Aretha Franklin has died, but her legacy goes beyond serving as the inspiration for today’s most popular stars.
Throughout her career, Franklin was the face of individualism, even during a time in America where African American artists were punished for being themselves. It was this courage to be free, and to inspire others to live freely, that made her an icon. But an icon doesn’t become famous overnight; it takes work to get there.
As the daughter of Baptist minister and civil rights leader Clarence LaVaughn “C. L.” Franklin, or as he was called, the man with the “million-dollar voice,” the young Franklin was exposed to major names in both gospel and mainstream music, as well as iconic civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.
But despite the celebrity status her father enjoyed, Franklin also experienced the difficulties of early motherhood, as well as the cultural hurdles young women of color often experienced on their way to success.
She became a mother at 12 and had her second child just short of turning 15. Soon after, the young singer was forced to leave her young children with grandmother Rachel and sister Emma so she could pursue her dreams.
At 16, she dropped out of school and toured with MLK. After his death in 1968, she sang at his funeral.
At 18, Franklin told her father she no longer wanted to exclusively record gospel tunes. Instead, she wanted to follow in singer Sam Cooke’s footsteps, whom she had met in California. That’s when she headed to New York, where she signed with Columbia Records.
‘Respect’ Brings Fame, And Freedom
Despite the initial fame, commercial success would only come to Franklin after she signed with Atlantic Records. In 1967, when her version of now iconic Otis Redding’s “Respect” dropped, it shot to number one on both the R&B and pop charts. In no time, the song had become an anthem of empowerment for African Americans and women, as it reflected how Americans of both genders joined together to demand respect.
With other hits from the same era like “Chain of Fools” and “Think,” Franklin used personal struggles with then-husband and manager Ted White to tell the audience a story about self-confidence and liberty, reminding her man, “Think about what you’re trying to do to me,” and telling America that “freedom stands for freedom.”
Nobody is gonna hand it to you, she seemed to be telling the audience. You have to make it for yourself. And as she explained in an interview then, “you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace.”
Using her music and her own body as a vessel of individual expression, Franklin wasn’t just a liberty icon because she was a black singer during the civil rights movement.
She emerged as a person whose pride spoke louder than words, using what Daphne Brooks, a professor of African American Studies, calls “sartorial symbolism” to evoke “black diasporic elegance and grandeur.” But most importantly, she was “pop.”
A black, young, and beautiful woman had entered white America’s homes and became a beloved singer in the four corners of the country in spite of racism and government’s war on civil rights.
But her power and influence weren’t just due to her music, she also acted to support civil rights activists, going as far as posting bail for Angela Davis, who had spent a brief time as a Black Panther.
In the 1960s, when the country was being forced to acknowledge its government’s role in the systemic oppression of black Americans over the decades, Franklin was the cultural icon of the movement that followed: The flourishing of the free black individual, completely ready to take her place as “The Queen of Soul.”
Her musical interpretations reflected and reinforced this theme of freedom in her life. She made every song her own, and presented it in a way we had never heard before, unbounded by what had come before. Her melodic and harmonic improvisations embodied creativity and liberality. The emotional release that she accomplished in her interpretations of even standards like the National Anthem pointed to new paths for individual expression.
Black or white, it didn’t matter: She was everybody’s favorite. And when it comes to meaningful change, that type of cultural shift that really dissolves the blindfold created by collectivism, there’s nothing more effective than art.
Franklin’s art helped to change America, and now, America weeps at her departure. But we still have her art, and that is not going anywhere.