Yes, the Queen of Soul ruled the charts for a half century. But on and off the stage, Aretha Franklin also ran on full “woke”’ status. Here is a look back at her storied dedication to the resistance.
*insert Black fist emoji*
In 1960, Franklin got an offer from Berry Gordy’s brand-new Motown label. The label was literally just one year old and had just scored their first hit: “Please Mr. Postman.” At just 18 years old, it would seem likely that Franklin would sign with Motown on the spot. Instead, she declined the offer. Although she respected Gordy and would support him throughout the label’s existence, she’d made a decision early on that she belonged on a major label that could move her career along the path she wanted. She was signed to New York’s Columbia Records and her debut album was released in September 1960. In the late ‘50s, Black folks were still struggling to be accepted and pushed by major labels unless it was gospel music. Franklin began the process of knocking those doors down.
Franklin never missed an opportunity to speak on her father, Rev CL Franklin, and how his political activism seeped into her soul. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech was famously rehearsed in Franklin’s hometown at Detroit’s Walk For Freedom, two months before the March On Washington. Her father, close to Dr. King, was on the front lines, literally and figuratively. While Franklin had just moved to New York City and began recording new music, her father never missed a moment to remind her of her legacy. As she emerged as an artist with a voice, she’d never miss an opportunity to use it.
Aretha was literally no joke when it came to recognizing her greatness—even in her early twenties. In 1967, she walked away from Columbia and signed with Atlantic Records. She wanted to go for a new, bolder, more aggressive sound. Her first Atlantic single—“I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”—did exactly that. Young women like Mariah Carey and Beyoncé and Janet Jackson struggled to gain footing and control of their careers. Aretha was able to pull together her direction and what she wanted from day one. Her Atlantic years would become her biggest.
We think the past two years have been politically cringe-worthy. And they have. But we’ve experienced nothing like 1968. We haven’t had promising politicians like Robert Kennedy shot dead at victory parties. We haven’t lost political greats like MLK. We haven’t had full-on riots in large cities like Washington D.C., Chicago and Baltimore. Standing up before a crowd and belting out emotional songs was a huge act of political force. And Aretha Franklin did that not once—but twice in 1968. First, at the Democratic Convention, where a riot broke out just outside the venue. And then again, just a few months later at the funeral for Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1970, The Black Panther Party was a polarizing force, even among Black people. A mainstream success like Aretha Franklin would be expected to stay mum on political affairs that were as controversial as Angela Davis’s trial for a courtroom shootout. She did just the opposite. She could have quietly sent word to Davis’ representatives that she would help with bail if necessary. Instead, she gave an interview to Jet magazine. She laid out plain what she would do and why. She wrote that her support for Davis had nothing to do with communism but because “she is 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.”
In 1971, just one year after her public support for Angela Davis, Franklin wrote a letter to Black Panther Party Minister of Culture Emory Douglas. "I love what you are doing in the community, and I am looking forward to meeting all of you," she wrote. She was unable to attend a community outreach event but wanted the organization to know that they had her full support. CL Franklin’s daughter was not playing.
The city of Detroit has been the very definition of struggle since its peak in the early 1950s. Every census since that year has recorded a smaller number of residents as white flight sent many to outer suburbs. Whether it was uprisings, (multiple) political scandals or simple urban blight, the need to recover has always been a constant. And through it all, Aretha has never left her hometown. While she owned homes in several cities, she never fully left Detroit. “My roots are there. The church is there. My family is there,” she told the Free Press in 2011. “I like the camaraderie in Detroit, how we’ll rally behind something that’s really worthy and come to each other’s assistance.”
Without saying a word, Franklin often commanded an audience and sent a direct message about her political views, whether it was via feminism or civil rights. Check out her, um, messages during an appearance on Soul Train in 1976. The woman is straight up looking at the camera with her ample and bare bosom on display. And she asks, “Am I sparkling today?” like she’s a demure church woman. Get you some Ree-Ree confidence. For her entire career, from the 1966 no-makeup-and-Fro minimalist look, to the sequined head wrap for Sparkle all the way to the 2009 bow-tie hat from Obama’s inauguration that ended up with its very own Facebook page with 100,000 likes. Franklin always knew how to use fashion as a political weapon.
Franklin continued using her voice for good far beyond the formal civil rights movement. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he visited the United States to raise money for his political party, the African National Congress. A welcome home concert, facilitated by Franklin, who also performed, raised over one million dollars for the organization.
1998. Grammy Awards. Luciano Pavarotti calls in sick and can’t perform his signature aria, "Nessun Dorma." Aretha Franklin is asked to perform one of her hits instead. But she listens to his reference tape and decides, I got this. Detroit’s Queen of Soul flawlessly pulls of an Italian opera with no rehearsal—on live television. Another crowning jewel in Black America’s cultural crown.
(Photo: David Corio/Redferns)