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The Political Power of Aretha Franklin

She was America’s voice, but her blackness and womanhood made her songs transcend music

Aretha Franklin

With her power, strength and voice, Aretha Franklin's music was inherently political.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Otis Redding knew that he had lost his song. During his legendary set at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, just months before his own death, Redding ceded ground to Aretha Franklin without even needing to utter her name. “This song is,” he panted, “a song that a girl took away from me. A good friend of mine.” Redding’s eyes and voice conveyed both his esteem for Franklin and the bitterness of his defeat at her hands. After his band signaled the 1-2-3 and he launched into “Respect,” he sounded like he was covering the very tune he originated.

The song is political either way. Sung by a man with Redding’s lyrics and cadence, “Respect” is the pleading of a black man to receive from his wife what he could not receive in a nation torn asunder by the racism of Jim Crow and its quieter cousins in the north. Franklin’s version speaks to the same dearth of recognition outside the black home — but as she sings them, the lyrics become a demand rather than a command. That gender-flip matters in a patriarchal America — after all, she is about to give him all of her money. Redding’s original version is about coping; Franklin, at the age of 24, turned it into an anthem for change, embraced by millions who fought for both racial and gender equality.

That didn’t happen on purpose. It didn’t need to. The blossoming of “Respect” into one of the most important songs that an American has ever sung is a reflection of how, unintentionally, blackness and womanhood becomes fodder for public debate and examination. We don’t mean to be political, but our skin is. Our bodies are. Even our voices. Franklin, taken by pancreatic cancer Thursday morning at the age of 76, was singular in that she contained our multitudes unlike any singer before her — both in her songs and in her skill. Her music spoke to the demand for equality along gender and racial lines simultaneously, knowing that one freedom could not exist without the other. The Queen of Soul was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, yet those two musical genres only hint at the breadth of her talent. It stretched from country to opera, and always back to gospel. But even as she sang to Americans in churches and concert halls, Franklin was never shy about reflecting black reality and encouraging those fighting for civil rights.

In 1970, as Franklin was nearing the height of her celebrity, the Black Power activist and philosophy professor Angela Davis stood accused of purchasing firearms used in a deadly attempt to help prisoners escape a courtroom in Marin County, California. Davis was an acknowledged Communist, and President Nixon had labeled her a “dangerous terrorist.” Jet magazine, in its December 3rd issue, reported that Franklin was offering to pay the bond for Davis, “whether it’s $100,000, or $250,000.” (Though Franklin put the bail money into escrow, she was out of the country, which prevented her from posting Davis’s bond. It was ultimately paid by a progressive white farmer named Rodger MacAfee, and Davis was later acquitted.)

The Queen’s offer was not an insignificant gesture. Franklin told Jet that her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin — an activist in his own right, and a role model for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. — disagreed with her willingness to free Davis, but she stuck to her convictions. “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free,” Franklin said. “I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a black woman and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”

Franklin did not consider herself an activist in the vein of Davis. Though she supported the Black Panthers and toured with Dr. King, she did not view her contributions as equivalent to theirs. She corrected CNN anchor Don Lemon in 2015 when he asserted that she’d been “on the front lines” of the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps she felt that her role was to sing the final notes of our victories, as she did during Barack Obama’s first inauguration, or our defeats, singing “Precious Lord” at Dr. King’s funeral. She also sang to urge us to remain steady on the route to freedom. Though she may have been humble about her contributions to that fight, she was there all along the way. Franklin sang America to black folks at a frequency that resonates in our bones.

Since the 1960s, nearly all African Americans have grown up with her voice being primary in our lives. Franklin articulated our experience through the common themes of love lost and gained, as well as respect sought. She did so in a way that was both digestible for the masses and uncompromising in its honesty about America, both past and present.

Her songs are universal, but Franklin became political because blackness is. Because womanhood is. And to borrow from Ossie Davis’s eulogy for Malcolm X, Franklin was our living black womanhood. Her power as an artist was not merely excelling at every single American musical form, but doing so in the cadence of our sisters, mothers and grandmothers. She created songs that were digestible for the pop charts in a voice that we recognized from the church choir, from those long-distance phone calls to Grandma’s — and now, even from the highest political pulpits in the land.

Lest we black people ever again lose our voices, hers will continue to guide us safely home. Miss Aretha’s voice was enjoyed by all, but she made sure that we knew how much she loved us.

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