It’s was just after 9 a.m. ET when guests began arriving at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit for Aretha Franklin’s “homegoing” service. It was nearly 10 hours later when, to the booming worship of Jennifer Holliday and the Aretha Franklin Celebration Choir, they processed out, having done the work and experienced the joy of sending the Queen of Soul home.
Singer after singer—Faith Hill, Ariana Grande, Chaka Khan, Yolanda Adams, Jennifer Hudson, Stevie Wonder—each more famous than the next, lifted their voices and riffed (and riffed and riffed and riffed) in praise. Dozens of friends, family members, politicians, ministers, and celebrities preached and testified to Franklin’s legacy. More than a workday was spent. Franklin’s homegoing had evolved into a cultural moment: a remembrance, a meditation on race, and, at a crucial point for America, a path forward.
In spite of a polarizing final eulogy antagonizing the dominating positive and galvanizing spirit of the event, the service was the ultimate celebration of the black church. More, it was happening on a global stage, in all of its faith and indulgence; on Twitter, people joked that Franklin wouldn’t be going home until Labor Day.
It was beautiful. It was exasperating. Almost comical, really, in its casual, indifferent meandering—even in the grinning bemusement with which, no doubt, the black audience thought of those watching a service like this for the first time. An education.
It was excessive, and it was absolutely deserved. Because Aretha Franklin’s homegoing wasn’t just about mourning or, as the spate of headlines churned out following performances by the likes of Ariana Grande and Faith Hill might have you believe, a star-studded concert.
As stories of Franklin’s life, her talent, her fight, her blackness, her womanhood, and her pride were regaled by speaker after speaker—and there were nearly 50 of them—Friday’s day-long funeral service, just like the singer herself, became history itself. It was black history, civil rights history, music history. It was our history, as lived through and soundtracked by the Queen of Soul.
As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise that so much of the service doubled as a political rally.
It was in Rev. Al Sharpton’s rebuke of Donald Trump’s disrespect in a tweet after Franklin’s death suggesting that she had “worked” for him.
“No, she performed for you. She worked for us,” he said. “Aretha took orders from no one but God.” He was careful to root the headline-grabbing message in Franklin’s work: “She was a black woman in a white man’s world. She bore her cross. Now it’s time to crown the Queen.” The line of the day, from Sharpton: “Hand in your cross and pick up your crown.”
It was in Rev. Jesse Jackson chronicling all the ways Franklin’s rise to fame came alongside the trauma and struggle of the civil rights movement and a racist America, carrying that message to the present day: “If you are living today and not voting, you are dishonoring Aretha Franklin.”
It was in eulogist Rev. Jasper Williams, Jr. recounting Franklin’s survival in the age of Jim Crowe, the state of black America throughout her lifetime, and not just her resilience through it all, but her position at the forefront of the fight.
To not see meaning in the fact that the eulogy for the greatest singer of all time became a state of the union on black lives and black living in America is to be blind to our culture and to Franklin’s career and legacy.
(We will leave the reverend’s polarizing, arguably offensive, and ill-spirited MAGA-tinged remarks about black women, mothers, gays, and Democrats to a more qualified person to debate.)
Her divadom was lovingly mocked, owned, and celebrated. But more strikingly came countless stories of her generosity and support: of her friends, of her family, of her local politicians—black politicians, female politicians, and black female politicians, especially.
In taking all of this in at this time in our culture, there was something about that preaching and testimony that was healing. The marathon nature of it all, the full nine hours of it, felt needed. The music, the praise: essential.
The fact that we all, no matter our race, religion, or status—but also very explicitly because of our respective races, religions, or statuses—were able to take part in Friday’s celebration of life is, I truly believe, meaningful and possibly transformative.
Then there was the music. This is Aretha Franklin’s funeral. Naturally the service came alive anytime voices were unleashed.
As many of the speakers Friday said, Aretha Franklin brought every fight she weathered, every pain she felt, every joy she lived, every victory, loss, bruise, and pleasure into every note she sang. She brought that from her soul and gave it straight to God, through all of us.
It’s no surprise that Jennifer Hudson, bulldozing the building with her rendition of “Amazing Grace,” would be a highlight of the service, and such a fitting tribute to Franklin. She’s lived all those pains, experienced the highs on the other end, and knows the bittersweetness that comes from a life well- but also tragically-lived. That’s what amazing grace is, and at that moment you could almost witness it being passed from the Queen of Soul down to the soul of another.
It’s vaguely crass to speak in superlatives and call out highlights from a funeral service, but not with Aretha. She’s a legend because she battled, trained, respected her talent and, in turn, boasted it. No matter the occasion of her performance, Franklin triumphed because she earned that triumph. She earned, too, that 10-hour send-off, just as Jennifer Hudson deserved an ovation for her performance.
So, too, does Fantasia.
Fantasia, as she proved during her performance of “Precious Lord,” embodies a fading tradition that Franklin fiercely upheld: Singing should be thrilling. It’s not to listen to; it’s to be experienced. It’s meant to stir, change, lift up, and provoke. Fantasia’s whole body sang that “Precious Lord.” A full-body, full-soul, full-spirit, guttural, carnal, existential, religious delivery, one that guided Franklin home with the comfort that her tradition will carry on.
The same should be said about Gladys Knight’s rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” into “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It was a shattering, heart-pounding vocal performance, yes, but also one that called on humanity, God, and survival in each tremor of her vibrato. If Aretha Franklin’s spirit was in the room, she was channeled through that song.
Chaka Khan, lyrics on her fan and all, sent the high notes to the rafters and chills through the spine. Faith Hill kicked things off with a gospel rave version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” straining her voice to meet the occasion.
Ariana Grande sang “Natural Woman,” as she did earlier this month on The Tonight Show immediately following Franklin’s passing. While that rendition had a suitably somber tenor to it in the immediate aftermath of the icon’s death, her performance Friday was the unbridled, visceral catharsis through song that the hit is meant to embody.
The Clark Sisters, the Williams Brothers, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Pastor Shirley Caesar, and Tasha Cobbs-Leonard brought praise into the church. Stevie Wonder brought the notion of legacy following Knight’s performance, representing both the past as music’s elder statesman, at this point, as well as paving the way for its future, telling the congregation, “We need to make love great again.”
And at the end, Jennifer Holliday, as is her wont, arrived with her voice refashioned as a wrecking ball, tearing down the house. The culture that Aretha helped build has gone with her. Now we have to construct a new one in her name and in her legacy.
As far as that goes, it’s fair to say that Friday’s service left us with our marching orders.