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Aretha Franklin: Entertainment Genius, Feminist and Social Activist

On August 16, 2018, the world lost one of the greatest singers of all time.

Aretha Louise Franklin, the Memphis-born, Detroit raised singer passed away at the age of 76. Franklin had one of the most distinguished voices ever. For more than half a century, her music etched itself into the popular culture as readily as the air we breathe and the water we drink. In essence, for many of us, it was an essential part of our lives. Her songs, nourished our minds, souls and body. After all, she was indeed the“ Queen of Soul!”

Aretha made you move, jump, snap your fingers, move your shoulders bob your head, shuffle your feet. In short, your entire body was invigorated at some level when Ms. Franklin sang. Indeed, I am one who sang out loud when listening to her music. You could dance to “Freeway of Love,” feel the intense authenticity of “Ain’t No Way,” or get your sensual groove on with “Baby I Love You.” and “Dr. Feelgood.” My personal favorite was “Angel.” Aretha knew how to touch your emotions. For some of us, listening to her music was like going to church.

In 1967, millions of American women cheered when she powerfully belted out the words R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Her vocal performance was so dynamic and powerful. “Respect” was originally recorded by Otis Redding. Redding’s song discussed how a woman should respond to and treat the man in her life. However, Franklin, with an undeniable maturity and unrestrained confidence, took Redding’s message, went on the offense and produced a revised version that became both a feminist and civil rights anthem. The song became a classic. After hearing Aretha’s version, Redding joked, “That girl stole my song.”

Aretha grew up in Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father, the legendary C.L. Franklin delivered powerful, in some cases, gut wrenching sermons from the pulpit. More than a few people believe that she adopted her father’s unflinching style in the manner that she sang. The young Aretha had the good fortune to grow up in an environment under the shadow of some of the most prominent Black singers and clergy of the mid 20th century. Dinah Washington, the legendary Mahalia Jackson (my grandmother’s favorite singer) and others were frequent visitors to the Franklin home and church. There is strong reason to assume that being in the presence of such strong, impervious, Black women accounted  for her unapologetic and fierce commitment to the cause of social justice in all its forms.

This was evident in 1970 when Aretha offered to post bail for Angela Davis, who at the time, was a member of the communist party, and had been charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and murder. Others advised her to avoid any association or interaction with Davis, who was seen by many people, including Aretha’s father, (who like others, was understandably concerned about potential repercussions for his daughters career) saw Davis as too controversial. Despite such warnings from friends and allies, Franklin ignored the naysayers and voiced strong support for Davis and offered to post her bail which was $250,000. Ultimately, she was unable to post bail for Davis due to the fact that she was traveling abroad at the time. Davis’ bail was posted by Rodger McAfee, a White California dairy farmer who harbored left wing political views.

While not overtly political, Franklin was astute to the power of her platform and used her voice  for more than just belting out songs and entertaining audiences. She was a proud and strong advocate  for the Black community, in particular, Black women. She employed her feminist activism sensibilities in a manner that produced real, concrete results. Unlike some artists  of color who are try to walk a middle line in a effort to not offend White sensibilities, she comfortably luxuriated in her authentic blackness in both her music and activism and did not apologize for it. With Aretha Franklin, the intersection of race and gender was real.

From the late 1960s up until he mid 1970s, she was  perennial force in the music industry and frequently dominated the charts and award shows. By the mid 1970s, her career cooled off somewhat and other Black female singers such as Roberta Flack, Freda Payne, Donna Summer and others were becoming equally popular with the public. The standstill was short lived  as she ferociously rebounded in the mid 1980s with chart topping hits such as “Freeway of Love,” “Jump To It” and “I Knew You’d Be Waiting for Me,” with the late George Michael. In later years, she was a routine presence at many significant venues. She performed for three U.S. presidents and sang for Pope Francis in 2015. Who can forget her spellbinding, tour de force performance that bought the house down at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors where she sang her iconic “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” as she paid tribute to Carole King.

Yes, there will be future singers and performers endowed with exceptional talent, but the undisputed truth is that Aretha Franklin was one of a kind. As I see it, there will never be another performer like her. The sounds of heaven are a lot more soulful now as Aretha sings with her new angelic family. Rest in peace Ms.Franklin.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African American Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University. 

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