Editor’s Note: Kerra L. Bolton is the founder of Unmuted Consulting, a strategic political communications consultancy. She is also a freelance writer and former political reporter and analyst in North Carolina. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Aretha Franklin was America’s first real grown-up female pop star. Today’s woke queens owe an enormous debt to her voice, her look and her insistence on the value of her voice and her talent.
Franklin, who died this week of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76, began her pop music career in the early 1960s – at a time when girl groups corseted their sexuality in musical innuendo.
Unlike The Shirelles, Franklin wasn’t asking a man whether he’d still love her tomorrow. She demanded respect as a condition of her fidelity and money.
America had seen sexually frank, black female performers before Franklin – blues queens like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Billie Holliday sang of her “daddy.” But their music was savored at night, at a speak-easy or perhaps a Harlem basement party. Franklin was out there in the open, loud, full-throated, full-bodied and often accompanied by brash horns, gospel piano, and strutting guitars.
Nowhere is Franklin’s emotional honesty most felt than in her early hits like “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Franklin was rooted in gospel as her father, C.L. Franklin, was a renowned preacher and gospel legend. Mahalia Jackson helped raise her. But there is something about the way Franklin’s voice breaks free in the second stanza of “I Never Loved a Man” that makes any listener realize this church girl understands carnal delights.
Her musical maturity reflected Franklin’s life. By the time she recorded “I Never Loved a Man” and “Natural Woman” 1967, she had already given birth to three children and was married for seven years to her first husband. The success of these first two hits forced the glittering girl groups singing of boyfriends and bubble gum to grow up.
Franklin led the way as a musical linchpin uniting the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Then, as now, celebrities were vital to raising money and awareness for the work of social justice movements.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a long-time family friend and she sang at his memorial service. In 1970, Franklin famously offered to pay the bond of Angela Davis, a prominent political activist who was accused of conspiracy in a deadly, armed takeover of a California courtroom.
Franklin’s genius and activism were omnipresent in her music. She employed the powerful artistry of her voice and intelligence to transform racism and misogyny into empowerment as if soaring from one octave to another.
Her version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” shifted the tone of the song, written after he was turned away from a whites-only hotel in Louisiana from melancholic defiance to righteous moral certainty.
More famously, Franklin reframed Otis Redding’s musical insistence that as the breadwinner in a relationship he deserved respect when he came home to a feminist anthem that empowered generations of women. For example, she changed Redding’s lyrics from “Hey little girl, you’re sweeter than honey/And I’m about to give you all my money” to “Oooh, your kisses/sweeter than honey/And guess what/So is my money.”
We also see the impact of Franklin’s maturity in her style and early stage presence. Unlike her gamine and willowy contemporaries Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick, no amount of chiffon and stiff brocade could contain Franklin when she sang. More so than other wispy girl singers the 1960s, Aretha’s fashion and self-presentation evoked the aesthetic of the Black Power movement.
Franklin struggled with her weight for decades as she defied white, male notions of femininity. She was dropped, for example, from appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show because her dress was too low cut. Gossip columnist Liz Smith criticized Franklin in 1993 for being “too bosomy” for a dress she wore in a television special.
But Franklin gave as good as she got because she knew her worth. Franklin’s courage and self-confidence paved the way for artists like Beyoncé to write in Vogue about her post-pregnancy body or Nicki Minaj to appear nearly nude on her latest album cover called “Queen.” Minaj, by the way, surpassed Franklin last year for the most hits on the Billboard chart of any female artist.
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Whether earthly or divine, Franklin was beloved by us because she was both unapologetically black and unapologetically herself. We need realness in a world in which a reality star occupies the White House and social media has become an endless highlight reel of our lives. Especially for black women, Franklin sang of our deepest aspirations for self-determination, dignity, and love. We loved her because she loved us and that is the ultimate form of respect.
This article has been corrected to reflect that The Shirelles sang “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”