The academic world took to social media yesterday to remember an artist who transformed music with her soulful and bold lyrics and strident support for civil rights.
Aretha Franklin — hailed for decades as “the Queen of Soul” — died Thursday at the age of 76.
A musical genius who became synonymous with tunes such as “Natural Woman,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Respect,” Franklin dramatically transformed the musical landscape and became an iconic figure appealing to individuals across racial, religious, economic and generational backgrounds.
A product of the Black church, Franklin was born in Tennessee and grew up singing in New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was pastor.
As the civil rights movement was in full-swing during the 1960s, Franklin became a staunch supporter. Her father and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were close friends. And after King was gunned down in Memphis in 1968, Franklin sang “Precious Lord” at his funeral.
“Beyond her tremendous voice, she was a voice in the Civil Rights Movement. An instrument,” says Dr. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the civil rights leader. “Just as they welcomed Aretha Franklin to their hearts during their lifetime, both my father and mother have welcomed the Queen of Soul to their heavenly home.”
Born on March 25, 1942, Franklin was a self-taught pianist who released her first album in 1956. Four years later, she signed with Columbia Records and by 1967 her single “Respect” rose to the top of the charts.
Although she dropped out of high school, Franklin was a fierce advocate for education and a longtime supporter of organizations such as the United Negro College Fund. She also sang the theme song to “A Different World,” a 1980s hit sitcom and ” Cosby Show” spinoff about life at a fictitious historically Black college.
Later, she was awarded honorary doctorates from numerous institutions, including Berklee College of Music, Yale and Harvard, where in 2014, she belted out a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” while accompanying herself on the piano.
“Aretha Franklin changed the sound of popular music through centering Black musical traditions and innovation at every stage of her career,” said Dr. Treva Lindsey, an associate professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University. “Her distinct and unparalleled voice brought gospel, r&b, soul, pop, and the blues into a perfect amalgamation of Black sonic genius. The Queen of Soul’s body of work is like a perfectly curated archive of modern African-American culture and life.”
Lindsey said that even after becoming a superstar, Franklin continued to push for social justice.
“She grew up in a household where engagement with Black freedom struggle was the norm,” Lindsey said. “Black liberation theology was a practice and something ingrained in her since she was a child. It is paramount that in this era of the Movement of Black Lives, we honor the legacy of a genius who never abandoned the truth of freedom in her pioneering work as a singer or as a voice for her community.”
Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University, said Franklin was unique.
“She’s singular. It’s really hard to compare her to anyone else. There is no one like her before, no one like her after. She set a standard of excellence and versatility because she could sing in so many forms and excel in all of those forms,” said Griffin, who penned an essay for The Nation remembering Franklin. “She’s not someone who ever compromised her sound for a broader audience. She didn’t have to make herself sound less Black so people around the world would love her.”
Franklin was a “world-class phenomenon” who “bridged the social construction of Black music and gospel” as the daughter of a pastor father and pianist mother, said Dr. Richard M. Cooper, an assistant professor of social work at Widener University who has researched and taught African-American culture and social construction of the Black movement through music.
“She had direct connections to the [civil rights] movement,” said Cooper. ” People will pay tribute to how she inspired and uplifted those members of the movement who were on the front line. She was still in that early wing of those gospel artists who went secular, and she was challenged by some members of the faith. But she did it better than anybody. That emanating and rich quality of her voice, her phrasing and tone. Her style later became known as soul, and she crossed over blues, gospel and R&B.”
Dr. Gregory Carr, chairman of the African-American Studies department at Howard University said that Franklin has a “Black Power political philosophy that found its way into her craft.”
Added Carr: “Aretha Franklin is the finest singer produced to date in American history,” he said. “She is also the single most representative singer of African America, embodying the full arc of our journey in America and at once channeling that ethos through a singularly unique voice and talent.”
Dr. Cornel West, Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University told Diverse that Franklin “was the genius and giant of our tradition of soulful self-emptying.”
Dr. David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, said that on April 14, 2015, he was at The White House during the Obama presidency and watched as the Morgan State Choir performed with Franklin.
“Wow, what an evening. I sat next to April Ryan and you know we acted like we were in a Black Baptist Church,” Wilson wrote on social media. “In essence, we turned it out. In the world of music, there’s Aretha, and then there’s everybody else. Her music will live forever.”
Harvard University’s Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., said that Franklin’s “mellifluous voice taught us how to be ‘Black and Beautiful'” and Temple University’s Dr. Marc Lamont Hill tweeted that Franklin was “always kind to me. In that old school auntie kind of way.”
“I loved how formal Aretha Franklin was. There was no pretense of haughtiness to it. She referred to you as Dr. or Reverend or Mr. because we deserved those titles,” said Hill. “And I never fixed my mouth to call her Aretha. She was ALWAYS gonna be Ms. Franklin.”
Staff Writer Tiffany Pennamon and Senior Editor LaMont Jones contributed to this article.
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson