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How Aretha Franklin paved the way for powerful feminism

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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Stylist’s editorial assistant Moya Lothian-McLean remembers a true icon

Aretha Franklin was 76 when she passed away from pancreatic cancer at her home in Detroit, the city where she spent a formative period of her childhood and returned to later in life. By then she was already an elder stateswoman of soul, despite only being in her 40s.

The number looked like a mistake when I first read it, casually bracketed alongside the announcement of her death. Aretha Franklin, a woman who seemed to have lived a thousand lives and soundtracked so many periods of social upheaval, could not only be 76. Aretha was the living witness of what seemed like 100 years of change.

Age 26, she tearfully sang Take My Hand Precious Lord at the memorial service for friend and colleague Martin Luther King, after he was assassinated for the crime of being a black man who wanted to be treated as a human being. Forty-one years later, there was no wavering as she belted out America (My Country ‘Tis Of Thee) at the inauguration of her country’s first ever black President. How could the woman who had seen such startling political revolution be so young? Aretha outlived icons (including honorary niece Whitney Houston) who didn’t take their first breath until 20 years after she first stood in her father’s church and sang I’m Sealed Til the Day of Redemption.

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She was alive long enough to harbour both a crush on Sam Cooke and dish out devastating judgement on Taylor Swift. How could this woman have lived for anything less than eight decades on earth? 

Her voice was at the centre of it all, of course. The trope of powerhouse diva might now be well-worn, but Aretha paved the way. At a time when black performers were having songs stolen by white stars like Elvis and being made ‘palatable’ for mainstream success, Aretha refused to tamp herself down. Her four-octave range contained all the whirling emotion of what it felt like to be a black woman at a time when existing as either, let alone at the intersection, put you at the bottom of the pile. There was pain, fire and fury but also spirituality, joy and a great knowing humour. It was quite simply, unmatched. If you listened to Aretha, her voice would fill every fissure of your being. No wonder it’s so hard to look past it.

The woman behind the voice, famously guarded, contained a multitude of lived experience; she was a walking history book. She grew up under the thunderous wing of Detroit’s most charismatic preacher, C.L Franklin, whose activism helped make the city one of the national hubs for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Franklin’s father was a personal friend of Martin Luther King (who 16-year-old Aretha had toured with in 1958, singing before he delivered speeches calling for action) and the key organiser of the Detroit Walk to Freedom. The largest political demonstration in United States history at the time (until the March on Washington two months later), the 1963 march saw 125,000 people stride through Detroit to demand equality for blacks. 

Franklin with her ‘honorary niece’ Whitney Houston, recording their hit It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Gonna Be Me in 1989

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The mother of two sons by the time she was 14 (the first born to a 12-year-old Franklin), she married Ted White in 1961, a union marred by domestic violence and alcohol abuse. The experience was channelled into Franklin’s most famous recording – a gender-flipped cover of Otis Redding’s hit Respect that become a personal mantra for downtrodden women the world over, and a political anthem adopted by the Civil Rights movement that she was so entrenched within. Franklin was personally responsible for the song’s most famous moments – spelling out the track’s title in letters, demanding “sock it to me!” of her hapless partner and nonchalantly dropping in a reinforcement of her worth: “you know I’ve got it”. And she did. When Redding heard her version, he knew he’d been usurped.

“That girl took my song from me!” he reportedly exclaimed. 

Incredibly, Franklin was the first ever woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. She remains the only female in the pantheon of 21 performers with four or more songs on the institution’s official list of ‘500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll’. She weathered a constantly changing pop landscape, managing to update her soul style and dabble in synth-pop and R&B to score hits in modern times, racking up 18 Grammy wins in total. She’s performed for at least three Presidents (and has been pictured both fist bumping and making Obama cry on separate occasions) and the Queen – at the command of the monarch herself.

She was also one of the only icons to champion the rise of feminism without the trepidation of alienating audiences, even when peers who had built careers on the back of female empowerment shied away from it. In 1991, Annie Lennox recalled that Aretha’s presence on feminist hit Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves was at the personal request of the legend, after Tina Turner turned it down because “she found the content too feminist”. 

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Franklin in discussion with long-time producer Jerry Wexler. Together they worked on hits like Respect and I Never Loved A Man

With an unerring Forrest Gump-esque knack for working with artists who went on to be history-makers in their own right (Simon & Garfunkel, George Michael, Quincey Jones and Lauryn Hill to name but a few), Aretha stayed an active presence within music. And even at the top she was aware of its barriers.

“Women have done well in the music industry with the exception of those male bastions: the executive offices,” she said in an interview.

“We have not had a female executive run any major label in the U.S. or anyplace else that I know of right now… [But] women need to do anything other than what they’re doing right now, and that’s moving forward. Moving to the forefront. Moving into the executive offices. Moving into the areas that men have held captive. We’re coming.”

R.I.P.

Images: Getty 

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Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean is Stylist’s editorial assistant where she spends her time inventing ways to shoehorn Robbie Williams into pieces. A reoffending dancefloor menace, a weekend finds her taking up too much space at disco nights around the city and subsequently recovering with dark sunglasses and late brunch the next day. 

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