For me, music has always resonated deeper than just a collection of notes and tones. As the daughter of a Detroit record shop owner during the age of Motown, it would seem destiny. What I couldn’t count on was the rite of passage that would mark the alteration of that relationship.
Aretha Franklin was the Frida Kahlo of music. Like the great Mexican painter, she put her blood into her work. In a 1998
PBS American Masters documentary, a studio musician that worked with Ms. Franklin revealed that, as she recorded tracks, sometimes, Aretha wept. But as a brown-skin girl, growing up in my Westside Detroit home, Aretha Franklin was just a lady I, on occasion, saw in church, in the first pew, a fairly common sight.
In fact, “I’m the lady next door,” is how Ms. Franklin described herself to Gwen Ifill during a 2015 PBS interview. Ifill scoffed and smiled. I chuckled and nodded. During my growing up years, she was Clarence and Edward’s mom, the two suited-up boys my brothers and I sat beside in Sunday School at New Bethel Baptist church. By the early 1970s Aretha Franklin’s musical star had super nova-ed. Still, I remained a clueless kid and she remained the enviable Preacher’s daughter. Her father, Rev. C. L Franklin was the bigger draw. He pastored with a booming voice that welded so much bass, my family and I could hear his sermons from our West Philadelphia home, across the street. In fact, my dad typically slipped out of donning a Sunday suit and joining us by informing my mom, “Annie, I can hear the talk from the sofa.”
I don’t recall of Ms. Franklin ever joined the choir. I do recall liking the choir. One Sunday morning, parked in the pew beside my mom, my crinolines scratched against my thighs I deflected the itch my bouncing my leg to the beat.
“This isn’t music to dance by,” she chided and pressed my leg still with the flat of her palm.
I finally understood what my mom meant, in 1972. Throngs of fans gathered at outside the brick walled church to soak in the secular songs Aretha practiced before recording her gospel album, Amazing Grace. My mom, dad and two brothers perched of the gray concrete steps of our home, held to the hymns. As the organ music and her alto voice throbbed in my chest, the thought dawned that Ms. Franklin was more than Clarence and Edward’s mom, she belonged to something greater, she was something greater.
When I reached my teens, I had begun to hold up in my bedroom, studying life at the altar of Prince, Earth Wind and Fire, of course, Aretha. My mom made sure her music was on steady rotation in our home. But as I managed the stress of attending Cass Tech, a competitive college preparatory school, the world of dating and terminal acne, I heard the song Think, and its powerful refrain R-E-S-P-E-C-T, anew.
During college I moved to New York City to study art from Kahlo to Kandinsky, at Parsons School of Design. I took Aretha with me, first on cassette tape, and later on CDs. I held church, far from home, with a recording of Amazing Grace, the very music I first experienced from my parent’s porch.
By the age of 25, I figured out what Aretha meant when she sang, You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman. Later, her track Ain’t No waycounseled me in how to handle the break-up. The energy behind vowels and consonants seemed to slip around me and explain the mysteries and limits of relationships.
Around that time, I flew back to Detroit for a family event. Before I returned to Manhattan I headed to church. By some miracle, in the first pew, once more sat Ms. Franklin. Halfway through the sermon, the call to the altar came. “Would those in need of an additional blessing please step forward.”
I stood up, slipped out of the pew, and headed down the red carpet. As I closed in on the end of the cue, as the parishioners headed to the left, up the steps to the altar, I tucked in close to the edge of the first pew. There was The Queen, clad in a beaded dress, classic church hat and cleavage.
“Excuse me, Ms. Franklin just want to thank you for all your work. My mom played your music to me as a child. But, as a woman, I finally understand what you’re singing about.”
She smiled and nodded her head, once.
I floated back to my place in the pew.
Young girls need role models. And as the mother of a young girl that goal is mine every day. But Aretha Franklin was much more. She was therapist. Confessor. Healer. My parents guided me down the road of adulthood. But Aretha Franklin translated all the bumps, pot holes and dead ends. Aretha told me what my mother couldn’t. That sometimes men fall short. Sometimes they take the women they love with them. Sometimes it was up to you to find your way back on to the road, wheels straight and drive on.
Aretha Franklin showed women how to be brave. I, for one, sweated it out when the announcement came that she would fill in for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti singing the classical aria, Nessun Dorma, at the 1998 Grammy telecast. I feared Black Girl Magic wouldn’t stretch quite that far. Two bars in, I decided that was the last time I’d doubted the magic. Or Aretha.
“I’ve been crying like a baby,” the text from my friend Julie read, “Got the news about Aretha.” It was the first of many from my black female friends. As the world mourned the Queen of Soul, women and in particular African-American women, mourned the loss of something greater. Aretha helped us as much as the poetry of Maya Angelou, the afro of Angela Davis, and the sight of Michelle Obama’s image in the National Portrait Gallery. She taught us how to stand proud in our own skin when no one else seemed to care. Because we knew, no matter where Aretha was, she was with us on what mattered. Now she’s gone. And I still have to figure out how to do it for Julia.
More than a week ago, on August 31st, I mourned and celebrated the life of Aretha Franklin with the world. It’s a rite of passage to bury your elders. But even as a mother who manages a mortgage, I don’t feel ready for this adulthood. But I know it’s come. I suppose that’s when you know the baton has been passed to you. When you’re no longer afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers. When you stop looking to songs for those answers. I still enjoy the richness of music. But I look more now to the lives of women rather than just the songs they sang to guide me. Remembering that Aretha was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and that sometimes the wheels move slow, but our accolades, in time, come. That with her amazing career she still managed to have a family. That Aretha Franklin left the world with 80 million dollars banked, without the IRS on her heels like many, many artists, are great fact to start telling Julia now.
# The Queen of Soul