Aretha: In her voice, we could feel our history

Prodigy: Franklin recorded her first album, Songs of Faith, when she was just 14. © Getty

How should we remember Aretha Franklin — as a musician or a civil rights hero? The “Queen of Soul” died last week. She was one of the most celebrated and influential singers in history.

“You can hear Aretha’s influence across the landscape of American music, no matter the genre… If I’m stranded on a desert island, and have 10 records to take, I know she’s in the collection. For she’ll remind me of my humanity. What’s essential in all of us. And she just sounds so damn good.”

In 2016, Barack Obama wrote these words about Aretha Franklin, the Detroit diva and undisputed “Queen of Soul”. On Thursday, she died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76.

Tributes poured in. Lady Gaga wrote on Twitter that Franklin was an “angel of music”. Mariah Carey called her: “The Icon. The ultimate singers’ singer.”

In a 50-year recording career she racked up a dozen million-selling singles and earned 18 Grammy awards. Rolling Stone magazine rated her as the greatest singer of all time.

Elton John described Franklin’s style as “music from the heart, the soul and the church”. This reflects her upbringing. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, to a Baptist minister, her family soon moved north, first to Buffalo, and then to Detroit.

It was in Motown where she made her name. She was an instinctive musician, rejecting formal keyboard lessons as a child.

Franklin’s music became the sound of the civil rights movement that swept across America during the early stages of her career. Her father was the organiser behind the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom. Martin Luther King Jr was a frequent guest at their family home.

Her 1967 song Respect became the anthem of the campaign, and of the feminist movement. “Whenever women heard the record, it was like a tidal wave of sororal unity”, the song’s producer, Jerry Wexler, said.

As she rose in popularity, Franklin did not abandon her activism. Her contract in the 1960s included a clause stating that she would never perform for a segregated audience.

Despite her turbulent personal life, Franklin remained relevant until the very end. She sang the American patriotic song My Country, ’Tis of Thee at Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony in 2009.

Should she be remembered as a political figure or a musical one?

“Icon of all icons”

Franklin is inseparable from the momentous politics of America in the 1960s, say some. Every social movement needs its artists, and as congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis said: “Her music was deepened by her connection to the struggles and the triumphs of the African-American experience.”

She was a musician, first and foremost, argue others. Who could forget her “range, power and command, along with the innate ability to burrow into a lyric until she’d found the exact coordinates of its emotional core”, as The Washington Post’s obituary put it. Everyone loved her, regardless of their race or politics.

You Decide

  1. Are you a fan of Aretha Franklin?
  2. How should she be remembered?

Activities

  1. List your five favourite songs of all time. Are there any recurring themes or emotions that appear in all of them?
  2. Write a 500 word critical analysis of Aretha Franklin’s Respect.

Some People Say...

“We all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white. It’s our basic human right.”

Aretha Franklin

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Aretha Louise Franklin has died at the age of 76. She was known as the “Queen of Soul” and has been called one of the most significant singers in American history. From her beginnings as a child singing gospel at her father’s church she became an international superstar in the 1960s with songs like Respect, Chain of Fools and Spanish Harlem.
What do we not know?
How great a role music and other art forms really play in social movements. Some argue that they propel movements forward, energising people into taking action. Others believe that art simply reflects the era. We also do not know how long Franklin’s music will be remembered after those who lived through the civil rights movement have died.

Word Watch

Soul
Soul music originated in the late 1950s. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it: “If rock and roll, represented by performers such as Elvis Presley, can be seen as a white reading of rhythm and blues, soul is a return to black music’s roots — gospel and blues.”
Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis is located in the southern United States, where, until the civil rights movement, African-Americans were routinely discriminated against under the so-called Jim Crow laws.
Moved north
Franklin’s early life coincided with a period where millions of African-Americans left the poor, segregated South in search of jobs in the industrial North. This was known as the Great Migration.
Motown
Detroit is known as Motown thanks to its history as the centre of the US car industry.
Detroit Walk to Freedom
This was the the largest ever demonstration for civil rights in the US until the March on Washington later that year, when Martin Luther King Jr made his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Turbulent personal life
Both her marriages ended in divorce.

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