I don’t know why Aretha Franklin’s transition hit me so hard and affected me so deeply. I have never met her. She’s just a pop culture superstar. Right? Marvin, Michael, and Whitney all preceded her in death. When they left I listened to their music and admired their greatness. But now I am in the second day of weeping, in fact listening earlier to her brilliant, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.”
My wife and I stayed up until 2 a.m. Aug. 19 drying each other’s tears, holding each other tightly, and singing Aretha’s hits which have been the soundtrack of our, and so many others’, lives.
I knew when CNN reported on August 13 of her being gravely ill, it meant her physical body would not be with us much longer. I knew like Ella, Sarah, and Betsy her music and soul would be with us eternally. But when she actually ascended from here to her final place of rest, it gripped me as if I lost a close and cherished relative — a mother, grandmother, favorite aunt, perhaps even a sister.
Why is this happening I asked myself?
Aretha is not just an artist of our generation; she is the artist of all generations. For sure there have been great singers. The genius of the troubled David Ruffin of the Temptations gave him the ability to feel deeply each note and, thus, take us with him to often dark and melancholy places. Billie Holiday’s voice captured her personal tragedy but moreover generational pain of women subjected to male patriarchy and violent American Apartheid. Whitney had it all in one vessel: knockout looks, camera rapport, soaring chops, and vocal range, fidelity, and versatility. There were countless others. They do not come close to giving us what we need or providing us what Aretha brought.
Aretha was born in 1942 when segregation was the law of the land in America. Blacks were still being lynched with impunity. Closer to home, Ms. Franklin, no doubt, experienced conflicted, mixed and confusing emotions around her relationship with her iconic pastor father who allegedly impregnated a 12-year-old child member of his congregation. Aretha, herself, was a teenage parent. She overcame and persevered. But in the Queen of Soul’s voice and music we experience much more than personal pain and triumph. We feel historic pain that finds its origin in the struggles of our people for freedom, dignity, and humanity.
It is as if Aretha, herself, was there standing next to that African woman who threw her newborn baby overboard rather than see it become a slave in the West. Perhaps she was that mother. In her voice we hear and feel the pain of the slave mother raped repeatedly by master and his armed terrorists. The natural woman knew rape never has or will be natural.
Our people survived a middle passage, 400 years of slavery, 100 years of segregation, and today—institutional and structural racism. We are still made to feel like strangers in a country and economy that would not exist were it not for the brutal subjugation of our ancestors. This nation has never apologized, repented or compensated African Americans in any shape, form, or fashion. Aretha’s music demanded, if not straight out in content, certainly in feelings, that these injustices of sexual and racial violence be righted.
Her gifts included those of identification, empathy, and translation. She identified with every victim, she felt pain and hurt visited upon generations of her people as if they happened directly to her. But she also experienced joy, love, and happiness day and night tripping on many occasions. She translated the predicament of our people’s experience through the instrument of voice, music, and recording arts technology. She speaks to us through every musical style, type, genre: Opera, Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Work Song, Spirituals. They are all her Soul Music.
She was our redeemer.
Maya Angelo said you might forget what they say but not how they make you feel.
So since her transition, I been feeling sad. Sad because her humanitarian proclivities are being undermined by an orange man on the throne who is backed by nearly half of American citizens. I am sad that mothers and fathers are being separated from their children like what happened to us when we were sold individually as slaves and not always able to find each other.
Aretha’s shouts and moans transmit pain from such separation.
I am sad Barack Obama’s historic two terms in office as our president triggered one of the most radical and racist “white lashes” our country has ever known in the rise and prominence of his antithesis—a serial sexual abuser, pathological liar, and apologist for neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Not even close to Aretha’s yearning for a “do right man.”
But I am happy to know that the memory of the experiences of our people — the black Americans who were never immigrants and who built the economy through forced and free labor — will live on through the example and music of Aretha’s life. Her music is our lives and the lives of our ancestors. This is the RESPECT it demands.
_ Jabari Simama is the retired president of GPTC. Visit his Jabari Speaks blog at https://jabarisimama.com/