In the U.S., the Black Church has been at the center of Black social and political life. Many of its rituals and traditions are as cultural as they are spiritual. And no singer in modern history embodied that spiritual-secular fusion better than Aretha Franklin.
On August 31, the undisputed Queen of Soul for the last half-century was memorialized in a seven-hour homegoing event that featured performances and remembrances from cultural icons like Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Al Sharpton, and Stevie Wonder. Celebrity attendees cut across generations to include Donnie Simpson, Ariana Grande, Johnny Gill, Judge Greg Mathis, Big Sean, Jamal Bryant, and Jenifer Lewis. At Buckingham Palace, the British Army paid tribute during the ceremonial Changing of the Guards. Recognition for Aretha’s reign cut across the pond, too.
Aretha’s career would span six decades, and what she did with that time is incredible. The music is one thing. Her voice was special in the way that it could tap that nerve. 100 years from now, a girl will still be able to play “Day Dreaming” to let her #wcw know what’s up. The gorgeous, anguished “Ain’t No Way” will still take us through the emotional turmoil of romance gone awry. And “Call Me” will still typify that ache of physically leaving the presence of good love. More than once during the funeral, speakers recalled growing up with Aretha’s music. On any given day, the Aretha tracks that were in heavy rotation signaled their parents’ moods.
In living rooms across the country, if “Think” or “I Never Loved a Man [The Way I Love You]” or “Mary, Don’t You Weep” was blasting from the record player, it meant Mama might’ve been working through some things. Aretha’s voice was the gospel, evangelizing life. The secular, the religious – all of it. The musician Billy Preston said of Aretha in 2006, that “…on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know—you’ll swear—that she’s still the best fuckin’ singer this fucked-up country has ever produced.”
So, ok, music is the thing.
And yet, Aretha was a force beyond it. Elwood Watson writes that Aretha “… comfortably luxuriated in her authentic blackness in both her music and activism.” She was the daughter of C.L. Franklin, pastor and civil rights activist, and friend to Martin Luther King, Jr. She came of age in the 1960s and 70s in Detroit – one of the Blackest, most politically charged cities in the country. She found her voice and throughout her career, used her status to advocate for civil rights, equality, and justice. She was an activist at a time when she was expected just to shut up and sing. In 1970, she defied her father’s warnings and offered to bail out a Communist accused of kidnapping, conspiracy, and murder – that troublemaker was Angela Y. Davis. Maybe it was part youthful rebellion, but surely, it was also the righteousness of Black political liberation that emboldened young Aretha Franklin.
One of the synonyms of the term “queer” is “unorthodox.” Although Aretha Franklin’s life was molded by the Black church, it could be considered “queer” by the church’s traditional standards. This was evident during the queen’s eulogy given by Pastor Jasper Williams, Jr. Williams lauded “beautiful, proud Black women” for their beauty and their pride, but couldn’t abide the idea that they could raise Black boys into Black men. He said this, without a shred of irony, over the casket of a woman who had, herself, raised four Black boys into Black men. Despite a couple of marriages that didn’t last, Aretha Franklin was a single mother for much of her life. She moved into a mansion by herself, with her own money. She sang “Respect” from Otis Redding’s perspective, and demanded her money in cash, up front. She was a provider and nurturer for members of her family and an ally to LGBTQ communities the Black church has historically shunned. Aretha Franklin is indeed a “queer” icon. She earned the stripes.
Detroit Mayor, Mike Duggan announced during the ceremony that the city’s waterfront amphitheater, Chene Park, would be renamed, Aretha Franklin Park. The days leading up to Aretha’s funeral featured wardrobe changes, a pair of red five-inch Christian Louboutin pumps, and Aretha’s legs crossed at the ankle. The funeral day began with a parade of 100 pink Cadillacs en route behind the queen’s final journey to Greater Grace Temple. She was transported to her final resting place in an ivory-colored vintage Cadillac LaSalle hearse that had held previous Detroit luminaries, The Temptations’ David Ruffin and Franklin’s father, the Reverend C.L. The queen’s homegoing was steeped in the pomp and majesty of Black Detroit. Her life was unorthodox according to custom, and it was extraordinary as a result.
Cover Photo: Bloemfontein Courant