“Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade — our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.” — Statement from President and Mrs. Obama on the death of Aretha Franklin, Aug. 16
If you could choose one artist to embody the African-American experience of the 20th century, it would have to be the incomparable Miss Aretha Franklin.
In exchange for her prodigious talent, the American audience gave Franklin 20 No. 1 R&B hits and 17 Top 10 Pop singles. She won 18 Grammy Awards and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award. She was the first women inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors. And while Americans are well-known for their anti-aristocratic strain, she was universally crowned and internationally known and revered as the Queen of Soul.
But Franklin was more than the sum of awards she amassed over her six-decadeslong career. Her voice, sweeter than honey, became the soundtrack of a tumultuous time in American history when African Americans, women and other marginalized communities were fighting for equality and justice. Her music demanded R-E-S-P-E-C-T when far too little of it was being shown to women and people of color for far too long.
The song, “Respect,” was a minor hit for Otis Redding. According to an autobiographer, once Franklin “deconstructed and reconstructed” it, this two-minute and 30-second song became her signature, forcing Redding to later admit, “The girl has taken that song from me.”
Recorded on Valentine’s Day in 1967, what was originally Redding’s demand to an unfaithful lover transformed into a soul anthem for social justice. It was an anchor in the constant ebb and flow of achievements and setbacks — a touchstone that intersected any and all movements, bridging any perceived divides.
Explaining why “Respect” resonated with so many seemingly disparate groups of people, Franklin wrote in her autobiography that, “It was the need of the nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher — everyone wanted respect.”
Using her craft to create change was likely inherited. Aretha Louise Franklin was the daughter of Barbara Siggers Franklin, a celebrated gospel singer and pianist, and C.L. Franklin, a gifted pastor with a radio broadcast who was popularly known as “the man with the million-dollar voice.” She was raised by her father, a man who preached Black pride and befriended Martin Luther King Jr. The Franklin household was filled with two things: music and politics, and all these influences found their way into Franklin’s art and advocacy.
Franklin was a familiar and comfortable with the movement for civil rights as she was with keys on a piano. She performed at rallies for Dr. King in an effort to fundraise for the movement. Later, she would also sing at his funeral, performing “Precious Lord,” a song Dr. King asked Franklin to perform on countless occasions before his assassination. Like her father, her voice became central in the civil rights movements, with many adding “Respect” and her 1968 hit “Think” to the canon of pivotal protest anthems.
Franklin’s presence and popularity were not limited to the ’60s or ’70s. Whether she was warning freshmen that college was a different world than where they came from, feeling like a “Natural Woman,” riding on the “Freeway of Love,” or performing a stirring rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” during Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, multiple generations have its version of Franklin to celebrate and rediscover.
Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, where she will be laid to rest, Franklin ultimately became an American treasure. Today, heaven may have the Queen of Soul, but forever, forever and ever she — and her music — will stay in our hearts.
Morial is president of the National Urban League.