Published on August 18th, 2018 | by Nicole Vear
Aretha Franklin: The Creative Genealogy of a Black Woman
Aretha Franklin, the center of the Black music canon, encompassed what our music has been, what it is and what it can be – free, truthful and deliberate. Her music has spoken to our conditions, beliefs, hopes and realities, and just by singing she validated our emotions. If you want to know what Black womanhood sounds like, what the spectrum of experiences in the Black world feels like, then tune into Aretha’s catalogue of poignant songs and performances.
Influenced and inspired by the many people around her, growing up, this daughter of the church wanted to be a singer of the world—to express its sacredness and its secularity. It was evidenced throughout her career that the two worlds were always one for her.
In many ways, Aretha was self-taught and totally attuned to spirit. She taught herself to play piano at a very young age, and she had the ability to sing by ear. By way of her parents, Aretha sprang from the institution of the Black church, which historically has cultivated the talent and skill of so many musical legends. Her mom it has been told, was a great singer. Her father C.L. Franklin, a preeminent American minister, gave Aretha her first entry into the world of secular music. Aretha got her performance chops within the walls of her father’s church, but she also went on the road to tour with him. C. L. Franklin released his sermons on records and broadcasted a nationally syndicated radio show. Her father’s influence would serve as Aretha’s spiritual, social and political roots. When Sam Cooke, Clara Ward, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruth Brown are regular visitors to your home, it is easy to see the world of creative and political possibilities become reality. After reaching commercial success and being crowned Queen of Soul in the sixties, Aretha proved through every decade that soul music is so because of its Gospel elements and emotional resonance.
Aretha spoke the vernacular of the soul. We not only remember the words to her records, but we remember the indelible way that she sang them. She translated the emotion of lyrics with such ease. Her notes soar from one moment to the next, reaching their heights and captivating our ears through the entire flight. Her voice reminds of what freedom might feel like, and the warmth of her tunes have the soothing quality of a lullaby. This tenderness was accentuated by the fierceness of her spiritual convictions that showed up no matter the subject matter. When she wasn’t penning her own lyrics, songwriters and producers knew what to create for her—until they didn’t, and her career suffered. But the lag in compelling material was not enough for Aretha to be forgotten, for her pure talent and crowned status allowed dynamic songs to find their way back to her.
Aretha singing sounds like someone who wants to love you. The joy on her face when she sang is the joy we feel when we hear her. When Aretha serenades, it is to us like a mother’s voice is to her child—familiar and full of love. Is it any coincidence that I think of my own mother when I hear Aretha? My mother’s childhood and teenage years were filled with the sound of Aretha in the air. Just last week before the state of Aretha’s illness was announced, we discussed Ms. Franklin’s album Amazing Grace and how my mother never actually owned a copy. That album had such an influence on my mom that, even after all these years, I mistakenly thought she did. I can still picture my aunts swaying their hips to Aretha’s songs at their house parties in the Bronx, and I can remember as a child my own intimate discoveries of her albums decades after their release. Aretha Franklin was a sister-friend or auntie for every era since she began her career.
Her comeback in the 80s was definitive and ecstatically fun (“Rock-A-Lott” anyone?), as both her new and old songs were featured in movies and television , and her continued impact in the 90s undeniable. As a child growing up in the 90s, Aretha’s influence was omnipresent. Her fierce soul was stamped on the classic college comedy A Different World in a time when a sitcom’s theme music was as important as the actual show. Mary J. Blige’s album My Life was 1994’s version of Sparkle. Aretha’s “A Rose is Still a Rose” (1998), which featured contributions from Lauryn Hill and video appearances from Amel Larrieux, Faith Evans and Changing Faces, embodied the musical garden she’d cultivated. Her single “A Deeper Love” (1994) showcased why a voice like hers was an archetype for vocal showmanship in House Music.
These days, labeling the achievements of people as “firsts” is redundant, as the details distinguishing them are either tedious or culturally and racially irrelevant, as is the case with a millennia’s worth of Black history. But Aretha was a first in the most potent of ways. Descended from the musical lineage that includes Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who ebbed and flowed between gospel, rock and blues, Aretha was not shielded from Christian critics. Her career-long negotiation with the church and the secular world of music were constant but never finite because, as she and her father have put it, “She never left the church.”
Aretha was not the first Black woman to cross genres, but she was the first to successfully redeem herself with a religious audience while remaining true to her craft. She proved to the community that groomed her that she did not abandon them. Aretha recorded stellar gospel albums, including Songs of Faith (1956), One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (1987) and the iconic and historic Amazing Grace (1972). Despite Black women being the originators of rock (see: Tamar Kali, Nona Hendryx, Joyce Kennedy, Betty Davis, and some of y’alls great, great, great grandmothers), Aretha was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
While Sister Rosetta had her guitar, Aretha had her piano. Her lifetime companion, the piano had been the instrument of Aretha’s underrated talent. As a Black woman virtuoso on the keys, she rides the same percussive wave as Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott, Alice Coltrane and Geri Allen. Unlike Her musical twin, Ray Charles, with whom she shared a historic moment at the Filmore in 1971 while she sat at the piano and he stood, Aretha does not get the same accolades for way the piano shaped her music. Aretha was also the precursor to her living antecedents. She was the sincerity of Jill Scott, the dexterity of Chaka Khan, the commitment of Fantasia, the jazziness of Karen Clark Sheard, the expansiveness of Jennifer Hudson, the vibrancy of Ledisi, the fullness of Jazmine Sullivan, the audacity of Mary Mary… and I can truly go on. If you think Aretha’s work is done, well, you may have never really listened to her or any of the women named. This is a Sankofa story, one that does not end with her dying but with her living in the ether and her musical daughters, granddaughters and peers.
The Divine was in every fiber of Aretha’s being, from her head to her gut, through her fingertips that strummed and beat the ebony and ivory keys of her piano, and down to her toes. That Alpha-and-Omega type of love was always present in her breathe. The gospel defined how Aretha sung to us, but her spirit dictated where she went. Her soul was sweet and commanding like a butterfly you can’t touch because it moves with the wind. Aretha’s sovereignty led her to choose whom she wants to play her in the biopic of her life and whether or not footage that captured her likeness during the recording of “Amazing Grace” ever sees the light of day.
In this 1968 Special Report, Aretha says, “I still got to find out who am, what I am. I don’t know yet, I’m trying to find the answer.” Although we’ve felt we lost her too soon, Aretha had decades after she made that statement to get closer to figuring it out. We had Aretha for a lifetime, and we will have her music for an eternity.