Aretha Franklin is a singular figure in American culture. Her musical gifts were monumental. A child prodigy, she seemed to have emerged, like Athena, fully formed at birth, her talent already developed. Smokey Robinson recalled first hearing her sing when she was 4 years old. He noted that by age 7, Aretha played “big chords…complex church chords.” He told biographer David Ritz, that Franklin came out of the rich Detroit culture that produced so many musical greats, “but she also…came from a distant musical planet where children are born with their gifts fully formed.” That voice, so full of history and power, defined popular singing and set the standard for any who would aspire to her standing. She is, indeed, The Queen.
Shaped and refined in Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father, the legendary C.L. Franklin, reigned in the pulpit, she absorbed his rhythms and cadences as well as those of the black musical royalty who graced the sanctuary and visited the Franklin home: Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, and Clara Ward among them. She also absorbed and inherited their political sensibilities as well: an unapologetic blackness, a militant dignity, and the devotion to using their talent to further the cause of black freedom.
At the height of her fame in 1970, Franklin supported philosopher and revolutionary Angela Davis, a member of the Communist Party who had been accused of purchasing firearms used in the takeover of a court room in Marin County, California, and who was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. Franklin told Jet magazine that she wanted to post Davis’s bond, “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000.” Franklin’s father, himself a longtime civil-rights advocate, a confidante and surrogate for Martin Luther King Jr., discouraged her from doing so. Franklin asserted, “Well, I respect him, of course, but I’m going to stick by my beliefs. Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free.”
She explained that her support for Davis had nothing to do with Communism, “but because she’s a black woman and she wants freedom for black people.” Franklin noted that she had the money to post bond because she’d earned it from black people. She therefore wanted to use it “in ways that will help our people.” Ultimately, she was unable to post the bond because she was out of the country at the time. Instead, it was paid by Rodger McAfee, a progressive, white California farmer.
Davis, who has never met Franklin in person, told me yesterday that the singer was among her most prominent supporters. “Beyond the promise of financial support, the fact that she championed the cause of my freedom had a profound impact on the campaign,” Davis said, “Especially because her statement inferred that people should not fear being associated with a communist, rather they should be concerned about justice…. Her bold public call for justice in my case helped in a major way to consolidate the international campaign for my freedom.”
By 1970, when she expressed her support of Davis, Franklin had established herself with a string of hits including “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Ain’t No Way,” and “Think.” She was an international superstar, having received both critical acclaim and commercial success. Born just two years apart, Davis and Franklin represented the brilliance, militancy, and defiant beauty of their generation of black women. Franklin had no concern of losing her audience or future opportunities because of her support for a radical freedom fighter. She was protected by the times and her own sense of integrity and truth.
This is what we hear in Aretha’s voice. Truth. It is a voice that contains the spiritual and the field holler, the blues moan, gospel shout, and jazz improvisation. It is neither timid nor coy. It is sensually grounded and spiritually transcendent and completely lacking in contradiction. She excels at any form she tries, including opera. Aretha’s voice is America at its best. It also transcends national boundaries, invoking the West African cultures that gave birth to diasporic musical practices; it appeals to a global audience who appreciates her sound.
Franklin was the featured singer at Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Significantly, she did not sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” with its brash militarism. No, she sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” her voice soaring above the crowd on that historic day, reminding us of who we were and who we are capable of becoming. She claimed this nation for those of us who have experienced its underside—Native Americans, black Americans, Latinos, workers of all races, and the poor. That’s the nation of which she sang. She did so with blue notes, gospel flourishes, and operatic leaps. As such, she offered us a vision of a valiant history of struggle and aspirations for a future that we might build, a future as glorious and free as that magnificent voice. Even had she never articulated a commitment to struggles for civil rights and black freedom, through her artistry she contributed greatly to larger political and social movements.
Speaking of Franklin’s legacy, Davis reminds us that the political contributions of artists like Franklin need not be “measured by political interventions in the conventional sense.” She goes on to say, “Her creative work helped to shape and deepen a collective consciousness anchored in a yearning for freedom.”
One can hardly imagine a world without her voice. And, now, we have lost her. Just when we would need her most. At this time in history, our country is sinking deeper and deeper into the morass of racial hatred, gender violence, and untempered greed and corruption. Mendacity rules from the very top of our government, posing a danger to our democracy that has global, indeed planetary consequences. But we must stand tall against these forces, knowing that we had Aretha, we heard her, and thanks to the body of work she leaves behind, we can hear her still. More now than ever, we are in need of the truth and power of that voice. May we aspire to its integrity, beauty, power, and glory. May we be inspired by that woman, who stuck by her beliefs, and demanded respect for herself and her people with boldness and soul.