Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died Thursday at her home in Detroit at the age of 76. For decades, Aretha Franklin has been celebrated as one of the greatest American singers of any genre, who helped give birth to soul and redefined the American musical tradition. In 1987, Aretha Franklin became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She held the record for the most songs on the Billboard Top 100 for 40 years. Rolling Stone ranked her the greatest singer of all time on its top 100 list, calling her “a gift from God.” Her hit single “Respect” became part of the soundtrack to the civil rights movement, which she also supported behind the scenes. We speak with professors Mark Anthony Neal of Duke University and Farah Jasmine Griffin of Columbia University.
AMY GOODMAN: Tributes are pouring in from across the country and around the world for Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. She died Thursday at her home in Detroit at the age of 76. For decades, Aretha Franklin has been celebrated as one of the greatest American singers of any genre, who helped give birth to soul and redefined the American musical tradition. In 1987, Aretha Franklin became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She held the record for the most songs on the Billboard Top 100 for 40 years. Rolling Stone ranked her the greatest singer of all time on its top 100 list, calling her “a gift from God.”
Aretha Franklin was born March 25th, 1942. She was a child prodigy, and as young as 4 years old she was already considered a musical sensation. Her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, was a preacher in the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where Aretha, still a child, became a star soloist, standing on a chair as she performed to the congregation. By her early twenties, Aretha was appearing on national television, including The Steve Allen Show, where she performed “Won’t Be Long” in 1964.
ARETHA FRANKLIN: [singing] Baby, here I am
By the railroad tracks
Waiting for my baby
He’s coming on back
Back to me
On the 503
And it won’t be long
It won’t be long
I’ve been so lonesome
Since the man has been gone
Ain’t a thing worth mentioning
Been going on
That’s why I know
When the whistle blows
It won’t be long
That it won’t be long
AMY GOODMAN: In 1967, Aretha Franklin signed with Atlantic Records and began releasing a series of landmark singles that transformed popular music. Her 1967 cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” became an international hit.
ARETHA FRANKLIN: [singing] What you want
Baby, I got it
What you need
Do you know I got it
All I’m askin’
Is for a little respect
When you get home (just a little bit)
Hey baby (just a little bit)
When you get home (just a little bit)
Mister (just a little bit)
I ain’t gonna do you wrong
While you’re gone
Ain’t gonna do you wrong
Cause I don’t wanna
All I’m askin’
Is for a little respect
When you get home (just a little bit)
Baby (just a little bit)
When you get home (just a little bit)
Yeah (just a little bit)
AMY GOODMAN: Aretha recorded “Respect” on Valentine’s Day 1967. It soon became the soundtrack of the civil right movement. A year later, she would sing at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral after his assassination in 1968. The Reverend Jesse Jackson said Aretha anonymously helped fund the civil rights movement for decades. He said, quote, “When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll. … Aretha has always been a very socially conscious artist, an inspiration, not just an entertainer.”
In 1970, Aretha Franklin offered to post bail for Angela Davis, who was in jail on trumped-up charges. She told Jet magazine, “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. … 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,” Aretha said. Later in the show, we’ll speak with professor Angela Davis herself about what Aretha Franklin’s support meant to her.
Aretha would go on to sing at the inaugurations of three presidents: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In a statement, Barack and Michelle Obama said, quote, “For more than six decades…every time she sang, we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine.”
Today we spend the hour looking at the extraordinary life and legacy of Aretha Franklin. After break, we’ll begin with two guests: here in New York, Columbia University’s Farah Jasmine Griffin, and at Duke University in North Carolina, we’ll be joined by Mark Anthony Neal. And then from Martha’s Vineyard, Angela Davis herself will join us to talk about what Aretha Franklin meant to her. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Think” by Aretha Franklin, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As we remember Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, we’re joined here by two guests.
In New York, Farah Jasmine Griffin joins us, professor of English and comparative literature and African-American studies at Columbia University. She’s the author of a number of books, including If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday and Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics in New York During World War II. Her latest article for The Nation, “Aretha Franklin—Musical Genius, Truth Teller, Freedom Fighter.”
And in Durham, North Carolina, we’re joined by Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the Department of African & African American Studies, where he’s also the founding director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship. The host of the weekly webcast called Left of Black, he blogs at newblackman.blogspot.com. He’s author of several books, including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture and Songs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation.
We’re going to start there with Mark Anthony Neal. Your response when you heard Aretha Franklin is dead?
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: Well, no doubt for me, I was saddened. It was the end of an era, in many ways. For myself personally, Aretha Franklin literally defined my childhood, defined my life. I don’t know a world without Aretha Franklin being there. I was introduced to her at a very young age by my mother, who was a Aretha Franklin stand, for lack of a better way to describe it; was fortunate to first see Aretha live on the Apollo stage when I was 5 years old, when she did that legendary 1-week stand in 1971.
AMY GOODMAN: And, you know, I said Aretha Franklin is dead, and maybe in body she is, but of course this music, her talent, her—this giant will continue to live on. Farah Jasmine Griffin, you first heard that Aretha was in hospice care.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yes, I heard from a dear friend that she was in hospice. It had not yet been announced. And then, within less than 24 hours, the news was all over social media. So, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what she has meant to you.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Oh, my goodness. Like Mark, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hear Aretha’s voice. I think I probably heard it in the womb. My mother and aunts were so in love and enamored of her. She has meant the very best of American music and American culture. And we always knew about her commitment and support to the political struggles of black Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you talk about that? Because in the headline of your piece for The Nation, one of those descriptions is “freedom fighter.”
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Absolutely. I mean, I think that people often talk about Aretha coming up through the church, as many of our great singers do, and that the church is a place certainly where she found her voice and where she learned her craft. But it’s also the place where she was steeped in a kind of political culture. Her father is in the tradition of the great prophetic black preachers. He himself was an activist. Her church was an—
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Franklin, Detroit.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Reverend C.L. Franklin, right, a very gifted orator, but also an activist and confidant of Martin Luther King, for instance. And so, right alongside with her musical training, I think, would have been that kind of political culture, as well. And then she sort of stepped out on her own, having always supported Dr. King, supported Dr.—you know, Rev. Jesse Jackson. But I think especially with that public statement in support of Angela Davis, she really sort of articulated her own sort of political courage and conviction.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to an interview with Aretha Franklin in 2015 with CNN’s Don Lemon.
DON LEMON: When you look at what’s happening in Ferguson, what happened with police officers or whatever, do you think we’re—your songs were the anthem to civil rights, to the civil rights movement? So many songs were played.
ARETHA FRANKLIN: Well, “Respect” was—
DON LEMON: Yeah.
ARETHA FRANKLIN: —a mantra for the civil rights movement. It was.
DON LEMON: Do you feel we’re moving forward or fast enough?
ARETHA FRANKLIN: I think that we have come a very, very long way. We’ve come to the forefront in many fields—of course, entertainment, sports and so on. But we still have a long way to go.
DON LEMON: I had earlier in the week—
ARETHA FRANKLIN: But we have made great strides.
DON LEMON: You think so.
ARETHA FRANKLIN: Yes, I do.
DON LEMON: Because you were there. You saw it. You were on the front lines.
ARETHA FRANKLIN: No, I wasn’t on the front line.
DON LEMON: You don’t think—
ARETHA FRANKLIN: But I was with Dr. King, from church service to church service. I went out on a mini tour with him when he first started.
DON LEMON: That’s the line.
ARETHA FRANKLIN: Yeah.
DON LEMON: You were—that’s the line.
ARETHA FRANKLIN: Well, I was behind Dr. King, and I was a very young girl.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Aretha Franklin speaking with Don Lemon on CNN. As you listened to what she said, Mark Anthony Neal, could you expand on her civil rights activism? She, again, emphasizing “I was behind the scenes, I was not on the front lines.”
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: You know, she had the challenge of being a black artist who was in the mainstream, who was craving certain kind of mainstream success, and had to be very careful and delicate in the ways in which they engage in the civil rights movement, which in many sectors of American society was still very controversial. And like many of her peers from that time, one of the ways that they offered support was to be able to offer financial support in the background, to obviously be able to offer spiritual support. The fact that she was willing to go on the road with Dr. King was importantly—important and compelling in that particular moment.
And even though Aretha Franklin’s music wasn’t overtly political, again, when you listen to “Respect” and the way she just stops to spell out “respect,” it resonated in many wonderful ways for black folks, who heard something more than simply a woman singing about the man that done her wrong. We don’t really get an overt political statement in her music until she does that amazing Young, Gifted and Blackalbum in 1972, where she covers Nina Simone. And in many ways, it becomes her anthem to acknowledge the ways that she was connected to this movement in a more overt way. We start to see her dress in a more African-style garb. It was her at this point, at the peak of her career, at the peak of her powers, at the peak of her maturity, and she could stand out on that limb and acknowledge that she was a political force also.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about 1972. Can you tell us about her relationship with Esther Phillips, and what happened at the Grammys that year?
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: You know, we hear a lot of things about the diva that Aretha Franklin was, and that was true, as it was with anybody who had that kind of a incomparable talent. But she’s up for nomination in 1972, and she’s in a category with Esther Phillips for an album called From a Whisper to a Scream, brilliant piece. And Esther Phillips had gone the long road. I mean, she had gone through the Chitlin’ Circuit. In many ways, she’s one of those artists who had created a space for Aretha to fill. And when Aretha wins the Grammy Award for this, you know, Aretha makes this incredible gesture by offering her Grammy Award to Esther Phillips to acknowledge both who she was in the field and her legacy, but also the impact that she had on her as an artist.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about “Natural Woman” and her relationship with Carole King.
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: You know, it’s a wonderful song. Carole King was part of a generation of women who were performing and writing their own music, and not necessarily getting credit for being the singer-songwriters and producers that they were. We see the same case with an artist like Laura Nyro from that period of time, and even Aretha Franklin, who very often was the one behind the keyboard for her own music. They were creating this great music, but they weren’t getting credit as producers. When Aretha records Carole King’s “A Natural Woman,” it was really a kind of coming together of these two geniuses, the songwriter and the performer. It becomes one of Aretha Franklin’s most significant songs.
For me, her use of the song on her live album Amazing Grace, where she does a conflated version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and also—or, “You’ve Got a Friend,” which was also a song that was written by Carole King, and Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord,” where at the moment Carole King is being elevated as really the quintessential American singer-songwriter, after the release of Tapestry. And she takes Thomas Dorsey’s—who most Americans don’t know at this period of time—and really puts them on the same plane, making an important political claim and cultural claim about the significance of a figure like Thomas Dorsey at the same time that she’s acknowledging this great woman singer-songwriter in Carole King.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve suggested that Aretha Franklin was one of the few black artists at that time who understood the importance of controlling the narrative. Explain what you mean.
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: You know, Aretha was burned early in her career. She’s on the cover of Time magazine in June of 1968, and it’s really a story about the impact of soul music at this point in time, but they also do kind of a profile of her. And there was elements that came out in the story that she was never very comfortable with. And so she began to control the narrative in a way in which, you know, we think of her as being very private—and there are lots of artists who do that—but also about controlling the narrative at a time where she was, you know, by far, the most well-known black woman in the world. So there were significant stakes in her being able to control her story the way that she did.
When David Ritz writes her memoir, writes with her her memoir in 1999, of course they have a famous falling out, because, you know, there are parts of the story that David Ritz would like to share, and Aretha Franklin is not willing to go there at that point in time. We know the way that, for instance, there’s an amazing film of the Amazing Grace concert, that was shot by the late Sydney Pollack, that Aretha has never allowed to be released. Some folks might think of that as her being kind a diva, but it was also about making sure that she controlled the way that we would interpret her legacy. And you see that really up until her death, the way that she carried her sickness over the last eight years, in which folks suspected things but didn’t really know, and we saw that up to the end, where she really controlled the narrative about how she would die and how she would be remembered.
AMY GOODMAN: Farah Jasmine Griffin, if you could expand on this? You write in your piece, “This is what we hear in Aretha’s voice. Truth. It is a voice that contains the spiritual and the field holler, the blues moan, gospel shout, and jazz improvisation. It is neither timid nor coy. It is sensually grounded and spiritually transcendent and completely lacking in contradiction.”
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yes. I think that Aretha is one of those artists. They come along every once in a while, and their artistry embodies traditions and history. And you can hear all of those great black musical forms borne, probably with their origins in West Africa, but certainly nurtured in the United States. You can hear every one of them in Aretha’s voice. And then, being the kind of singular artist she is, she offers something new. You know, there’s history, but there’s also something new, a kind of era-defining sound there.
And the other thing is that we make these false dichotomies between sexuality, sensuality, spirituality, and Aretha’s voice just refuses those dichotomies. She refuses to see them as contradictions. They’re all part of one humanity, and we hear that in her voice, as well. And I love the fact that she is never sentimental. She’s not coy. She’s very articulate and forthright in the emotions that she expresses with her singing.
AMY GOODMAN: And her role in creating soul?
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: She’s a very important architect of soul, along with someone like Ray Charles, who’s, you know, very—also another important figure, in taking what they’ve gotten out of the church—you know, Sam Cooke, as well—what they’ve gotten out of the church, that way of bringing the spirit down and moving people, really moving people to a place of transcendence, and then putting that in popular music form. Whereas black audiences were familiar with this, I think many mainstream audience members were not. And it was really quite earth-shattering. She is a primary architect of the music we come to know as soul.
AMY GOODMAN: You met Aretha Franklin?
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: I did. I had the opportunity to meet her—I should say, the honor and the privilege. I went to a concert at the invitation of a dear friend, Michael Eric Dyson. And afterwards, Professor Dyson was a close friend of Ms. Franklin’s, so he took me backstage. My husband was there. I think the Reverend Jesse Jackson was there. It was the night before Whitney Houston’s funeral, which is why I remember it so well. And she was dignified. And I was struck by her humility. And I was struck by her just quiet, very quiet, understated elegance. She was so well dressed, like a church mother, and just very welcoming and very humble.