The world lost one of the greatest singers of all time on Thursday when Aretha Franklin, the Memphis-born, Detroit-raised singer died at the age of 76.
For more than half a century, Franklin’s music etched itself into popular culture. Her talent and omnipresence earned her the title “The Queen of Soul,” a status honored as presidents rushed to praise her in the hours after her death.
But Franklin was far more than a singer. Or rather, she used song, and the platform it provided her, as a way of advancing feminism and social activism in powerful and often overlooked ways.
While rarely overtly political, Franklin understood the power of her platform and used her voice for more than just belting out songs and entertaining audiences. She was a strong advocate for the black community, black women in particular. She employed her feminist sensibilities in a manner that produced real, concrete results.
Even her song choices reflected this sensibility. When Franklin belted “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” in 1967, “Respect” became an instant classic. But hers wasn’t the first version of the song. Originally recorded by Otis Redding, “Respect” laid out a set of demands about how a woman should treat the man in her life in exchange for the resources he provided. By recording the song as a woman, without changing the perspective, Franklin produced a version that became both a feminist and civil rights anthem, placing the spotlight not only on a woman demanding respect but a woman as the primary provider.
Franklin’s worldview was rooted, at least in part, in the activist gospel traditions. She grew up in Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father, the legendary C.L. Franklin, delivered powerful sermons from the pulpit. He also worked for black civil rights in Detroit, first fighting for equal opportunities for black autoworkers and then for the broader mission of voting rights and non-discrimination. Nor was her father the only influence in her home: Powerful black women frequently visited the Franklin home and church, including singers Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson.
Such surroundings help explain her unapologetic and fierce commitment to the cause of social justice in all its forms.
Her commitment to other black women occasionally drew her further into activism than some people were comfortable with. In 1970, Franklin offered to post bail for Angela Davis, who at the time was a member of the Communist Party. Davis had been charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and murder. Franklin’s father, who was understandably concerned about potential repercussions for his daughter’s career, advised her to avoid any association with Davis.
In blending politics and art, Franklin was part of a long tradition of black women like Lena Horne, Hazel Scott, Odetta Holmes and Nina Simone who, either subtly or openly, challenged injustices. Whether they came out of the black church activist tradition or the artistic activist tradition, they worked at a core site of black civil rights efforts, building on the platform their art provided.
From the late 1960s up until the mid-1970s, Franklin was a perennial force in the music industry and frequently dominated the charts and award shows. And she entertained more than just the public, performing for three decades of presidents — Jimmy Carter in 1977, Bill Clinton in 1993 and Barack Obama in 2009 — and Pope Francis in 2015.
Franklin’s songs were a testament to the struggles of black women and, as such, deeply political. She combined feminism with black pride and still made a place for herself in an American cultural landscape that has never been entirely comfortable with her either. That is a testament not just to the power of her music, but to the savvy and strength of her politics — a legacy that should be remembered as a central component of her musical career.