If you’d ask me as a child if I liked Aretha Franklin’s music, I’d probably say no. As an ‘80s baby who was obsessed with ‘90s R&B, Aretha’s voice wasn’t the one I obsessively listened to in my Walkman. Still, I knew her.
I could hear her in the way my mother played the piano at our church. I felt her in the way the women in the choir moaned and hummed and shouted through “Precious Lord.” I saw her in my grandmother’s Sunday best. Aretha Franklin was ingrained so deeply in my childhood, she couldn’t be ignored.
And yet…I came to her music once I’d gotten a little life under my wings. Once I understood why R-E-S-P-E-C-T was such a vital commodity, and once I needed — and wanted — to feel like a “Natural Woman.” To me, Aretha felt like the old heads at the family reunion you politely greet, but aren’t trying to spend time with…until you do. Then you realize they’ve seen it all, done even more, and have the super juicy stories to tell about it.
After learning about her life I could hardly wrap my head around it. In 1958, during the early days of the civil rights movement, she toured the country with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Back then she was just 16, and traveling through the South during very dangerous times. A few years ago, she remembered one harrowing moment that left everyone shook.
“One evening, we were down in Texas and I was sitting in the choir stand behind the pulpit, and there was a loud bang and everyone thought someone had shot in the church,” she recalled. “Dr. King dropped down behind the pulpit, I dropped down in the choir stand on the floor. Folks were scattering everywhere. But they found out later that something had happened to the fan in the back of the house that made it go off like that. We had some evenings!”
Ten years after heading out with Dr. King, Aretha sang at his funeral, bringing the church and the country to its knees with her powerful voice.
Aretha was more than a singer. She was more than a musician. She was a force. Some have called her a diva, but as a Black woman who grew up in a time when our voices weren’t always valued, Aretha wasn’t just going to sing about respect, she was going to get it from everyone around her, too. When she performed, she didn’t wait around for a check. Instead, Aretha wanted her money on the spot…in cash.
“It’s the era she grew up in — she saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, get ripped off,” Tavis Smiley told the New Yorker in 2016 about her peculiar practice. “There is the sense in her very often that people are out to harm you. And she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her.”
In an interview that same year, Aretha made her philosophy on respect even more plain: “I give it and I get it. Anyone that I don’t get it from does not deserve my time or attention.”
Still, Aretha wasn’t afraid of change. Her appearance in the 1980s hit film, The Blues Brothers, is legendary, and she continued to work with some of the biggest names in music from Luther Vandross and George Michael to Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill.
Aretha has done it all; stepping in for Pavarotti to sing “Nessun Dorma,” performing for presidents, the Pope, and singing for a fellow queen (Elizabeth II, to be exact). But she remained close to her roots, choosing to stay in Detroit when many stars of her caliber would have decamped to the coasts. Perhaps her loyalty to the Motor City was born of mere nostalgia, it was where her beloved father, C.L. Franklin, set up his church. But it was also where Aretha was taught to love us.
“Daddy had been preaching Black pride for decades, and we as a people had rediscovered how beautiful black truly was and were echoing, ‘Say it loud, I’m Black, and I’m proud,’” she said.
In her later life, Aretha preferred to stay out of the limelight, surrounding herself with family and close friends and only performing when she wanted to. Through it all, however, her spirit and her light remained undimmed, even when her health began to fail. Aretha once reportedly said, “The man who gets me is getting one hell of a woman.”
Thankfully, we were blessed to get her too.