September 26, 2021

Aretha Franklin’s voice ripped and caressed … and liberated black girls like me

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She gave us strength. Singing, dancing and politically organising together, or in the privacy of our dorm rooms, each and every one of us was not only Somebody but Everything.

Powered by article titled “Aretha Franklin’s voice ripped and caressed … and liberated black girls like me” was written by Candace Allen, for The Guardian on Friday 17th August 2018 12.31 UTC

That voice, in 1967. Before the homage, the titles, the analyses and even the wonder, it was that voice, penetrating our ribcages, grabbing up all that we were and ever would be, laying down and providing beacon light for our ways out of no way. Most every single one of us who were black girls in 1967 has our own personal Aretha story that has been generating smiles and tears. Here is mine.

It’s 1967, and the Cambridge Common, a park near Harvard University, had never seen our like. A group of black girls on the cusp of womanhood, moving from We Shall Overcome circumspection to Black Pride and Power as we stomp down its central path, singing at the top of our lungs on our way to classes at Harvard Yard:

What you want, baby [world, white folks], I got it!

What you need, you know I got it!

All I’m asking for is a little respect!

Recently arrived at the school we’ve worked so hard to enter, we’ve come from north and south, from comfortable households and those less well off. Scattered evenly about the sister school’s dorms we’ve learned that some of the white girls think us exhibits for their personal edification, watching us in common showers to see what happens to our skin colour, a few girls’ heads rubbed in exploration of the mystery of our hair (they never tried more than once … ). For sanity as much as solidarity, we have found and cleaved to one another. Following Aretha’s example we are declarative, unapologetic and suffused with joy at being exactly who we are.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to me!

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Take care! TCB!

Aretha Franklin performing Respect.

Before Aretha we’d been girls listening to girls who sang of girlish things: fun and dancing, the ups and downs of puppy love. Securely girdled into lovely girlish dresses, they cooed and swayed with ladylike gestures and graceful steps that produced very little sweat, and we’d been more than happy with that; but then came this voice that ripped and curved, caressed, cried and emphasised. Songs tumbling out at a phenomenal pace with lyrics at once about love, black personhood and pride, and a voice that punched out our points about that elusive good man and appreciative nation.

A change is gonna come …

You better think about what you tryin’ to do to me!

Ain’t no way for me to love you if you won’t let me

She gave us strength. Singing, dancing and politically organising together, or in the privacy of our dorm rooms, each and every one of us was not only Somebody but Everything.

I hadn’t come up in the black church, so this heart-rending, acrobatic and decisive abandon was particularly new to me, but the miracle of such a female voice had never been on the nation’s central secular stage before. Aretha had been singing in public since she was 12 and making gospel recordings in Detroit since she was 14, but even my church-reared friends had known nothing of her. In 1960 she’d been signed to Columbia Records by the legendary and usually canny John Hammond, he who’d brought Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and later Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to the fore, but Hammond’s thought to style Aretha as a jazz singer was misguided.

There’s style and distinctive phrasing abundant in the Columbia discs, but the tight orchestrations circumscribed her flame (“That ain’t right!” as our Lady would later sing). Enter Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who understood that the dividend and all the world was in that voice, so gave it and her a steady gospel pulse, let her go to fly for herself and us and all who followed; for there would be no Missy Elliott or Lauryn Hill, no Erykah Badu, no Beyoncé without the stand-and-behold-my-incandescent-glory of Aretha.

Aretha Franklin bringing Barack Obama to tears at the Kennedy Center, Washington DC in 2015.

Style. Like all else about her, Aretha’s was very much her own. We didn’t see much of her at first. I don’t think any among my friends saw her in person those first years, and when at school our access to the popular press and television was limited, but what we gleaned from the very beginning is that she did what she wanted to do. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t, but that was just fine with us (save that drag in The Blues Brothers. Aretha was never anybody’s Jemima waitress or maid.)

Her hair could be pressed, processed, bewigged or natural. Her dresses bubbled, feathered or dashiki-inspired; her body full or slender. None of that mattered because it was all about the incomparable power and glory of that voice. She occasionally deigned to shimmy, but she was neither production-designed or choreographed. She was the total package in and of herself. Nothing else was necessary. She always knew what she meant to us, was vocal in support of our politics, knew and guarded her worth (if not always her heart); as all royalty must do.

It’s 2015. The Kennedy Center, Washington DC, is honouring songwriter Carole King, among others, and out struts Aretha in her “I don’t give a damn about your PC; it does what I need” sable coat. She takes her seat at the piano, starts in on King’s Natural Woman and every eye, including that of the nation’s president, goes damp. For the final chorus, Queen Aretha steps away from the piano. As she soars towards the climax, she drops the sable to the floor, stretches wide her arms. Draped in elaborate spangles, her body is uncorsetted, pendulous and haggard. Every ravage it’s ever experienced plainly to be seen, but through both miracle and scrupulous nurture her voice all it has ever been. We are at once ecstatic and humbled beyond measure, as well we should be.

Time for rest now, our queen. We can never forget you.

We will never forget you.

• Candace Allen is a writer and film-maker © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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