In honor of African American history month, this series honors black women musicians who were successful in “making a way out of no way.” This popular African American phrase points to the creativity and tenacity of people in the face of oppression.
Singer Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) is the focus of our final installment in this series.
In 2009, at the other end of the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial, Aretha Franklin stood on the steps of the Capitol to sing, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” for Barack Obama’s historic inauguration. The echo of Marian Anderson’s Easter performance seventy years before was clear.
Born in 1942, three years after Anderson’s groundbreaking appearance and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” recording, Aretha Franklin’s life and career emerged in a different generation – although she would still face both sexism and racism. Nonetheless, Franklin would land more than 100 singles on Billboard charts, receive 18 competitive Grammys, and be the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Known as “the Queen of Soul,” Franklin’s path was not straightforward. As the daughter of a prominent Baptist preacher, she began performing gospel as a girl. Gospel music would remain a recurrent thread throughout her life. Assigned R&B and pop music by her first label, Columbia, these early records only hint at the power to come. Recruited to Columbia by John Hammond, the same man who years earlier had brought Billie Holiday to the label, Hammond later said of Franklin: “I cherish the albums we made together, but Columbia was a white company who misunderstood her genius.” Although a new label allowed her voice as the Queen of Soul to emerge, Franklin would struggle in her personal life –including a difficult marriage to Ted White, who attempted to control her life and her career until their divorce in 1969.
Despite the challenges of her life, Franklin just kept on singing and recording, decade after decade. As Franklin performed – and out-performed – younger artists, her voice seemed to defy age. When I saw her perform in Boston in 2016, her interactions with the younger women back-up singers and dancers made a big impression on me. She seemed to delight in their youthful energy. Far from any sense of resentment or jealousy about her own aging body, she seemed wistfully appreciative of their own delight in being young, sexy, and talented. In this way, Franklin seemed deeply committed to her famous ballad in praise of feeling like a (natural) woman.
After she passed away in 2018, late night host Stephen Colbert recounted his experience of hosting the 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors in 2015, when singer/songwriter Carole King was honored. Franklin took the stage to perform “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” a song made famous by Franklin but penned by King. Before she started to sing, Colbert remarked to a stagehand, “Man, I wish I could’ve seen her when she was younger, when she was in full voice.” Franklin then proceed to blow the doors off with her rendition of the iconic song. “Boy, am I stupid,” admitted the host, after witnessing the performance.
Take a moment to treat yourself to Franklin’s performance that night. You’ll find it on YouTube by searching on “Aretha Franklin Kennedy Center Honors.”
In a society shaped by both racism and sexism, African American women too often have been rendered unseen and unheard. It is important to recognize the many ways African American women have actively resisted injustice, created opportunities, and courageously made a way out of no way for themselves, their families, and their communities. May we learn such stories to shift not only our knowledge of the past, but also our perceptions of the present.