by Paradise

Aretha Franklin sings … with all her heart and soul.

Like Prince, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordon, Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams, Aretha Franklin came from that strong Black father stock. From a towering black mountain of a man, the Reverend C.L. Franklin.

It’s been said about Rev. Franklin that when he spoke from the pulpit even the clocks stopped to clap their hands and shout hallelujahs and amens! He was revered like a Black Pope and until Dr. Martin Luther King came along, and some would say nevertheless, was widely considered the preeminent voice of the Black Church. Aretha Franklin could only have come from the loins of such a man – a bow that could shoot her like an arrow or shooting star across the firmament of the pop world!

It took Mama Earth 100 billion humans coming up out of Africa and a trillion sunrises before she could fashion out of clay someone with a voice to say and express to the world in the right way what women, Black people, humanity and she, Mama Earth, wanted: R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Respect!

But even before that, before God, the original poet and the first spoken word artist, would utter the first lyrics of the uni-verse, “Let there be light!” And before the Goddess had even thought about cooking stars for breakfast in the skillet of night, before the dawn of creation bright, there was a rumbling deep in the soul of the kosmos that would take 14 billion years for the galaxies to grind and turn and churn out a distillation that would exhort all the creatures in the universe to “THINK!” “You better think! Think about what you’re trying to do to me! Think! ThinK! THINK!”

A sister, sistah, sis*star! A shooting star, like the black “carbonado” diamond asteroid that was hurled and aimed across eons toward the heart of the motherland, when it was still a part of the single world continent, Gondwanaland, and before heart-shaped Afrika was even formed – the only place outside of Brazil where the “king of diamonds,” the rare and priceless black diamonds, are found – Aretha emitted and resounded that rare, priceless, black diamond sound!

Legend has it that even as a newborn baby she could wail articulately! And all the other babies in the nursery would stop crying to listen to baby Aretha vocalize her infant blues songs. And many folks in her neighborhood lost many hours of sleep as she wailed into the wee hours of the night her baby versions of “Rock Steady” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” preparing for a career that would merit her 18 Grammys.

It took Mama Earth 100 billion humans coming up out of Africa and a trillion sunrises before she could fashion out of clay someone with a voice to say and express to the world in the right way what women, Black people, humanity and she, Mama Earth, wanted: R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Respect!

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, at 406 Lucy Ave., March 25, 1942, Aretha Louise Franklin moved with her parents, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin and Barbara Siggers Franklin, to Detroit, Michigan. She began her career as a child singing gospel at New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father, C. L. Franklin, reigned in the pulpit and was a legendary circuit preacher.

Being a daddy’s girl, she absorbed his rhythms and cadences as well as those of the Black musical royalty who graced their Baptist church sanctuary and visited the rock star-like preacher’s home, including Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward – and the Rev. Martin Luther King, who Aretha, at age 16, would go on tour with. Ironically, Dr. King would be murdered in her birth town, Memphis, and she would sing at his funeral.

Aretha Franklin, a singular figure in American culture, was a child prodigy. Motown great Smokey Robinson recalled first hearing her sing when she was 4 years old. He noted that by age 7, “Aretha played big chords … complex church chords.” He told biographer David Ritz that Franklin came out of the rich Detroit (Motown) culture that produced so many musical greats, “but she also … came from a distant musical planet where children are born with their gifts fully formed.” She had a voice, so full of history and power, that defined popular singing and would set the standard for American popular music!

Aretha at the piano in 1967

Like two forces of nature, the way her father preached the gospel in church, Aretha sang in the choir. Her mother died of a heart attack when she was 10 years old and she wound up having Gospel Queen Mahalia Jackson as one of her stewards. Her mother sang and played the piano and, shortly after her passing, Aretha would learn to play piano by ear. In those early days, however, secular music like Jazz, R&B, the Blues and any music that didn’t praise the Lord was referred to as devil music.

Nevertheless and although it was considered sacrilegious by many in those times, in 1954, Ray Charles boldly released the chart topper, “I Got a Woman,” which combined Gospel, Jazz and Blues. Then in 1957, the King of Soul, and Aretha’s heart-throb, Sam Cooke, crossing over from Gospel into secular music, released the soul classic, “You Send Me,” Opening the floodgates for the acceptance of Soul Music and the likes of Bobby Womack, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Billy Preston, Otis Redding, James Brown and Aretha Franklin, who, in 1960, at 18, following in the footsteps of her crush, would begin her career outside the church at Columbia Records. And soon thereafter, a star was born!

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, and the Godfather, James Brown, Soul Brother No. 1, were like the twin titans of the times during the ‘60s and ‘70s, with their twin anthems for women and Blacks, “Respect” and “I’m Black and I’m Proud!” She excelled at any music form she tried, including Gospel, Soul, Jazz, Blues, Rhythm & Blues and Country.

And in 1998 at the Grammy Awards, she was asked to step in at the last minute for Luciano Pavarotti(!), who was too ill to perform, and sing “Nessun Dorma,” an aria written specifically for an operatic tenor, not a mezzo-soprano like Franklin. Nevertheless, Franklin flawlessly performed the aria in front of a global audience estimated at 1 billion. Her performance was recognized by Billboard as one of the greatest awards show performances of all time.

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, and the Godfather, James Brown, Soul Brother No. 1, were like the twin titans of the times during the ‘60s and ‘70s, with their twin anthems for women and Blacks, “Respect” and “I’m Black and I’m Proud!”

She also absorbed and inherited her father’s political sensibilities as well: an unapologetic Blackness, a militant dignity and the devotion to using her talent to further the cause of Black freedom. Thus, at the height of her fame in 1970, Franklin supported political prisoner Angela Davis, who had been accused of purchasing firearms used in the takeover of a courtroom in Marin County, California, and who was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and murder. Franklin told Jet magazine that she wanted to post Davis’s bond, “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000.” A quarter million! The Bay View needs an Aretha Franklin!

“Angela Davis must go free,” Franklin said to Jet Magazine in 1970. “Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) 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 if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people.”

Franklin noted that she had the money to post bond because she’d earned it from Black people. She therefore wanted to use it “in ways that will help our people.” Ultimately, she was unable to post the bond because she was out of the country at the time. Instead, it was paid by Rodger McAfee, a progressive, white California farmer.

Angela Davis responded thankfully, “Her bold public call for justice in my case helped in a major way to consolidate the international campaign for my freedom.” Franklin had no concern of losing her audience or future opportunities because of her support for a radical freedom fighter. She was protected by the times and her own sense of integrity and truth.

Aretha receives the Southern Christian Leadership Award from Dr. Martin Luther King in Detroit on Feb. 24, 1967. The man obscured by the mic may be her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, who also worked closely with Dr. King.

This is what we hear in Aretha’s voice and can still hear on her recordings. Truth. It is a voice that contains spiritual honesty, the field or street holler, the blues moan, the gospel shout, and jazz improvisation.

Like a human wild cat cry, her vocalizations are neither timid nor shy. They are sensually grounded and spiritually transcendent and completely lacking in contradiction. Aretha’s voice is what democracy sounds like – America at its best!

It also transcends national boundaries, invoking the West Afrikan cultures that gave birth to diasporic musical practices; it appeals to a global audience who appreciate her sound. I noticed that even one of my Facebook friends in Russia had posted the news of Aretha’s passing.

Aretha Franklin, the obvious people’s choice, sang at the inauguration of the election of the first Black president in 2008. But, alas and even before the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, because of her strong political beliefs, she chose to sing “My Country Tis of Thee” instead of about “bombs bursting in air”! Wow! What a time to stand up for your principles!

What ever happened to the Golden Age that the Black folk group the Fifth Dimension sang about 50 years ago, “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius”? The Golden Age tried to raise its lovely head with the Be Boppers and the Beatniks of the ‘50s, the Hippies, Rockers and Flower Children of the ‘60s and the Revolutionaries of the ‘70s, but the system, the establishment, the status quo shut them all down. Then came the Republican revolution of the ‘80s! Ugh!

Aretha Franklin was a part of that golden constellation of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s! And had to endure through the premature deaths of many of her contemporaries – most of them murdered, in one way or another, by the system – including Dr. Martin Luther King, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Dorothy Dandridge, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, John and Bobby Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Princess Di, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Bob Marley, Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, Sly Stone (silenced), Prince, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Huey P. Newton, Malcolm X, Ron Brown, Harold Washington, Tupac and Elvis Presley!

Like a human wild cat cry, her vocalizations are neither timid nor shy. They are sensually grounded and spiritually transcendent and completely lacking in contradiction. Aretha’s voice is what democracy sounds like – America at its best!

It’s kind of hard to start a Golden Age when all your gold is looted by bandits! But we shall have our Golden Age nevertheless! And every one of those illustrious stars will be returning to the planet soon.

City Lights and beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti waxed insightfully and poetically when he said, “There’s a poet born in all of us. But the world beats it out of most of us.” Aretha, from cradle to crown and throughout her life, never stopped wailing! She made folks think and earned a whole world of respect.

President Obama: “Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade – our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace.”

After gracing the planet for 76 years, Aretha Franklin joined the ancestors Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.

Paradise is president of the International Black Writers and Artists, was honored with his own day, Oct. 6, by the city of Oakland, and may be heard performing at True Vibe Records Presents. Find him on Facebook at Paradise Freejah Lovesupreme.

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