I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing the first time I heard Aretha Franklin sing. Franklin’s iconic status was something that was inundated into my brain since birth. For as long as I could remember, Aretha was and forever will be referred to as the Queen of Soul.
Aretha Franklin was a walking piece of American history. The echoes of her strong voice are just the cherry on top of the countless contributions Aretha made to the Civil Rights movement. One of her greatest contributions was the song “Respect”, which was released in 1967 and pivoted her towards superstardom.
Originally the song was written and performed by Otis Redding with the message of a man demanding respect from his wife because he was the breadwinner. Aretha turned the song into an anthem for both the women and civil rights movement at the time. It became a declarative song for women, demanding respect from the men they have treated right.
The impact of this song on not only her career but the lives of millions who have listened is monumental. Respect is always taught to be something earned, not given. We are to fight for our right to earn it, but in society, not everyone truly receives the respect they deserve.
For years millions of black women have demanded the respect they deserved and were repeatedly denied. Aretha understood respect and what it means to not only demand it but prove you are worthy of it.
Her contributions do not lie just within music. Aretha was a living legend, known to support Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight for civil rights, and singing at the inauguration of our first black President Barack Obama. But one of her most famous acts of activism and support for black women, in particular, was when she offered to post bail for Angela Davis in 1970:
“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,” she continued. “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.”
Aretha was aware of the influence that wealth and power had on black communities. Especially In black communities where such wealth was sparse, it made all the difference to use those resources for the greater good. Others told her that she shouldn’t support Davis because she was a communist, but her dedication to achieving sovereignty for African Americans superseded that. There was no need to worry about political alliances when black people were dying in the streets.
Despite her activism, many commented on her diva reputation. But the same way Aretha demanded respect for herself, she was allowed to embrace her diva status. She had decades of activism on her resume, numerous hit singles, and was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of fame. She paved the way for many other artists of color, especially black women who are so often exploited in the industry.
Aretha was not a singer, she was an artist. She perfected the craft and molded it into her skin. The transformation from girl to soul diva was not constructed; it was as seamless as a butterfly coming out of its cocoon. The talent was running through her veins and she never let us forget it.
She was the queen of soul, an activist and ultimately the living embodiment of black liberation.
“We all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white. It’s our basic human right.”