On Thursday came the news: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, had lost her battle with pancreatic cancer, according to her publicist Gwendolyn Quinn. Franklin passed away at home, surrounded by family. She was 76.
Within seconds of the announcement came an outpouring of sympathy from all over the world. By midday, it had become a flood of social media posts by fans, music industry peers, and media luminaries, all speaking to her legacy. Videos captured hoards of fans gathered around her star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. Her best known performances completely took over the news channels.
The world is collectively mourning a soul.
It’s rare that a person can come along and penetrate humanity like Franklin did, forever leaving her mark on the zeitgeist and, some would say, our hearts. Growing up, Franklin was in heavy rotation in my home, proudly taking a place alongside both her predecessors — like Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington — as well as successors like Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston. Her voice is a staple for a reason.
“But when her music first erupted into the wider American consciousness in the late 1960s, all the masses really knew about Franklin was that she was young, black and female,” Chris Richards writes in the Washington Post.
Yes, Franklin was young, black, and female. Perhaps that was all that we could see at the start of her career. But to that I ask: What more did we need to know?
Being young, black, and female in the 60s and 70s — the peak years of her storied career — was an experience that doesn’t need any explanation other than it was a life of constantly grinding, constantly fighting, and only getting half as far by the end of the day. So when a young, black woman would hear “Think” — on which the songstress demands, “You better think about what you’re trying to do to me” — she heard, if not her own plight, her mother’s, her sister’s, her best friend’s.
And when she heard “Respect,” she heard an anthem.
In the years leading up to Franklin’s arguably most recognizable hit, black women in America endured a strange mix of triumph and adversity. In 1960 Ruby Bridges had just integrated her all-white elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana. Four years later Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Weston were killed in the bombing of 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. The Selma to Montgomery marches — and the violence the marchers faced — took place in 1965. Affirmative action became an executive order in 1967.
So by the time Franklin belted out her version of the Otis Redding song, her empowering commands fully reverberated within the bodies and souls of anyone identifying as “young, black, and female.” In this way, Franklin didn’t merely contribute to the black American zeitgeist of the 60s, she embodied the zeitgeist.
Franklin began touring with her father’s band at the age of 12. She was a mother of two before the age of 15; behind the scenes she dealt with an abusive husband who also served as her manager. Other adversities followed: Shot during an attempted robbery, her father, Baptist minister C.L. Franklin, spent five years in a near-death coma before finally succumbing in 1984; a traumatizing 1982 flight that left her with a fear of flying that often impacted her career. (Franklin would quip that exclusively touring by bus had its advantages: “You can pull over, go to Red Lobster. You can’t pull over at 35,000 feet.”)
But while good soul music tends to require it, her story isn’t just about suffering. It is about prevailing. She divorced husbands like we change our socks. She earned a record-breaking 18 Grammys. She had 73 hits on the Billboard Top 100 — for forty years, the most for a female artist, until 2017, when Nicki Minaj bested her. (On Thursday, in a fitting bit of turnabout, her “30 Greatest Hits” album displaced Minaj’s “Queen” at the top of the iTunes charts.) She was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She performed at both Rosa Parks’ funeral as well as Barack Obama’s inauguration. She earned the right to throw shade at Taylor Swift (who does wear beautiful gowns).
The obituaries will say that, in the end, the cause of Franklin’s death was advanced pancreatic cancer. But she survived this thing called life, as have so many other young black women of the 1960s and beyond.