With the polarisation of politics in America and the recent chaotic state of events emerging from Canberra which led to an abrupt change of prime ministership, even the most politically engaged can feel a bit cynical.
Arguably, the world feels a little darker, and the inspiration for change can feel intangible and a little hard to find. In those moments a spark of faith is needed, and the passing of soul superstar Aretha Franklin and her passion for the civil rights movement can be just that.
Franklin was born on March 25, 1942 to preacher Clarence LaVaughn “C.L” Franklin, who was responsible for organising the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom of friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Growing up in the home of a prominent African American preacher, Franklin was immersed, and involved in, the struggle for civil rights and women’s rights right up until the end of her life.
Franklins’ most popular hit Respect—a funky ditty on the initial listen—is a cover of Otis Redding’s 1965 eponymous track, and it’s considered an anthem for civil rights and feminism. A funked-out backbone with saxophones splaying out the chorus, accompanied by Franklin’s exacerbating vocals—a strong souled-out virulent wit—it’s certainly a ‘60s party jam.
But listen to it closely and Aretha Franklin’s cover of Respect goes further than reinterpreting a pop track. There is power. The track feels like more of a statement—a demand even. Intentional or not, the assertive vocals pushed out by Franklin repurposed a delightful pop track into an audible open letter demanding agency for women and minorities at the time.
But the track became something more, it became a calling for a mutuality of respect of all peoples, regardless of gender, race, class or sexuality.
Franklin said in her memoir Aretha: From These Roots, that “it [reflected] the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect.”
So, in the wake of the arrest and trial of American political activist Angela Davis, Franklin offered to post bail for her. Davis was tried for assisting in a courtroom takeover. In 1970 a gunman interrupted the Marin County trial of San Quentin inmate James McClains, who was facing a charge of attempted murder. It resulted in four deaths—of the judge and three jurors.
Stating she would pay, “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000,” to free Davis, Franklin went against the advice of her own father when she made the offer.
Reflecting to writer David Ritz in Respect: The Life of Franklin, Franklin said, “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. 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—they’ve made me financially able to have it—and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
Franklin’s commitment to civil rights culminated in her performance for former US President Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009. Singing My Country, ‘Tis of Thee—an American patriotic song written by Samuel Francis Smith.
A few years later in 2015, she would perform again in front of then-President Obama at Washington’s Kennedy Centre belting out You Make Me Feel (Like A Natural Woman).
Reducing then-President Obama to tears, he said, “American history wells up when Aretha sings … Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, Rock ‘n’ roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”
This is what really encapsulates Franklin’s degree of influence and commitment to the soul music and the civil rights movement. Writing and producing soul music is more than just creating a catchy tune and developing a popular track to sell records. It’s about continuing a dialogue and producing a memorable impact that incites change through music.
Encapsulating the African-American spirit, remembering the historical struggles while inciting hope in listeners to demand something better is the purpose of soul. That is the definition of soul power, and reducing a US president to tears shows Franklin had the ability to meld and spread the power of soul to those around her.
This article was originally published on October 8 2018 as part of Grok Issue #2 2018. For more of our print content visit https://issuu.com/curtinguild