Aretha Franklin: Soul legend and icon of civil rights and feminist struggles

August 23, 2018
Soul singer Aretha Franlink passed away on August 16, aged 76.

Legendary soul singer, feminist and civil rights icon Aretha Franklin, who died aged 76 on August 16, was often called the "Queen of Soul" as well as the “Voice of Black America”, noted Common Dreams.

Franklin was especially renowned for her 1967 version of Otis Redding’s “Respect”, which she turned into a feminist anthem. Redding himself declared that after Franklin’s version, the song belonged to her.

In Franklin’s hands, the song doubled as a statement of a woman insisting on her worth, and a Black person doing the same. Franklin’s rendition was adopted as an anthem by both feminist and anti-racist struggles.

Common Dreams noted Franklin was famous for the power of her voice and her passionate performances.

Democracy Now! pointed out: “In 1987, Aretha Franklin became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She held the record for the most songs on the Billboard Top 100 for 40 years. Rolling Stone ranked her the greatest singer of all time on its top 100 list…”

“‘Respect’ became a soundtrack for the 1960s,” wrote DeNeen L Brown in the Washington Post. “Franklin, then just 24 years old, infused it with a soulful and revolutionary demand, a declaration of independence that was unapologetic, uncompromising and unflinching.”

Brown noted: “The song was a demand for something that could no longer be denied. She had taken a man’s demand for respect from a woman when he got home from work [in Redding’s original] and flipped it. The country had never heard anything like it...

“‘Respect’ would become an anthem for the black-power movement, as symbolic and powerful as Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’.”

Common Dreams said: “Born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 25, 1942, and raised mainly in Detroit, Franklin had been personally affected by segregation.”

“The blues is a music born out of the slavery day sufferings of my people,” she told the Amsterdam News in 1961.

Franklin sang both at the funeral of civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, in 1968. Forty years later, she sang at the inauguration of the first African American president, Barack Obama.

“Aretha has always been a very socially conscious artist, an inspiration, not just an entertainer,” civil rights activist Jesse Jackson told the Detroit Free Press. “She has shared her points of view from the stage...”

Among those paying their respects to Franklin was legendary revolutionary activist Angela Davis.

When Davis was jailed on trumped up charges as part of the US state’s war on the Black Power movement in 1970, Franklin offered to post bail.

Democracy Now! said: “Aretha Franklin told Jet magazine in 1970, ‘My daddy says I don’t know what I’m doing. Well, I respect him, of course, but I’m going to stick by my beliefs.

“Angela Davis must go free. 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.

“I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.’”

Speaking to Democracy Now! after Franklin’s death, Davis said: “When Aretha decided to hold a press conference announcing that she would pay up to $250,000, which in today’s currency would be probably about a million-and-a-half dollars, it was really a high point in the campaign.

“And I believe that many people who may have been reluctant to associate themselves with me because of my communist affiliations probably joined the campaign as a result of Aretha’s statement…

“[T]hat was such a moving moment. It was a moment in which the campaign for my freedom achieved a really populist status among people in this country, and probably throughout the world, as well.”

Rashod Ollison wrote at The Root: “Everything you needed to know about her—the pain, the joy, the faith, the strength — was etched in every note she sang.

“Simply put, if you didn’t feel Aretha, you didn’t possess a soul.”

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