Unless you’re discussing her status as a blues-rooted, Queen of Soul, Aretha Louise Franklin wanted you to keephername out ofyourmouth. I can hear her now, whispering the word “hush” while the rest of us try to make sense of her passing—the way Black ladies at church do when you’re asking for a peppermint during the pastor’s sermon.
With Aretha, we were constantly in the grown folks business zone having to tread lightly when approaching her none public life with curious eyes. Knowing Aretha, if you asked her where she was going, she might have responded “to see a man about a dog.”
I found out Aretha was officially gone while my partner and I were traveling through Mexico and in that moment I was confronted with the fact that nobody—nobody—understands Aretha like Black folks do. Aretha’s throat was a motherland. Honey to protect it.
Folks can love and appreciate her all day and some of her best friends (and collaborators, like Jerry Wexler) were white, but the hidden transcripts in her voice and the music theory in her hands remain Black cultural wonders of the world.
“Nobody—nobody—understands Aretha like Black folks do. Aretha’s throat was a motherland. Honey to protect it.”
She was a daughter of Black Detroit and the Black church; her childhood home was a resting place for civil rights activists and she was born under the fiery sign of Aries. Plus, she got people from Mississippi. That’s enough information to understand the basics.
Aretha didn’t take no shit and the gospel giants that found faith or visited her father C.L. Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Church like Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker and the Caravans—and of course the late James Cleveland (we’ll get back to Watts in a minute)—played a major role in cultivating the universe that was her ear.
Most of what she wanted us to know, she gave us through the glory attached to each note that left her body through song. She wanted her music to do the talking and her legacy to shield her from the kind of sensationalized personal trauma and public humiliation that plagues the lives of far too many artists. But Aretha was masterful in protecting her truth; a private force of nature.
And perhaps outside of singing, crafting the narrative around her life was a trade secret that social media audiences cram to understand. She’s from an era where sharing your most precious or darkest emotions was not something you did within an instant, broadcasting to millions.
This fierce protection was sometimes seen as part of “Aretha the diva.” but sometimes the word diva just won’t do. It’s used way too often as a shortcut to understand the complexities of personality, but also to negatively frame women/femme artists who know and demand what they need (or don’t need).
So if by “diva” you mean she had high standards, assertiveness, a willingness to be confrontational when the stakes were high, and a clarity of vision accompanied by the skills to see it through, then yes, Ms. Franklin was a diva. She also reclaimed the word, releasing an album with the word “Diva“as part of the title.
And of course (in my mind), she was that fun but messy aunt who talked shit about your potato salad one moment, and then turned around and complimented your new dress the next. But the thing about Auntie Ree, as Whitney Houston grew up calling her, was that she was known for opting to say both things to your face. And she earned that. 60 years is a long time to hold one of the longest records of Black excellence, and Aretha, sometimes through the performance of divine shade, ordered us to watch her throne, and as loyal subjects we did.
“60 years is a long time to hold one of the longest records of Black excellence, and Aretha, sometimes through the performance of divine shade, ordered us to watch her throne, and as loyal subjects we did.”
Take her covers for example.
I’m not a huge fan of the Beatles, but I will spend the rest of my life listening to “Eleanor Rigby.” My love for the song is so serious that for I spent hours compiling a publicplaylistfeaturing 43 covers of the classic. It’s that gorgeous a song to me, but Aretha’s version, next to Ray Charles’, is part of why she deserves a state funeral. It’s not enough that in 1985 her voice was declared a natural resource by Michigan or that her work found itself being honored in the UK Hall of Fame or even that she’s a high school drop out with multiple honorary degrees from Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the HBCU Bethune Cookman, along with other institutions.
For this cover of “Eleanor Rigby” and for the work she’s left behind to make ourselves better people, Dr. Aretha Franklin should be given the rights to the song. Her phrasing on the opening verse challenges the very question of intellectual property.
Brilliant in her vocal runs, scats, and flirtatious taunting of classical music, Aretha was a musician and her work on the piano functioned like an extension of her limbs. Like Nina Simone, she gets denied the title “genius” and like Nina, she’s remembered primarily as a vocalist. Instrument as accessory.
But no, the truth is, both were well accomplished composers and pianists; Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famers with decades of brilliance, radical fashion, and African cornrows like fractals moving between them.
It makes sense that Aretha met Lorraine Hansberry and Nina Simone at the intersection of politicized art with her 1972 release of the albumYoung Gifted & Black.
Now, let’s travel to Amsterdam to get back to Watts.
I spent time visiting with feminist scholar Gloria Wekker in Amsterdam last month and as I scanned her prized library, I noticed the two-disc double platinum album on one of her shelves. Aretha was placed graciously between Surinamese literature and social theory. And although Aretha hated flying and never flew to the Netherlands again after a 1968 concert appearance, Dr. Wekker and I agreed that this live recording was our favorite Aretha album. Transnational feminist funk. Diasporic appeal.
When Aretha stepped into New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, California in January of 1972, to record a live album, she had no idea that this return to the gospel would become the most revered work in her career.A global staple for Black women and church goers, and soul enthusiasts, and humans with hearts.
The idea behind this recording wasto silence the judgement around Aretha’s secular and sensual movement, and to make space for her Sam Cooke-ian approach to religious music rebellion—and judging by the energy in the room, Los Angeles knew it was going to be a part of history. (The session was set to be released as a documentary film directed by Sydney Pollack, but Aretha halted the project with a last-minute injunction.)
Mr. James Cleveland, musical director of the famed session, was a close friend of C.L. Franklin. At one point Cleveland lived in the Detroit family home with the Franklins, giving a young Aretha access to the gospel greats like Albertina Walker and The Caravans.
As an LA teenager I grew up hearing murmurs about his sexuality and the homophobic speculation around his death. The philandering of the Rev. C.L. Franklin was also discussed behind closed doors. Very little has been written to explore these questions (save for the unauthorized tell-all biography penned by David Ritz and hated by Mother Franklin,) but the shadows are now permanently woven into the brilliance.
“I love gospel because gospel is disco, and I love disco because house music is gospel. Full circle.”
I didn’t grow up in the church, but I love gospel because of Aretha Franklin’s conviction and delivery throughout this album. I listen to it regularly while high on weed to honor all that Black church contradiction. I love gospel because gospel is disco, and I love disco because house music is gospel. Full circle.
So, because Aretha planted a part of her soul in Watts, I landed on dance floors with the understanding that house music in all of its queer kicks and whistles is a gift from the Black church, and queer people are a gift to the Black church. That said, we can’t escape congregation secrets, the kinds of stories that made an epic novel of the Color Purple; secrets that ask uncomfortable questions of Black church-going people.
Four to the floor. Deacons, Usher fans, and splits.
To be a Queen of Soul is to be the mother of a global village of people shaped by what you’ve been born to do. I am a child of Aretha and by child, I mean a student of her intuitive knowledge of music as a science. Music as math. She mastered the syncopated sound of Black life in America. Movement from place. Detroit. New York. Los Angeles and back again to Detroit.
The question of migration and home and spaces where we feel wanted have been soundtracked through her entire career. Regional rhythm and histories that can only be found in the silent points in her songs. For Aretha, I am committing to living inside her music for the next year—easy for me because I revisit her music so often, but this time with new ears. Aretha’s passing feels like a charge for black women to write these histories into existence beyond our posts.
After the Facebook processions, let’s do the work (in all its forms), to correct the record and protect the narratives that leave black women with dignity. And while we’re at it, let’s say thank you, ’cause we owe Detroit.