Aug 20, 2018
Tributes are pouring in for the late legendary singer Aretha Franklin. Many certainly came from those in official positions and celebrities, but most came from people she grew up with and from all of the neighborhoods around the country. The strength of people’s feelings stems from the fact Aretha expressed, not only through her music but also through what she stood for politically, their feelings at a time of engagement and determination to fight for social change in the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Aretha’s first hit single, her remake of Otis Redding’s song, “Respect,” hit the charts almost simultaneously with the eruption of the urban rebellion that occurred in Detroit in 1967. Like several of her records, “Respect” became an anthem, for black people and for women. Aretha transformed the point of view of Redding’s lyrics about a man expecting respect from his wife to that of a woman demanding respect from her man. Aretha’s spelling out of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and insistent phrases like “Give me my propers!” reflected women’s growing militancy and beyond it, the attitudes of the larger community demanding change.
Similarly, her hit “Think!,” was direct and to the point “You’d better think, about what you’re trying to do to me,” ending in a chorus of “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” It became an outcry of the wider population, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Finally, in “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” she expressed an honesty and directness about the right of a woman to enjoy sex and life in general that was emerging following the stifling era of the ‘50s.
Aretha physically participated in the fight for civil rights. Her association with King alongside her father in marches is filmed and recorded. She gave benefit concerts and raised money to help out the movement. But her political involvement went beyond the King experience.
She had grown up and gained a training for both music and politics in the church of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.
Reverend Franklin opened his church up for activists of many stripes to hold meetings there. Aretha absorbed the political feelings being expressed around her. Later, when Angela Davis was arrested, Aretha offered to post up to a $250,000 bond. She said, “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up 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 ... 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 ... And I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
Aretha Franklin was an extraordinary artist, one with a fabulous range of talents. Brought up in gospel which she put to use in singing R&B, she learned to sing opera, and performed with rock ‘n’ rollers as well.
To the end, Aretha never felt there was any place she went where she couldn’t be with ordinary people. She remained an advocate for her hometown of Detroit, where she grew up on the North End, with the likes of her friend Smokey Robinson.
Every generation has its music, but the music of Aretha resonates across generations and across countries because it came out of a deep and determined mass mobilization. It spoke to and of the masses engaged in a struggle in which they demanded respect, insisted on their freedom, and refused to be pushed back.