Aretha Franklin and the Art Form of Black Alchemy
A Queen With a Humble Beginning
Born March 25th 1942, in Memphis Tennesee to preacher C.L. Franklin and gospel singer, Barbara Siggers Franklin, Aretha Franklin lived out her childhood in the motor city, Detroit, Michigan. Given her birthplace and parentage, it was as if she was destined to use music as her ministry.
Like a true Aries warrior, Aretha used her God-given talents to knock down barriers – both professional and personal.
After the death of her mother, Aretha performed on her father’s traveling revival show. Life on the road sharped Aretha’s skills as a performer and writer, and it also made Aretha a young teen mother, but that didn’t stop her.
A self-taught musical protégé, Aretha used her life experiences to create music that spoke to the complexities of the human experience.
“I sing to the realists; people who accept it like it is.”
Aretha grew up in a time where black people continued to build up a country that didn’t make a place for them. For recently migrated southern blacks, what choice did they have? They had to make the best out of a segregated situation where their labor and art were valued, but they weren’t. Making a way out of no way is a black American art form and survival tactic.
Aretha upheld the ‘Black is Beautiful’ message at a time when black people’s images and contributions to music were historically whitewashed. At the height of the civil rights’ movement, Aretha used her influence to garner public support to a cause that could risk her standing as an financially viable star, whose influence spanned multiple genres.
Aretha spoke about posting bail for professor and civil rights activist, Angela Davis, who’d been accused of accused of purchasing firearms used in the takeover of a courtroom in Marin County, California.
Although white progressive farmer, Rodger McAfee paid Davis’ bail, Aretha’s verbal backing helped maintain support of the black liberation movement and helped businesspeople, celebrities, and even a prominent church to raise money for her $102,500 bail.
In a quote from The Nation, Angela Davis states:
“Beyond the promise of financial support, the fact that she championed the cause of my freedom had a profound impact on the campaign,” Davis said, “Especially because her statement inferred that people should not fear being associated with a communist, rather they should be concerned about justice…. Her bold public call for justice in my case helped in a major way to consolidate the international campaign for my freedom.”
In the early 1970s, we had not yet known many solo black female musicians with as much worldwide acclaim as Aretha Franklin. To essentially risk public backlash and diminished financial returns as an artist speaks to Franklin’s dedication to justice and her self-awareness as a celebrity.
Often times, black performers are warned against taking too defined of a stance on racial, economic, and political issues in lieu of being “colorblind.” Aretha Franklin knew that her power as a black woman and a black woman with influence, power, and wealth could be used to further the American ideal of justice that had so long evaded any American that was not white, male, and wealthy.
Young, Gifted, and Black
Young, gifted and black We must begin to tell our young There's a world waiting for you This is a quest that's just begun
When you feel really low Yeah, there's a great truth you should know When you're young, gifted and black Your soul's intact
Aretha Franklin was an artist that did not allow producers or executives to soley dictate her sound; she produced her own work, grounding her art in the realism of life and what was going on in society at the time. For a young black girl growing up in a tumultuous era, Aretha used her music to expose the undercurrent of life, but also illuminated the possibility of growth and reconciliation.
Per President Barack Obama Aretha’s music “captures the fullness of the American experience, the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.' Aretha Franklin was a true genius of American music.”
Rest in Peace and thank you for the music.