Thanks to Aretha, women everywhere spell out what we want


I’ve written about Aretha Franklin in the past, and will continue to do in the future. If, by some strange happenstance, you have never heard Aretha’s version of “Respect,” here ‘tis.

in the wake of Franklin’s 2018 deathDeNeen L. Brown wrote a tribute to the song for The Washington Post. 

When Franklin’s version of “Respect” was released in April 1967, it soared to No. 1 on the charts and stayed there for at least 12 weeks. The country was in the throes of a revolution. The Vietnam War was raging, and protests against it were growing. By summer, racial unrest would grip dozens of American cities, including Detroit.

The country was a tinder box, as people of color demanded equality and justice that had been too long coming. “Respect” would become an anthem for the black-power movement, as symbolic and powerful as Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” […]

The song caught on with the black-power movement and feminists and human rights activists across the world. Its appeal remains powerful. In the last year, it has become a symbol of the #MeToo movement.

I grew up listening to Black radio stations, and had a copy of Redding’s “Respect.”

Then Franklin’s cover started to get airplay. I was a big fan of Redding, but after Aretha dropped her version, I don’t think I ever played the original again.

By 1967, I was one of many militant Howard University students who would, a year later, take over the campus—demanding Black Studies, and respect from the university for our activism. The late 1960s were years of change and upheaval for Black America, and that certainly included Black women. Sisters like Shirley Chisholm would step forward and assert themselves, with Chisholm becoming the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968. Other activists, like Fran Beal, would go on to form organizations for Black women, demanding respect from our frequently chauvinist brothers.

Fran Beal co-founded the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in 1968. This evolved into the Black Women’s Alliance and then the Third World Women’s Alliance. TWWA developed an analysis that incorporated race, class, gender and an international perspective. In 1969 Beal wrote one of the defining texts on Black Feminism, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.”

As time passed, and new generations became teens and young adults, Franklin was introduced to them. In 1980, via her role in the film The Blues Brothers, Aretha belted out her 1968 hit, “Think.”

The 1998 sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, was neither a commercial nor critical success, but it included this memorable scene with Aretha doing her thing.

It’s no coincidence that the upcoming Franklin biopic, starring Jennifer Hudson and currently scheduled to be released Aug. 13, is titled Respect.

“Respect” isn’t the only Aretha song that’s an anthem for me. Her 1967 rendition of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” coincided with a time and place where my sisters and I were wearing our hair as it came from our heads and taking pride in our “natural” Black beauty.

In 2015, nearly 50 years after recording “Natural Woman,” Franklin’s performance of the song had the power to bring a U.S. president to tears, as Andy Kush wrote in “Barack Obama Understood Aretha Franklin’s Greatness as Well as Anyone,” for Spin in 2018.

The 44th president had a deep connection with Franklin’s music. She sang at his first inauguration, of course, giving a stirring gospel-inflected rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Franklin has said that she was unhappy with the performance, telling Larry King the following day that the bitter cold weather affected her voice. (As a face in the crowd on that brutal February day, I can tell you that standing on two feet sometimes felt like a challenge, to say nothing of trying to sing like her.)

Perhaps the better Obama-era performance to remember Franklin by, then, is her triumphant appearance at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors.

Franklin sings “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” written for her by Kennedy honoree Carole King with her then-husband Gerry Goffin in 1967. Barack and Michelle Obama sit in the balcony next to King. The songwriter’s response to Franklin is instant and apparently overpowering, kinetically mirroring the singer’s raptrous highs and earthly lows. Franklin sits at the piano and pounds out the song’s bluesy introduction; King’s mouth falls open. Franklin leaps unexpectedly to an aching high register to finish the second verse; King shivers, her eyes seem to roll back, she covers her face with her hands. The president’s reaction, at least what the cameras show of it, is more physically subdued. Early on, he wipes a tear from his face. In a later chorus, as Franklin slides way behind the beat, enacting ecstasy and abandon but always fully in control, he tries to sing along for a few words. He gives up soon enough, shaking his head as if in disbelief of what he’s hearing.

Watch it for yourself: King’s bliss is as contagious as Franklin’s performance is joyful.

Though I’ve limited today’s story to only three of Aretha’s vast collection of songs, I’m sure you have other favorites. Join me in the comments section to spend a day filled with her musical magic. We’re gonna “T.C.B” with the Queen.

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