Three days later, it hit me. I began to cry, particularly in watching her later performances.
The peace i initially felt upon hearing of her transcendence has turned into sadness. Sometimes grief is inexplicable; we grieve when people we love and admire physically leave. My grief is not related to her physical absence though… Because again, knowing she had been ill for some time, i feel (again) peace in knowing she is at peace.
So while i have cried, marveling at her voice over the many years listening to her (Her renditions of I Say A Little Prayer and Bridge Over Troubled Water do that for me in particular); the tears i have now shed are reflections upon the admiration for the strength in her frailty. While we have seen Miss Aretha over the years demand respect for her privacy; to watch her body in the very public process of wearing down is something which connects us as living beings. If indeed she was diagnosed with (pancreatic) cancer in 2010, for her to once again sing Nessun Dorma in 2015 (an improvement upon the surprise 1998 performance); to watch Carole King gaze with wonder and love at Miss Aretha’s performance in dedication to her (also in 2015), and to see many of her appearances in between… Aretha Franklin stood strong, amidst all the trials.
i cry because she was a symbol of strength for many- not only in her music being used as an oft-noted symbol of the civil rights struggle, but she was persistent in an industry which still tends to silence (or make tertiary, if you will) women’s voices. Respect was not just a song she covered (and made her own); she demanded money up front (in cash) before she performed. She carried that money in a purse, and brought it everywhere with her. If she did not like a question an interviewer asked, she would opt to move on.
As a child i remember the red, white black and green Atlantic label going ’round and ’round the turntable, as Aretha’s bright voice emanated from the speakers: Close Your eyes, and meditate on Him… I’m gonna sing, I might shout this evening… When you walk through the storm; hold your head… Hold it up high. Don’t you be afraid of the dark… Get your courage together, and walk on! Though i’ve heard a numerous amount of her earlier ‘hits’ by the time i heard these words, it was the Amazing Grace album that my mother kept in rotation. Just like the fros on the Jackson 5’s Moving Violation, i was enamored with Aretha’s full African garb and bare feet, strolling by a fountain.
“The blues is a music born out of the slavery day sufferings of my people,” she once said. Hers was a voice that consistently evoked the blues, but it wasn’t just a voice of lament. She recognized and accepted the responsibility of her role, and opted towards mobilization efforts in the civil rights movement. While many in this day and age look at feminism primarily a ‘White women’s movement that Black people need not be involved in,’ Aretha Franklin (like Amy Jacques Garvey and many before her) took note of the intersections of oppression affecting African women, long before Kimberlye Crenshaw coined the term. About women, she stated,“We have the power. We are very resourceful. Women absolutely deserve respect. I think women and children and older people are the three least-respected groups in our society.” And of course, there’s Aretha’s cries of “Equal pay/hear what we say” and “Thank you, I’ll get it myself,” in Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, the duet with Annie Lennox/The Eurythmics. The same issues exist to this day, but still, had the song been released today it would be considered an ‘SJW, evil feminist anthem.’
Try saying that to Aretha Franklin, to her face.
While she held different political views than Angela Davis; she knew that racism and white supremacy targeted African people, regardless of political or spiritual affiliation. Any public support of the Panthers (or any other anti-capitalist or pro-African groups) meant you were targeted, yet Miss Aretha still lent a firm public voice of support towards Angela Davis, offering to put up money for Ms. Davis’ bond, after her arrest in 1970, against the wishes of her well-known father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin. Around this time she did an interview in Jet magazine, (in which biographer David Ritz recalls in Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin):
“Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free…. 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.”
In the midst of writing this piece i read that another great sister in the African liberation struggle has transcended. Zondeni Sobukwe, the ‘Mother Of Azania’, was the wife of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC). While there’s a more than a bit of information regarding Nelson Mandela’s fight against the apartheid regime (and even more on his post-prison life as president); very few people outside of Azania (or those who study and/or identify with Pan-Africanism) discuss Robert Sobukwe, who since his 1960 arrest after the protests of the ‘pass law’ remained imprisoned, tortured and isolated by the apartheid regime until his physical transition (from cancer) in 1978. a ‘Sobukwe Clause’ (as it became known) was created, so as to extend his detention, long after the three years he was to serve ended. If Robert Sobukwe is not known to many, and if Mama Winnie Mandela’s organization and mobilization efforts are not well known, you can imagine how marginalized Mama Zondeni’s voice became, outside of those who knew her works. She fought against the forces of oppression in Azania (South Africa), among them the Truth And Reconciliation Commission. She led marches against the targeting of African nurses by racist employers. She fought, along with her husband, for the return of land to African people – and there’s very little information about these works. She ultimately rests in the shadow of her husband, despite her outliving him by decades. She worked tirelessly (as a nurse and activist) to advocate for her husband’s health and freedom, and getting him out of Robben Island (where he was placed in solitary). The work she did has barely been acknowledged. The ANC has all but ignored her over the years, and due to the outpouring of grief from the masses, they did give a statement, stating that she was “a struggle stalwart in her own right, she endured pain, rejection and immense suffering visited on her by the racist apartheid regime which she overtly challenged through her writings, demanding the release ofher husband who was incarcerated by the illegitimate regime”.
They, of course, had to show their true intention of self-importance, by stating that “Mama Zondeni was this year bestowed with the National Order of Luthuli for her anti-apartheid activism”. This is not unlike reluctantly giving Martin Luther King Jr. a holiday after the mass outcry, knowing well that you were the one who had a hand in his murder.
People in Azania who lived under the apartheid regime not only connected, like many, with ‘Respect’; they recognized defiance and resilience in her duet with George Michael, ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’. Released in 1987, apartheid was still under full swing, so an interracial duet was considered taboo. Miss Aretha was also open in her support for the end of that oppressive regime. It was the lyrics, however, which gave people hope:
Like a warrior that fights
And wins the battle
I know the taste of victory
Though I went through some nights
Consumed by shadows
I was crippled emotionally
Somehow I made it through the heartache
Yes I did. I escaped.
I found my way out of the darkness
I kept my faith (I know you did), kept my faith
While Mama Zondeni and Mama Aretha’s political ideologies were opposite from one another (especially towards the latter end of Aretha’s life), they both shared a passion to see the cessation of oppression towards African people. Neither one of their experiences on this end have been highlighted by mainstream media, until their transitions.
Upon her transition, not surprisingly i have seen a majority of comments on Aretha Franklin, declaring her as simply, a ‘soul singer’. While it is clear people are associating this with the title that has been bestowed upon her , ‘The Queen Of Soul,’ Miss Aretha, when asked what the meaning of soul music was, herself mentioned that soul could never be limited to a musical genre… which is why she covered several of them in her lifetime- jazz, rock, classical/opera, R&B, gospel… While she stood firm in the love of her people, she also recognized that the forces who controlled the narrative wanted to limit the collective experiences of her people. She made sure her contracts, in the days of both government sanctioned and de facto segregation, reflected the opposite sentiments in the audience’s population. She recognized that if she were true to herself, no record company or concert promoter could limit her to a mere genre. No matter what she sang, she put her foot in it. It was always going to have ‘soul’ in it, because she embodied it. Every song she sang was a testimony. She never stopped bearing witness. As she once said, “I never left the church… The church goes with me.” There have been scores of people who said they felt closer to God listening to her, despite not being religious or spiritual.
Soul cannot be taught. There is a ‘soul’ which has a genetic memory; a ‘soul’ which tells the tales of our ancestors’ hardships, but also successes. A soul which holds no title. While being decorated as the ‘Queen Of Soul’- just like with ‘King Of Pop’- may be flattering to some (even Mama Aretha), i feel she was much more than that. Being a ‘Queen’ would imply there are others beneath you. A Queen would create art to be self-serving, separate from the subjects… never making the social, artistic (or even political) impacts she’s made.
i would call her a messenger of soul.