“We all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white. It’s our basic human right.” – Aretha Franklin
The search for respect made Aretha Franklin emerge from society’s fringes to become the beating heart of it. Born as a woman in a male-dominated world, add to that too, a black woman in a racially segregated country, Franklin like a thousand other African-American women, was the victim of double marginalisation. But she paraded through the rocky road, trampling discriminations under her rhythmic steps, telling the story of bondage, protesting and reclaiming rights in the most melodious way possible. The reigning ‘Queen of Soul’ conquered the people’s minds in a fragmented world, with the utmost grace and determination.
Her source of strength was her unquestioning faith in God, which can be traced back to her religious background. Being the daughter of a Baptist minister, Franklin grew up learning that all were equal in the eyes of God — a message that guarded her against disillusionment of the real adult world. It was also the church where Franklin was introduced to the food for her soul, music. While describing the divinity and otherworldliness of music Franklin said, “Music does a lot of things for a lot of people. It can take you right back, it’s uplifting, it’s encouraging, it’s strengthening.”
The twelve-year-old prodigy started by recording gospels at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan before pursuing a secular music career. Embarking on an adventurous journey away from home, Franklin found success early in her career. She shuffled labels until she found her perfect match, the Atlantic records under which Franklin produced some of her most memorable songs like ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)’, ‘Do It Right Woman, Do It Right Man’, ‘Respect’, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, ‘I said a Little Prayer’ and so on.
Franklin’s contributions stretched far beyond the borders of the entertainment world. Though she claimed “Politics is not my arena. Music is…” she knew that her fame was not to be misused in vain. Using her music as a powerful tool for protest, she dedicated herself to the ongoing Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movement. Her songs ‘Respect’ and ‘Natural Woman’ became the anthems of those movements. She went as far as providing money and covering payrolls of civil rights groups, along with performing at protests and benefit concerts.
The fire in her glimmered till the end of her days making her one of the senior artists who declined the invitation of the former US President Donald Trump, to perform in his inaugural ceremony, yet another sign of protest.
A successful and careerist woman is often the victim of harsh judgement and lucid comments because society refuses to see her outside the domestic space. No matter how flawless in her professional life, her role as a wife and a mother will always be scrutinised. Franklin faced a tumultuous domestic life, giving birth at the age of twelve and being the victim of domestic violence. However, being twice divorced and romantically involved with other men, she could hardly expect empathy from the faulty, pre-conditioned society. Thankfully, her own family stood by her, helping her to raise her four sons so that she could strive for greatness and perfection.
Franklin who always sought to remain relevant stated that “Music changes, and I’m gonna change right along with it.” Her six and a half decades-long career was adorned with a myriad of glorious achievements. Not only was she the most celebrated female singer of her time but also a tough competition to her male contemporaries.
Franklin is widely regarded as one of the most gifted singers of all time and, with her supreme skills, she naturally carve out a path that many could not hope to. It is remarkable how she climbed at the top of an industry that cornered women and still does, if not in the same degree. From that perspective, Franklin’s greatest achievement was that she led the way for future women artists and members of her community, showing them that it was possible to topple the hierarchy and get respect.