Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul and most-gifted vocalist in living memory, passed away yesterday aged 76, due to advanced pancreatic cancer. And as the world mourns the loss of one of the greatest artists of all time, her contributions both in and outside of music are being remembered.
A figurehead for female empowerment, perhaps her most recognisable song, Respect, became an anthem for the burgeoning women’s liberation movement in the 1960s. Initially, the song was written and sung by a man, the legendary Otis Redding, from the perspective of a long-suffering husband demanding a break from his wife. Franklin breathed new life and meaning into the song with lyric changes and by adding the now-iconic R - E - S - P - E - C - T chorus. The song soon became a rallying cry against the patriarchy for women – African-American women specifically. Rolling Stone magazine put her version in the top five greatest songs of all time, saying that Franklin was a “woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal with scorching sexual authority”. Redding himself said within months of Franklin's recording that the song belonged to her.
The same sense of independence and empowerment that made the song resonate so much with women across the world is found in other classics, such as (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and Freeway Of Love.
However, Franklin wasn’t as willing to define herself as a feminist as others were. “I think that’s Gloria Steinem’s role,” she told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I don’t think I was a catalyst for the women’s movement. Sorry. But if I were? So much the better.”
And it’s fair to say that she was. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and became the most charted female in history, with over one hundred singles hitting the US Billboard chart. Franklin didn’t simply sing about respect – she demanded and commanded it. In 1993, the journalist Liz Smith made snide remarks about a Bill Blass gown the 18-time Grammy Award winner wore in a Fox TV special.
“She must know she’s too bosomy to wear such clothing,” she wrote in her New York Post column. “But clearly she just doesn’t care what we think, and that attitude is what separates mere stars from true divas.”
“How dare you be so presumptuous as to presume you could know my attitudes with respect to anything other than music,” came Franklin’s reply. “Obviously I have enough of what it takes to wear a bustier and I haven’t had any complaints. When you get to be a noted and respected fashion editor, please let us all know.”
She finished her letter off with an equally as biting PS: “You are hardly in a position to determine what separates stars from divas since you are neither one or an authority on either.”
Just as she is responsible for hordes of feminist anthems, her music was the soundtrack to the civil rights movement, too, in which she played a key part. She had supported organisers financially, doing free concerts and fundraisers in order to help them make ends meet. “When Dr King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll,” said the civil rights activist Rev Jesse Jackson, her friend of more than 60 years. She had toured with songwriter, actor and activist Harry Belafonte and Dr Martin Luther King in 1967, who awarded her a Southern Christian Leadership Conference award. She also famously had tried to post bail for civil rights activist Angela Davis in 1970.
“Angela Davis must go free,” she told Jet magazine. “Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace… 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.”
In writings to civil rights leaders, her official letterhead read “Queen Mother of Soul” underneath her signature. But, for Franklin, the title she had rightly earned went far beyond her talent. “Being the Queen is not all about singing, and being a diva is not all about singing,” she once told The Washington Post. “It has much to do with your service to people. And your social contributions to your community and your civic contributions as well.”