Aretha Franklin became a Queen in American culture at a time when black people were still fighting to be recognized as people and as citizens. That contradiction defines the American experience for black folks—we’re the most imitated, duplicated and venerated, yet remain so underrated. Inasmuch as her songs became feminist anthems for all women, and as much as she embodied a major cultural shift for all women, Aretha was a black woman. A black woman who didn’t coo cutely or present herself as an ingénue in the age of Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick; a black woman who didn’t trust anyone to tell her story for her; and a black woman who didn’t dismiss or downplay the realities of racism even as her career seemed to put her above the fray.
Her work with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. via her father Rev. C.L. Franklin indicated that Aretha understood completely what was at stake for black Americans very early on, and she never lost that. In her own career, she broke barriers (becoming the first black entertainer to grace the cover of TIME magazine in 1968, playing that legendary show at San Francisco’s rock-centric Fillmore West in 1971) while also offering support—both vocal, ideological and financial—to those on the front lines of “the struggle,” from her father’s assistance to the Black Panthers to Aretha’s offer to post bail for Angela Davis. But in the telling of her story, a lot can get lost. One of the great conflicts of black art is controlling the narrative—and Aretha fought to make sure no one could get their hands on hers.
In an age when black artists were becoming more centralized in the pop culture conversation, and as the Civil Rights Movement was forcing America to come to grips with its own racist culture and history, Aretha Franklin emerged as a black woman with no qualms about projecting that blackness to the world in all of its nuanced beauty. As Nina Simone become the voice of righteous rage and The Supremes became the faces of black glamour, Aretha offered a realness that could be just as assertive as the former while remaining as inviting as the latter.
She’d become a mother before she was 15 years old, having two children by that age. As a starlet and the daughter of one of the nation’s most prominent black pastors, it could have defined her image; the mainstream media can be all-too-eager to pick up on a salacious narrative, and it would’ve been quite convenient to present Aretha as this “survivor” of youthful indiscretions or as a stereotypical “young black teen mom” who was able to “turn her life around” with music.” But she wouldn’t give them the chance. She never gave the media the chance to define her.
And her impenetrableness was justified. Throughout her life and career, outside interests were intent on defining her however they pleased. Tumultuous marriages, famous collaborators, her relationship with her father—there was often some angle being worked to diminish all that she was able to do, even as she was being hailed as the Queen.
Her Columbia years were often downplayed by white writers rushing to get to her famous pairing with Jerry Wexler (a recent piece in the National Review merely describes her pre-Atlantic days as “laboring in those vineyards for a decade,” as if she was totally irrelevant before her breakthrough—despite her R&B chart successes). But it was at Columbia that Aretha’s brilliant combination of gospel and blues found a connection with the jazz tradition and pop sensibilities—a melding that would remain in her musical DNA for the rest of her life and career.
Franklin’s work with Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller in the early 1980s was similarly glossed over by mainstream rock critics who were only enamored with the lore of Muscle Shoals and the legendary Swampers—the session musicians who played on so many classic Atlantic Recordings of the late-‘60s/early-‘70s, and who happened to be mostly white guys. Her ‘80s material was often negatively compared to that classic Atlantic run—despite the fact that the latter material was nearly just as present on Black radio and in Black households. Her 1990s musical collaborations with Babyface, Clivilles & Cole, Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige are similarly downplayed by those who believe that soul and R&B only truly mattered in the days before disco.
Praise sometimes came in loaded terms. A Guardian article from 1970 described her in racially-loaded, insulting ways (and subsequently, even in death, so did the aforementioned National Review article, which wrote that “She was bright-eyed but plain in her youth and heavyset in her older years,” while also describing her performances as “booming and wailing and strutting.”) The reality of black performance is that, in a society that prefers whiteness, it is inherently political. Even when the gaze is one of admiration and awe, there is such deeply-embedded racism in how the Western world views black art that “praise” comes filtered through a lens of condescension.
Aretha towered over such barbs with grace and strength. She wasn’t impervious, but she wasn’t going to bend, either. “Aretha authorizes her own reality, and sometimes it’s hard to juxtapose that reality to the reality,” said Tavis Smiley in 2016.
The Queen of Soul is no longer with us in the flesh. Her legacy is being celebrated far and wide, as it should be. But in celebrating that legacy, try to remember the whole of her life and legacy. Recognize how hard she fought to own herself and her image, how so many black artists are denied that right, and how important it is to learn from the lessons she gave us as an artist and as a woman. The truth remains that Aretha Franklin was not an empty vessel for us to pour our ideas of her into. She let you know exactly who she was—even in her refusal to let you see behind the curtain.