We lost our queen last week. Aretha Franklin, singer, activist, infamous shade thrower and singular talent of the likes we will never see or hear again. So many of our great artists, such as Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince and Luther Vandross among others, left us far too soon. We were blessed to have Franklin for 76 years and her voice surrounding us for 54 years. And thanks to President Obama, during his tenure in the White House, he and the first lady continued to celebrate and honor the Queen of Soul on several occasions beyond his inauguration (when the infamous gray church hat almost stole the show).
In one of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s tributes to Franklin, he explained how it took Black Americans years to get a Black president. He then explained, however, that Black Americans always had a queen in Franklin to represent them and give voice to their pain, love and freedom, and to represent them across the world with class, dignity, talent and the epitome of excellence. This link between Franklin as an artist, activist and extension of Black politics cannot be understated. Franklin was born into the church, but also into political activism and politics. Her legacy rightfully includes her incredible catalog of songs, but her interest and ongoing financial support for Black liberation is equally a part of her long legacy.
Everyone seems to have a favorite Aretha Franklin song. When I went to college, I inherited my father’s album collection from the 1960s and ’70s and truly discovered the brilliance of Franklin on vinyl. Of course I’d grown up hearing her greatest hits and her music from the ’80s (I am still trying to figure out who’s zoomin’ who), but it was my father’s records on which I discovered her lesser known songs and was changed forever. Her “Young, Gifted and Black” album is as close to perfection as I can imagine. It comes as no surprise that my favorite songs on the album— “Day Dreaming,” “The First Snow in Kokomo,” and “All the Kings Horses”—were all written by Franklin herself. All have an ethereal quality to them that strikes the heart strings and effortlessly plucks at them until you are left with no words. Just looking at the album cover fills me with pride and a sense of belonging—the head wrap, stained glass window, the dresses. Franklin consistently celebrated her Black American and Afro-centric roots on the covers of her albums.
We owe so much to what Franklin gave us in music and activism. We are able to enjoy new generations of musicians because of their love, appreciation and emulation of the queen. I pray she has found peace and is currently singing her version of “Skylark” to Sarah Vaughn and Etta James in Heaven.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” the co-host of the new podcast FAQ-NYC and the host of The Aftermath on Ozy.com. You can find her on Twitter @Dr_CMGreer.