On a cold day in February, Martin Luther King Jr. surprised Aretha in Detroit to present her with a special award on behalf of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference while she was in town to be honored with her own day, “Aretha Franklin Day”, by the mayor. Too sick to speak, King actually didn’t need to: Even by 1968, at only 26 years old, Aretha was already considered a living legend by many people in the black community. Her songs — a mixture of faith, love, blackness, pride, pain and community — had already played pivotal roles in serving as the soundtrack to the black experience, and most notably the black woman’s. Her voice carried the pail for so many black Americans; when you heard her sing, you felt as though many of our stories were gathered into her voice.
On an even colder day in April 1968, five days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been slain in Aretha’s birth town of Memphis, Tennessee, she stood before a crowd of black mourners at his memorial service in Atlanta. A sea of anguish washing around her, Franklin’s rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was true to the movement, the moment and the memories for so many black Americans. Franklin understood the importance of answering the call of times bigger and greater than your circumstances, and so she sang at the Ebenezer Baptist Church not only to serenade King to the next life, but to also gather the pain of a nation and funnel it into her voice in that moment. Years later she shared that her time with King, who she traveled the country with on his voting rights campaign, “forever changed” her life.
Her hair coiffed and lightly hanging, she leans in front of a collection of microphones and seems to breathe in the pain of a nation and push it out to somewhere beautiful and higher. Her transcendence in that moment wasn’t about transcending race as much as it was about bridging us between disparate worlds: sadness to hope; fury to faith; injustice and love. Her voice did as it would do for nearly 60 years — rise above the music and the boundaries of notes, and bring us along with it. In that performance, she reminded the nation of the enduring dignity, power and composure of the Civil Rights Movement, embodying in it not only the importance and permanence of the pursuit of equality, but that the destination seemed destined and not only dreamt.
She was tireless, fearless, and prideful and her voice must be considered an endless march in itself, giving black Americans a means to still take steps forward amid the backdrop of the hoses, boycotts, burnings and bombings during a height of injustice. Because of some of those darkest moments, churches themselves became places of sanctuary to process our pain and to collectively heal before stepping out into a cruel, violent world. Aretha, raised in a Detroit church by the ministry and actions of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, famous in his own right as a minister and civil rights activist, knew the power of all this.
Aretha’s voice sang across decades of change and turmoil for black America; the sound of it often a beacon to our better progress as men and women, brothers and sisters. Its malleable power is often couched in her ability to cross genres — from gospel to pop to R&B to opera — but arguably its true power was in its capacity to tell each of our stories, reaching down into us in our everyday places. Her music was soulful and workmanlike; bluntly honest, humbly strong.
Aretha sang across generations of discord, bringing harmony and life to everyday aspects of Black American life. While she sang to us all, she most often sang to the Black woman and so you can imagine her songs drifting in and out of the kitchens, warehouses, backs of buses, churches, her songs sitting on the lips of scores of sisters who sang or hummed tunes of love and respect, heartbreak and strength to each other, creating a choir of black pride, love, sexuality and femininity inside of songs that would not only spur confidence, but an endless loop of voices.
Her voice sank into the kitchens and concert halls, marches and warehouses of a black America, still disjointed from a wider American story; the power of it rarely needing music to substantiate it. Her songs — ”Respect,” “Natural Woman,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Think” — and the ones she owned as if her own — like “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Change is Gonna Come” — danced in and out of gender and race, love and pride all the time. Her voice was more than a beautiful instrument; it was a constant testimony to black humanity, meeting even the most closed hearts and opening them to our experience. That her songs were anthemic was a testament to her owning every song as if it were a journal of their own private feelings, hopes, desires and visibility. No other voice had this powerful mixture of community, identity, faith and blackness that enriched every note.
On a cold day in January 2009, almost 40 years after “Precious Lord,” Aretha performed “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” before a national mall crowd numbering in the thousands at Barack Obama’s inauguration. In that moment, the mall was transformed into a national church service of sorts, and Aretha, now channeling everything from the stories of black Detroit, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the debilitating crack epidemic of the 1980s, once again inhabited a song and transcended its original meaning. With “America,” Aretha’s performance became an entendre to the American and black American experience; her voice again bridging a seemingly intractable divide that looked to be erased with the first black president. In a song that speaks of a “land where my fathers died,” “freedom” and “liberty,” it took on a heavier, political meaning than its historical import to us all, and became all the more moving as she sang before a throng of Americans that similarly never thought they’d see such a day.
Obama, a long time fan of Aretha, was always moved by her presence; along the campaign trail in Detroit or at Franklin’s soul-stirring 2015 Kennedy Center Honors performance that literally moved him to tears, he was amongst the many cowed by the power of Aretha’s voice.
In that moment, she bridged history in a new way; joining generations of blacks gathered on the national mall to bear witness to a sort of pact being met. In a crowd that likely included Black Americans who remembered the death and her performance for Dr. King Jr. and the role she played in the Civil Rights Movement, as well
After news of her passing spread on Thursday, Obama shared his sentiments. “America has no royalty”, the former president shared over social media, “But we do have a chance to earn something more enduring….Aretha may have passed on to a better place, but the gift of her music remains to inspire us all.” In the wake of her legacy, she leaves a mark on the continuing tradition of the American black woman as storyteller and truth-teller; as someone relegated to the margins of American society and, therefore, often able to see a bigger picture of who we actually are and have the capacity and obligation to become. In the absence of justice, there is often art to guide us to our better selves, and so for decades there was Aretha, and her voice, which during our darkest, weakest, happiest and hardest times consistently reached out and said: through the storm and through the night, take my hand.