Kirk was born Ronald Theodore Kirk in Columbus, Ohio, but felt compelled by a dream to transpose two letters in his first name to make Roland. In 1970, Kirk added Rahsaan to his name.
Preferring to lead his own groups, Kirk rarely performed as a sideman, though he did record with arranger Quincy Jones, Roy Haynes and had especially notable stints with Charles Mingus. He played the lead flute and solo on Jones' Soul Bossa Nova, a song popularized in the Austin Powers films (Jones 1964; McLeod et al. 1997).
His playing was generally rooted in soul jazz or hard bop, but Kirk's knowledge of jazz history allowed him to draw on many elements of the music's history, from ragtime to swing and free jazz. Kirk also regularly explored classical and pop music.