, but they’ve never worked with an artist of color, or they’ve never worked with a woman, or they’ve never worked with someone in the LGBTQIA community, or they’ve never done a combo…
KF: And so they can only offer so much advice because at the end of the day, we’re all trying to sell art, so there’s no copy paste, this is what it is formula for what we do, because that’s not what this is supposed to be in the first place. But now that we are getting into a place where we can finally acknowledge ourselves as artists, as businesses, as leaders, as all these other things, we are having to really, really, really decide how that’s going to happen. And for me and my band, because we’ve pretty much kind of just continued to grow and learn the whole time, just sometimes the hard way, sometimes whatever way it just comes at us. And again, I think that applies to everyone, at the end of the day. The only difference for us is that the demographics that exist within us as a band are just a small part of who we are. But when we leave, when we leave that practice room or when we go outside, when we go somewhere, you would think that that’s the only thing about me sometimes when I tour America. It’s like I am constantly reminded of how Black I am when I’m on the road. And that’s from the racist experiences I’ve had from being assaulted on the road… It’s crazy, I thought that by doing soul music, I wouldn’t still have to deal with the nonsense I dealt with when I was doing punk, but it seems as though racism has no stoppage there…
BB: No genre.
KF: And assault towards women has no stoppage there.
KF: But we have managed to survive and grow and learn and see like, Oh, we can exist here, there’s space for us, just like there is space for everyone else here, it’s just going to be a little bit harder, and we have to acknowledge that everywhere we go. It’s going to be a little bit harder for us, and it might be sometimes harder for people that have never understood where it is that we come from, or what it is that we represent to understand the why, but that’s not for us to figure out.
BB: Tell me… I’m curious how you would describe your leadership style.
KF: My leadership style is constantly evolving, it is radical, and it is malleable, malleable.
BB: Radical in what way and malleable in what way?
KF: Radical in that, I don’t need to be the leader every day. I love seeing someone else lead, and when I’ve worked at… I’ve worked at corporations, I’ve worked at retail, I’ve worked at… There’s this obsession with the title, that… That people don’t understand, it’s like I believe a true leader has no problem doing any job on it or helping out with any job.
BB: Oh my god. Amen. Yes.
KF: Or learning from any person that is there that day. So when I say radical, it might be radical for someone to listen to the person that doesn’t talk all that much all the time, and force everyone in the room to be quiet for a second and hear what it is that they have to say. It might be radical to know what the projected outcome of something is going to be and say, “You know what, we’re going to go the other side anyway,” and just take that risk, knowing what comes with it, knowing… And I don’t know if that’s what the word would be for that, I know it wouldn’t make everyone comfortable, but I feel like we didn’t sign up for this job to be comfortable, rock and roll is hard. It’s not comfortable. And I feel like if we stepped into this just, “Oh, this doesn’t feel good, I’m not going to do it.” Absolutely not. I come from the land of Beyoncé and Barbara Jordan, you need to talk to someone else about what is impossible and not possible.
BB: Oh my God, I love this. Yeah, it sounds a lot like Daring Leadership, actually, where comfort is not the ultimate goal, it’s growth, it’s art. I lead a team, then there are a couple of creatives on our team or people who identify as creatives, I tend to believe we’re all creatives in some way.
KF: Yes, I agree.
BB: Tell me about leading through creative conflict. I wish y’all could see her face.
KF: I’m a very expressive person. Leading through creative conflict…
BB: First, you’ve experienced it a lot. Right?
KF: Of course, of course. [laughter] I will say leading through creative conflict is something that I work through every day. Every day someone’s upset with somebody about something, there’s always something new, big, small, whatever. And I think it’s just, first of all, no matter what it is, acknowledging the person who is taking the moment to tell you whatever it is that is griping them, to listen, because I have to remind myself and sometimes remind some of my friends that it’s very scary, for some people to speak up and say, “I don’t like this thing.”
KF: At one point in my career, I was constantly… Constantly is not the right word, I’ll say repeatedly told about how sometimes my style could be considered not helpful or super critical, or sometimes I would make people not feel great or comfortable to share their feelings. And it would hurt my feelings initially to hear those types of critiques because I’d be like, “What? What do you mean you can’t tell me, it’s me,” but then I’d be like, Okay, well, was I irritable about something else that day? Had I not delegated things enough to where maybe when they were trying to tell me something, I just kind of brushed it off or I was like, “Whatever.” And I really had to start checking myself because no longer being in that corporate environment where I was no longer just the employee, and I’m now the leader. I am an HR, I am an owner, I am a partner, I am an entrepreneur. I am leading this idea and this vision, and if I want them to get it right, without anybody feeling frustrated, it’s going to take a lot of these steps, it’s going to take a lot of communications, it’s going to take a lot of…
KF: Well, what does this mean or them getting frustrated too in the process, because sometimes when stuff is really cool, no matter what it is, there’s always something that goes wrong along the way, and so it took a lot of art, just self-development at the end of… What was that, 2018? I started going back to therapy and really for the first time in years, not necessarily because anything was wrong, but because I had no one else to really work this side out…
BB: Yeah, Amen. Me too.
KF: I have my close friends that I play… I call the game, Am I tripping? Am I being a good person? On Reddit, it’s the, Am I the asshole? Where like…
KF: I’m not putting it on Reddit, and so it’s… [laughter] It’s something that I had to put into real practice and sometimes I was, sometimes I was a real asshole, the biggest one in the room, and I didn’t realize that, and you know what? A lot of it I realized in retrospect was because I wasn’t being fed, not fed any… Just being fed snacks and not taking the time to take care of myself as a leader, and I had to realize, Wow, if I’m not full, I am not a nice person. And I now know that about myself, it’s not the best part about myself, but I now know that, and I take the time and make sure that I am fed so that I can be present. I make sure that I am sleeping and taking care of myself so that I can register and try to assist with whatever it is that they’re going through. But in terms of the conflicts that we have as a group, it’s every single day just learning how to immediately nip it in the bud as it’s happening. We had a pretty early rule within our band that happened and it would be tough at first but we didn’t really like passive aggression, and so when it came to…
BB: Amen, hell yes. Terrible.
KF: When it came to dealing with conflicts on the road because we’re in a van, we’re not in an office, there’s no privacy. So, it’s like you’re going into the Love’s or the Buc-ee’s mad together and you’re coming back and you’re going to the venue mad and you’re coming… And so if anybody was arguing about something, sometimes you’d have a little jury there, which didn’t always work out the best but if it escalated, you’d have other people to kind of contribute their two cents. But communication is everything when it comes to conflict because sometimes it’s not that major, sometimes people just need to complain and…
BB: Need to be heard.
KF: Sometimes it’s bigger than you even realize it is, and sometimes it’s something you need to hear. And a big part of our conflicts that we had as a band when we first started touring, I don’t feel like I would be in the position that I’m at now had I not gone through those years.
KF: And I say years of growing up and learning how to really be a better bandmate and be a better business owner and be a better person, just in general, but I think that’s also part of the 20s, so there’s [laughter] that.
BB: Oh God, it’s so hard. Tell me what you think about the relationship between self-awareness and good leadership.
KF: I think that the relationship between self-awareness and good leadership go hand-in-hand. I think that it can’t be expected to show up the way you want it to everyday, but I think it needs to be almost as important as starting that coffee maker in the morning and as important as making sure that you grabbed your phone or your wallet, and just realizing if you’re the leader, if you’re the leader at the end of the day… At the end of the day, it does not matter how big of a problem it is that you personally have, there are all these other people depending on you to show up for them and to support them through whatever it is that you’ve originally convinced them that they could do. And so [laughter] I feel like as a leader, that self-awareness that I have for myself when I have those moments where I need support, I remind myself, that’s there for me. Let me get through this day…
KF: Or let me take a break if I need to, and I can call my girlfriends, I can call one of my mentors, I can call my parents, I can call somebody that I have in my life that knows who I really am and let them know, “This is what’s happening right now.” And usually that’s all I need as a leader, is just like five minutes of, “Girl, let me tell you what happened.” [chuckle] And then I can go back into it and approach it with a different perspective. And I think that self-awareness of acknowledging myself as a human being, not a robot is a whole other part of it and continuing to acknowledge that just in the same way that I need to show up for them as that person on their team. I also need to show up for them as a human and for myself as that so that if for some reason we can’t make happen, I’m not giving them a sugar-coated optimistic version of a lie.
BB: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.
KF: Because what we do is not promised, and so I try to make sure that I’m also staying realistic, and that comes with that same self-awareness and realizing when we need to pivot, realizing when things need to change and when I need to speak up and be like, “Hey, we tried, and this is not doing the thing that we thought it was going to do. Let’s go this new direction or trusting when someone else around me might be right when they’re suggesting that.”
BB: Yeah. I have a question for you. I think the depth and the joy and the expansiveness and the soul of The Suffers is so inextricably connected to the inclusivity and representation and diversity of the band?
KF: Oh yes.
BB: My sister sent me a text, I don’t even remember when it was, and it said, “Holy shit. Kam and Oscar “Enamorada” in a link.”
KF: Oh, I love that. [laughter]
BB: Oscar De La Rosa from La Mafia.
BB: So let me ask you this, for leaders who are listening right now, I feel the same way about our organization but how do you help people understand the shift from, “This is something I have to do,” to, “This is the freaking secret sauce. This is the gold. This is everything, this is life.” Do you understand what I’m saying?
KF: I do understand what you’re saying, and I think if I were applying that to my team, it’s by reminding them to just take a moment to look at everything that has been accomplished so far, and to look at that growth because since 2020, since the beginning of COVID shutting everything down…
KF: I feel like… I feel like so much has happened that doesn’t necessarily get talked about outside of, What are the main issues? Of course, we need to talk about everything that’s happening, but I also think, and repeatedly say to my friends that a lot of people are hurt right now, and I also say that people are malfunctioning right now.
BB: Oh, yeah.
KF: And with that, we have to take a moment to look at everything we’ve been able to maintain, finish, complete, accomplish, even in the midst of everything happening, even in with all these goals that we’re still trying to achieve, what is that? Stop and take a moment to smell the roses. That’s been the sauce that has been able to keep me going when I’m having a horrible day. So, there’s not necessarily a secret sauce, it’s more so a reminder of, “Look, you are the sauce.” [chuckle] Right?
KF: We are not making no sauce.
KF: You are the sauce.
BB: You are the sauce.
KF: So, whatever it is you need to do to feel that way, let’s make it happen. Do you need to take a moment? Do you need a break? Because the moment you’re ready, you the sauce, let’s go do this, and that’s how I look at my band mates. I look at it as none of this works without them. If we’re not doing what we need to do as a unit, as a team, I’m just Kam Franklin, The Suffers is when everybody shows up and does what they need to do. The Suffers is when we’re all feeling good and are able to showcase that on stage and share that with the audience and do what we need to do. It doesn’t really function any other way and we’ve seen that, and we know that, and good days or bad days, it’s always good because this is the dream job.
BB: God, it’s beautiful. Okay, before we go into some specific more rapid-fire leadership questions.
BB: I want to know two things. Tell me about the process of developing your solo project, “Don’t Get Caught Sick.”
BB: Woah, what a song.
KF: Thank you, thank you very much. My drummer for The Suffers is also a very frequent collaborator on my… Just everything. His name is Nick Zamora, and he was… I believe he was in Salt Lake City, Utah, and there was this outside instrument that’s in a park there called Liberty Park, and it’s this little Mulumba toy instrument, that’s just available for public use and it’s in the middle of the playground. So you hear kids playing in the background on the song, on the extended version. But he sent me this song, I had been listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane and just really doing some really deep meditations, and as soon as I heard it, it kind of took me into this trance. And I had been working on songs that were more-so focused on not just social issues and injustice issues but just anything that was affecting other people’s problems because I was trying to get into the practice of talking about things that are wrong through the form of music and not necessarily making every single song about love or relationships and getting to the practice of that. And I’d read two articles back-to-back about just the cost of insulin and how expensive it was at the time, and reading about people that had died because they chose food or chose bills over the cost of their insulin. And the phrase “Don’t Get Caught Sick in America” just started falling out of my head. And when I heard this music, I immediately went and recorded it and the rest is history.
KF: And so, I released it last year while I was also still learning the basic production process because that’s also something that I’ve really wanted to expand into. And so that was the first thing that I released and it’s begun this process for me to go and finish my first solo album, and I’m almost [chuckle] done funding that, and I’m excited for everything that’s coming with that and yeah, it’s very different, mainly because I think it’s a little bit more dark but I think there’s space for that type of art as well.
BB: Oh God, yeah, I think so too. And I think the subject matter is hard but it’s also… There’s something hopeful about it and there’s something honest about talking about it.
KF: I agree.
BB: It is a really wealthy nation and a really tough place to get sick.
KF: Oh yeah. You said it.
BB: Something’s wrong. Yeah.
KF: You said it.
BB: Do you have a favorite song on the new album? I know that’s a weird thing to ask but is there a song on It Starts With Love that you just are like, Oh?
KF: Well, yeah. I guess every song is definitely my baby but the song we just released, which is called “Don’t Bother Me”, I waited the longest for it to come out, which was almost seven years from when I first got the idea sent to me. And it was actually co-written by this guy named Johan Karlberg, who was in that group, The Very Best, that I had to leave the tour from almost 15 years ago. [laughter] Yeah, and so it’s a very full circle moment to be able to work with him, yes. He’s incredible and I was very grateful for that opportunity and my band just crushed it. And I loved them, that one, and there’s a song on there called “Could This Be Love?” that’s also just… Every time we sing it, I’m just like, “Oh, we’re back in love again. All right.”
BB: All right. [laughter] Okay. I kind of have an anthem from the album, any guesses?
KF: “Bitches Gotta Get Paid.”
BB: That would be my second anthem, for sure. But there is one that is like anthem, it is almost like…
KF: “I’m Not Afraid.”
BB: Oh hell, yes.
KF: Okay. [laughter] Yeah, that one. I am so proud of that song.
BB: Damn, that song. Gives me goosebumps thinking about it. I got them right now.
KF: Thank you. That song, “Yada Yada” and “Nunya” were all written in the same night, and I had a really horrible moment with a person in the music industry and really questioned everything that I had been doing and… What’s the therapy exercise? Write in your journal. So, I wrote in my journal. I was so mad. I was like, “I don’t even want to be… ” I was doing the practice but I didn’t want to be doing the practice but I’m so glad that I did the practice because I got three songs that I really love out of it, and at the end of the day, I realized that it was something that needed to be said and something that I had to confront. And so now that those songs are done and I’m so glad that you love that song, that’s… Yeah, I am very proud of it and I can’t wait for people to hear it. I feel like people need it, and I feel like it’s going to help somebody, and that’s a whole other lane. I feel like songs about encouragement will never go out of style so yeah.
BB: No, it helped me. And you know what else I loved?
KF: Thank you.
BB: I loved the defiance in “A Cha Cha”.
KF: Thank you. [laughter]
BB: That had a really good fuck you back beat.
KF: Thank you, thank you very much. Thank you. That’s all voices.
BB: It’s amazing.
KF: Thank you so much. Another therapy exercise. And really, really… Okay, so I have to tell you, I wrote that one, but I was reminded of the song because I was watching your new show. Yes, the Atlas of the Heart, I was watching it. And I have to say thank you, by the way. I know we’re not at the end, but I do have to say thank you because your book, Dare to Lead, I think made me a better leader because there were a lot of things that I had to learn from it and just learn in general that I wasn’t really doing. But there was a part on the special where you go into comparison and just how not great it can make you feel. And just that song, for me, was me releasing this really unhealthy cycle of jealousy and comparison that I found myself just falling into because our industry, it’s so easy for people to be pitted against one another…
KF: Because we rarely are connected really.
KF: And so it was really, really lovely to say, “No, I’m not doing this anymore. I am only going to root for… Literally, if we’ve met in real life and you’re doing this, and I know how hard this job is, I’m rooting for you, and that’s the end of it. I don’t care, it doesn’t matter if your music’s good or not.” And I have some really funny conversations sometimes where at the end of the day, I’m like, “Is this a touring band?” And if they’re like, “Yeah.” Not that it matters if they’re not. But this is a touring band, this is a band on the road, they’ve been doing this forever. “Okay, well, I’m rooting for them.” I don’t care. I don’t care, because this is a hard job.
BB: Yes, I know.
KF: There are no guarantees and support out here. I’m like, “Woo, you’re doing it.”
BB: Yeah, no, and I love the fact that you were watching the comparison piece on Atlas of the Heart while I’m listening to the music going, “Yeah, no, I have got to let that go.” It’s perfect.
KF: I asked somebody, I was like, “Why is she yelling at me? I’ve already been working on this.”
BB: Yeah, I know, and I’m like, “Why is she singing this shit to me. I’m already working on this. I know, I know. Why is she all up in my stuff?”
KF: It’s hilarious, oh wow.
BB: Okay, ready for rapid fire?
KF: I am ready for rapid fire.
BB: I have no doubt. Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…
KF: Vulnerability, for me, is communicating my needs and my boundaries even when it terrifies me to do so. [chuckle]
BB: Straight to the heart. Okay, one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so good, you need to share it with us or so shitty, you need to warn us.
KF: [laughter] Oh gosh, I’ve gotten some real bad ones. I’ll say the worst advice I’ve ever received. The worst advice that I’ve ever received as a artist was that I needed to look a certain way to be successful, and that didn’t mean in terms of my look, they said that I needed to lose about a 100 pounds to be successful. And I’ve been told on multiple times that I needed to lose weight to be successful, and the funny thing is, is that I think I was almost 100 pounds heavier than I was when the advice was given to me when I played Letterman, and so it kind of made me laugh to just say, “Fuck it” completely and still be successful. There are no rules to being a creative in terms of your look. I think it really is about what it is that you’re creating and the art that’s being put out there and how it’s being put out there, but yeah, there have been some really bad things said to me, and I’ll say that that’s up there. [laughter]
BB: God I hope everyone… Amen. I hope everybody’s listening, yeah. Okay, here’s a good one. I’m so curious about this one. What is the leadership lesson that the universe keeps putting in front of you because you have to keep re-learning it and re-learning it [laughter] and re-learning it?
KF: The leadership lesson that keeps being put in front of me over and over again is that I have to rest and take breaks and that I am not a machine.
BB: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you. You were cutting out, let’s go to the next one.
BB: Hot dang!
KF: And that there are consequences. There are consequences to not listening, and I…
KF: I think my last breakdown in December, I think I learned it. So, let’s hope that… Look, I got the water. You saw me.
BB: I saw you drinking water.
KF: You saw me drinking it, so yeah.
BB: I’m with you, so unfortunately in that boat. Okay, what is one thing that you’re super excited about right now?
KF: This interview. This interview.
BB: Oh yay!
KF: This interview. This interview. I’m excited about a lot of things. My record coming out, I’m excited about the tour but this interview is really… It’s very surreal, A, because we haven’t met…
BB: So weird.
KF: But when you launched this podcast, we had no real guidance in terms of what we wanted to do for our third record just yet, the vision hadn’t really happened. And we’d been working on these songs and we’d released “Take Me to the Good Times” and people were shitting on the song that… I was just like, “You’re incorrect, you’re incorrect, you’re incorrect.” I was like, “I know in my heart this is a hit, I know in my heart this is a hit, my music isn’t shared with you the way that you traditionally consume music, and that is fine,” but as an artist I was like, “This is a song about having a good time in cities, stop it. This is a fun song, stop it.” And I really just kind of shooed off the person that was kind of in my face about this, and then we get the email from your team about this, and I was like, “Wait, say what now?” And [chuckle] it was just like a little ray of sunshine and one of those little validation droplets that you don’t necessarily need but it really helps, it’s that sugar you’re talking about, right?
KF: And it helps you keep going so that’s really up there. So, this has been my excitement of the week and I really am so grateful to you for giving my band and me the opportunity to have our music introduced to so many different people by having it on your podcast. But also thank you for having me on here and I would be remiss to not shout out to Steve Watkins and Moorea Masa who helped me write “Take Me to the Good Times” and are also big fans of you as well, and yeah, just thank you so much and I hope we get to have you at a show sometime soon…
BB: Oh my God, yes.
KF: But we are definitely going to send you and your team the vinyl and all whatever we can and just thank you.
BB: Oh my God. Well, I feel the same way. The first minute I heard the song, I lost my mind.
KF: Thank you. Thank you.
BB: Yeah, I remember where I was. I started making calls… Barrett’s in the studio, my sister. Do you remember Barrett? I was like, “Listen to this song, Oh my God.” I still… One of my all-time favorite songs.
KF: Thank you. I love that. [laughter]
BB: No, I love it. Yeah, I love it. Okay, okay, this is going to be very interesting from you.
KF: Oh. [chuckle]
BB: We asked you for five songs you couldn’t live without…
KF: Okay, yes.
BB: For a mini mixtape. Are you ready?
BB: You gave us “Day Dreaming” by Aretha Franklin…
BB: “Si Una Vez” by Selena.
BB: “When Doves Cry” by Prince, “Distance” by Emily King and “Lose Control”, Missy Elliott featuring Ciara and Fatman Scoop.
KF: Yes. [chuckle]
BB: In one sentence, what does this mini mixtape say about Kam Franklin?
KF: This mini mixtape says that I’m real fun, I’m real emotional, and I like massive orchestration.
BB: We love all these things about you Kam, we love all these things about you.
KF: Thank you, thank you.
BB: Thank you so much for being on Dare to Lead. You are… You’re light.
KF: Thank you, so are you.
BB: So, my husband will come home sometimes and he’s like, “Mmm, Suffers, full blast, what’s going on?”
KF: Well, I have to tell you something before we finish this because I listened to one of your books a while ago, and I started gasping for air, laughing so hard because you were talking about the concept of time and how long things take, and I was just like, “Dang, I feel like… I feel like, I feel you on how long you think things take and I feel like time is just not keeping up with you and my friend told me that I was living in a fantasy land. But I just wanted to let you know that I do feel you on the concept of time being not the same as what everybody else’s when it comes to things finishing. So, yes.
BB: Thank you. I think you and I could get together; we can orchestrate something really complex, and we could pull it off in six weeks.
KF: And then both of our teams would gladly just have the popcorn and watching us do that and just… They’d be like, “All right girls, y’all do it. That’s great.”
BB: Yeah. We’ll be over here picking up the pieces.
KF: Yeah, anyway, this is great, thank you.
BB: Kam, thank you so much for everything you put in the world, it’s so moving…
KF: Thank you.
BB: And it’s amazing music, but it’s more than that too, so I’m grateful for that and I’m grateful for your activism and your speaking out even when your voice shakes because… I wasn’t going to say fearlessness, because I know that’s bullshit because I’m afraid all the time… Speaking out when you’re afraid, so…
KF: Thank you. Thank you.
BB: I think you’re an amazing person.
KF: Well, the feeling is mutual. Thank y’all so much for having me and yeah, I can’t wait to revisit [chuckle] this and listen to it, it’s very meta to me.
BB: Well, I’ll see you. And I will see you live at a show, now that things are getting safer and better, I’m ready.
BB: I loved this… What are your thoughts, Barrett?
Barrett Guillen: Well, number one, I can’t wait to go to a concert.
BB: Yeah, me too.
BG: And number two, I thought she had some really beautiful insight on what it means sometimes to step aside and learn from others as they lead.
BB: God, me too.
BB: That’s leadership, is staying quiet. Leadership is making the room quiet for people that are not the first and loudest to speak. I love that. You know, it’s so funny, the way The Suffers describe themselves as an American soul, funk, and R&B group from Houston, inspired by Cajun, African American, Mexican, and Caribbean influences, they not only shape our city, but define their sound as Gulf Coast soul. Leading that kind of magic making is so complex, and I think one of the things I’ve learned from Kam in this interview is she never forgets the joy in it. Even when it gets hard as hell, she doesn’t forget the joy in it. So I hope you enjoyed the conversation, I loved it. Her first single was released in 2021 in November, “Don’t Get Caught Sick” about America’s health care system, and then the new album, which… Oh my God, the songs on this album. It’s called Starts With Love, and it’s out on June 3rd. Oh, “I’m Not Afraid,” so good, “Take Me To The Good Times,” which is our podcast hero song, it’s on there, “Bitches Gotta Get Paid,” which she guessed was my anthem, which I thought was so perfect.
BB: You can learn everything about Kam and about The Suffers and about the new album and other things they are working on on brenebrown.com on the episode page for this podcast. We always keep everything on the episode pages. I’m glad you’re here. Stay awkward, brave, and kind and listen to this music going out, “Take Me To The Good Times” y’all, The Suffers. The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and Andy Waits, and the music is by The Suffers.
© 2022 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.