Aretha Franklin © The Detroit News Photo
Last Thursday (August 16, 2018), Aretha Franklin passed away at age 76 from pacreatic cancer. She was known as the Queen of Soul and was a rare performer who could transcend genres. Everything from gospel, jazz, soul to opera, Ms. Franklin could not only perform, but make audiences feel joy, love, sadness, and a range of emotions so acutely and profoundly, that it felt like a divine experience.
My very earliest and most cherished memories of Aretha Franklin were memorizing her songs as early as Elementary School (envision a very petitely statured seven year old belting “Respect”, “Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools”). While I grew up in a very small and homogeneous farm town, I was very lucky to have a mom who was an audiophile and had the most extensive collection of records a girl could dream of. My mom was my introduction and inspiration for everything creatively enriching (music, theater, literature and art). I very clearly remember coming home from school to my mom’s records, when she got home from work, we would often listen to Aretha Franklin and I would start singing into my hairbrush. Along with Etta James, and Nina Simone, I also remember tuning into her songs on the radio in my bedroom and feeling like I was having a deeply emotional connection to her. It was something about that voice. Aretha Franklin’s songs basically changed my chemical makeup and was a personal inspiration for me to dip my toe into singing and acting, badly wanting to get people to have a passionate and emotional experience through my art.
Similarly, I don’t think you can listen to many popular pop, jazz, or soul female singers (like Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Janelle Monáe, Adele, Beyonce, Amy Winehouse or even Arianna Grande just to name a few) without hearing Aretha Franklin. Aretha was like this titan godmother figure for so many singers.
Many years after my early concerts with my mom or hugging my radio in my childhood bedroom, I stood in the audience during Barack Obama’s first inauguration (2009) listening to Aretha Franklin sing “My Country Tis of Thee” from the U.S. Capitol. At the time, I was in university in Washington, DC and I vividly remember how bitingly cold it was that morning. My friends and I woke up at 5 am to get as close to the podium as possible, packing our jackets with pocket-sized heat warmers and clutching mug of hot chocolate. We buzzed with anticipation and excitement not only for the future, but of course for the Queen of Soul too. Even then, Aretha Franklin’s performance was intoxicating and flawless.
That also wouldn’t be the last time I would cross paths with Aretha Franklin. Later, when I moved to New York City to pursue my acting career, one of my first survival jobs was working as a receptionist in a very famous music studio where Aretha had recorded (and would continue to record). I was certainly a starving artist and struggling actress then, but the memory of meeting her made every struggle worth it.
Genuinely, it’s such a sad stage of reflection when your idols pass away. Particularly for me, Aretha Franklin held a sacred space in my heart along with a few other notable American soul and jazz singers who laid a foundation for feeling seen, heard, and especially for standing up for the world through their creative lense. Throughout her career, Aretha Franklin represented the voice of women’s rights, civil rights, and of America. But her greatest role, was bringing so many people together through her music.
With that in mind, rest in peace, Aretha Franklin. Thank you for the encouragement, thank you for your emotion and thank you for your divine voice.