“I, too, sing America.” —Langston Hughes. Her words cried, they cried for her, they cried for us. From Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, to the presidency of Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter, there has been Aretha Franklin. She was not only the voice of America, but also its heart, its guts, its joy, and, yes, its sorrow songs. I cannot recall when I was introduced to her music, but Aretha, or “Ree Ree” as she is affectionately called by Black folks, has always been there. It was my mother who taught me about her, about her supernatural powers. Aretha, now gone at age 76, is one year older than my mother, and my ma, like far too many women, tragically, has known ugly torrential storms with names like sexism and heartbreak and sickness.
Like Ms. Franklin, my mother has been ill the past few years. Like Ms. Franklin, my mother has had her share of trauma, pain, loneliness. Like Ms. Franklin my mother has had to fight off no-good men and unequal treatment, professionally, privately, only because she is a woman. Like Ms. Franklin was, my ma is resilient, strong, determined to live and be true to herself, to the final breath.
My mother does not sing. Aretha does, for her, for the masses of people throughout the world. Perhaps that is why my mother’s favorite album ever is Amazing Grace, the stunningly classic gospel compilation Aretha recorded live in the early 1970s. It is there that we hear Aretha Franklin rip apart every single word she utters, like a guardian angel, and delivers us reborn, baptized, for a brand-new day.
Alas, how would I describe the voice of Aretha Franklin? It is the mighty work of the God she believed in fiercely, with the Lord’s nimble fingers scooping chocolate-brown mud from the earth and shaping it into a hypnotizing human trumpet. That trumpet, like the trumpet of unknown Black Civil War soldiers who helped to create jazz. That trumpet, like the elastic rhythms of Louis Armstrong, Valaida Snow, and Dizzy Gillespie. That trumpet, like the unknown Black women of yesterday, today, tomorrow, in their living rooms, at their places of work, in their bathrooms, on their porches or their stoops, at their sanctified churches, harmonizing the entire history of a people, through dreams and danger, through heaven and hell, through freedom and fried chicken, through love and liberation.
Perhaps this is why, on a very recent road trip to our family roots in the Low Country of South Carolina, my mother requested my wife and I play “Amazing Grace” as we drove. With so much happening in America, including the terrible possibility of our being pulled over by the police along the route, there was Aretha promising us we could make a way out of no way. Because Aretha Franklin, in her essence, is not just a storyteller, but also a healer, one of unparalleled genius. Her inflections, her wails, yes, are the cure-all potion for us, if only we’d listen to the words, and listen, even, to the silent spaces between her words.
This is why Aretha is a goddess to a multi-cultural and multi-generational march of women when she belts “Respect.” That tune made her, instantly, a feminist champion. And she was a champion for Dr. King and Civil Rights. And she was a champion for legendary activist Angela Davis. And she has been a champion for Elton John and his crusade against AIDS. While she may have never made very outwardly political or socially conscious music, for the most part, there is no denying that “Respect” was and remains one of the signature anthems for women’s empowerment, and easily a one-song soundtrack, in these times, for the #MeToo movement.
This is also why men like me love her because in her music Aretha has not only taught me to hear and listen to women, but to also understand toxic manhood, and what it does to women, and to us men as well. I do not ever want my wife to feel the depths of anguish that jolts me every single time I hear “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” That song is my mother’s life, beginning with my father. Because of Aretha, I do not want to be my father, I do not want to be, ever again, any man who would bring a woman, any woman, such great despair.
Moreover, it can never be stated too much the unlimited impact of spirituality, of the Black church, on the earthquake-like tremors in Aretha Franklin’s voice. There, additionally, in her royal purse were these ingredients: slave field hollers, the blues, bebop, rock and roll, and the electrifying vocal acrobatics of Black preachers like her daddy, Reverend C.L. Franklin. Artists like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding may be the founding fathers of soul music, but Aretha was not only its founding mother but also its midwife and perennial Olympic champion. She is the gold standard by which any other singer of any era and any genre of music is forever measured. She was, arguably, the best singer ever.
That is because Aretha Franklin forced us to understand the soul of America, the soul of Black America, because of the raw nakedness in her voice’s yearning. She comes from a grand tradition, one which includes Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Big Mama Thornton before her. And, quite obviously, there would have not been a Whitney Houston, a Lauryn Hill, an Amy Winehouse, an Adele, an Ariana Grande, a Jennifer Hudson, or a Beyoncé, without the towering influence of Aretha Franklin. Not only was she universally hailed as the Queen of Soul, but Aretha Franklin is indisputable proof that American music is Black music and vice versa. Then, now, eternally, you simply cannot have one without the other. For as long as things like hate and violence and division and a lack of compassion fester in our America, there will be Aretha Franklin giving color and texture and meaning to what we witness, to what we endure.
And we must not forget that she was a self-taught folk artist, in every sense of the phrase. Aretha is among the countless African Americans who never had formal vocal training but were bestowed, from birth, with the ability to sing. Aretha could not read music, either, but she instructed herself, from childhood on, how to play the piano, and became an underrated master at that. We also must not forget that her first recordings happened when she was still a youthful prodigy as a teenager in the 1950s, or that her first major label deal, in the 1960s, did not yield any big hits, but did cement her endless love affair with jazz music, with Broadway numbers, with classical music, nurturing in the process a creative giant who would become, over the span of six decades, a bridge-builder, a unifier, a global ambassador across race and gender and gender identity and class and any other boundaries that segregate the human race. Yes, the Queen of Soul was a direct manifestation of Dr. King’s dream, one spoon-fed, relentlessly, in the Black experience to the very end, but who belonged to us all.
I recall only seeing Aretha Franklin perform live once in my life, at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans in the early 2000s. As we say, church was all up in her that night. She lifted herself from the piano, she kicked off her shoes, and she danced the way I remember church folks swaying and hopping and chanting and sweating when I was a child: in that moment Aretha’s life-long balancing act between “God’s music” and pop music laid fully exposed, and she did not care; in that moment put on pause was the fact that Aretha Franklin first became a parent at age 12, a second time at age 14, and was married by age 19 to her first husband, a pimp and a businessman, who allegedly beat her savagely for years, sometimes in public; in that moment put on pause was the fact that her own daddy had fathered a baby, while married to Aretha’s mother, with a 13-year-old girl in his hugely popular church; in that moment put on pause was the fact that Aretha’s mother took her son from a previous marriage, left Reverend C.L. Franklin and Aretha and her sisters and other brother, left their adopted hometown of Detroit, went to Buffalo, New York where the Queen of Soul’s mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, would die but a few years later, at the tender age of 34, they say from a heart attack, but just as likely from the sort of massive heartbreak Aretha Franklin would suffer through in her own life; and Aretha, on that New Orleans stage, could have easily been my mother, back home in the kitchen with the radio piped up and the grits bubbling in an old pot, alone, talking to herself, talking with the spirit of her mother, talking in tongues with Jesus, lost in the music, completely, with sadness shoved aside by a ferocious ecstasy that only a Black woman who done seen some things could understand. And feel.
Finally, a couple of weeks before we got word that Aretha Franklin was gravely ill, I spent one sleepless night watching an old documentary about her on YouTube. How and why I landed there, I do not know. It was about the first magical year of her enormous success, and there she is, shy, baby-faced, being hailed as a game-changer in the world of American music. And there is Dr. King, friend of her father’s and friend of hers, proudly presenting Aretha with a special award. Ain’t no way Aretha Franklin could have known what she would become, what her life would become, what it would mean to America, to the entire planet. That a Black girl from Detroit’s working-class community, because of her great natural gift, could grow up to be a queen, forever.
Kevin Powell is the author of 13 books, including his newest title, My Mother. Barack Obama. Donald Trump. And the Last Stand of the Angry White Man. It is a collection of blogs and essays about America, past, present, future. You can order it now via Amazon or Barnes & Noble. You can email Kevin, [email protected], or follow him on Twitter, @kevin_powell.