Parsing out Aretha Franklin’s influence on contemporary culture is a foolish task. Without her, nothing comes after.
From the canonical early Atlantic albums to the transcendent, humane gospel of “Amazing Grace,” to her subbing for Luciano Pavarotti at the Grammys in 1998 and bringing President Obama to tears, there’s no generation alive today that hasn’t had their lives, identity and history affected by Franklin’s music. But her vision feels especially trenchant and generous today, given the resurgence of overtly, radically black popular art and music.
Many remembrances of Franklin, who died today at age 76, will highlight her music’s unifying qualities, which are there in abundance. She is part of America’s shared cultural inheritance, a spring of joy and longing and aspiration that’s open to all and will never run dry.
But also remember that she publicly offered to pay the bail of political activist and professor Angela Davis in 1970 when it was a real risk to her career. She allied early with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and quietly financed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism when it represented not just a better vision of America but also a threat to its established social order.
“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,” she told Jet magazine in 1970 regarding Davis, who was being held on suspicion of conspiracy, kidnapping and murder (she was acquitted in 1972). “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… and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
An echo of that same message was, quite literally, on the Super Bowl field in 2016, when Beyoncé performed “Formation” during her half-time show amid a throng of dancers clad in berets similar to those worn by members of the Black Panthers, staring mainstream American culture in the face and daring it to confrontation. It was there onstage with Kendrick Lamar at the 2016 Grammys, where he performed from inside a jail cell with all the fire and righteousness that Franklin brought to her gospel music.
It was there when Chance the Rapper, Kanye West and Kirk Franklin reached heavenward with their celestial choir on “Ultralight Beam,” the north star of a moment in hip-hop when the genre’s top artists were in the midst of spiritual reckonings. It’s there every time Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill open a world of black women’s private pain — personal, political, everything in between — and turn it into gorgeous, groundbreaking, bloodletting song. It’s there in Alicia Keys’ virtuosic piano work, which springs directly from Aretha Franklin’s own instrumental genius.
Franklin’s voice is in every glass of “Lemonade” poured today.
It’s so important not to overlook that specific, lived experience and activism right now, as we try to lend some shape to the scope of Franklin’s accomplishments.
And yet, there is something here for everyone to take freely. If nothing else, start at the voice, which stands alone in American music and which turned every cover she touched into perhaps the definitive version of the song. There’s a reason that, at her 2011 Grammy tribute, artists as diverse as Jennifer Hudson, Florence Welch, Christina Aguilera, Yolanda Adams and Martina McBride took a crack at her catalog. There’s simply no genre, no vision of music, no way of living in the world that doesn’t bear her mark in one way or another.
Franklin passed through so many eras and aesthetics, so many pivotal moments in history, that nothing in music today is without her influence (and let’s be grateful for that). As America again reckons with some of its ugliest traits — bigotry, racism, the venality of its systems of oppression — Franklin can be, must be, a reminder of our better angels as a nation.
Watch her sing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and then bookend it with her performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors that left co-writer Carole King agog and the president wiping tears from his eyes. Whatever else is happening today, we are still living in the world Franklin reflected, fought for and blessed. Music will never be the same, and neither will we. How lucky, how impossible to have her for as long as we did.
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