Aretha Franklin didn’t write the song Respect. She wasn’t even the first to sing it. Otis Redding’s version came out two years before hers did.
But when Franklin sang the song in 1967, it took on new meaning. Franklin’s rendition of Respect spelled out what it meant to be black in America, to be a woman in this society, to be beautiful in a world that defined beauty as the polar opposite of what she was.
As she would do so many times in her decades-long career, Aretha Franklin struck a chord.
Not just because her voice poured like liquid chocolate. Not just because her soul wrapped around you with every word. Not just because when she sang, it was like God himself was conducting the orchestra. No. Respect struck a chord because when Aretha Franklin released it in during a nationwide movement for social justice, her voice was the calm in the midst of a storm.
Her voice told us that the black children being beaten in the streets of Birmingham deserved respect. Her voice told us that women demanding equal rights on college campuses deserved respect. Her voice told us that the Black Panthers demanding an end to police brutality in Oakland deserved respect. Her voice told us that the students who were brutalized for demanding black history in Philadelphia deserved respect.
In 1967, when Respect hit the top of the charts, black people were still at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Aretha Franklin raised her voice to do something about it.
When activist Angela Davis—who was a communist at the time—was jailed on trumped-up conspiracy charges, Aretha Franklin offered to pay her bail.
“Angela Davis must go free,” Franklin told Jet magazine. “Black people must be free … Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to set her free if there is any justice in our court, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money; I got it from Black people—they’ve made me financially able to have it—and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
We all should be that self-aware. If all of us were humble enough to understand that our success is not ours alone, perhaps we would be a kinder society. Perhaps we would all use our gifts in ways that benefit our people.
That’s why I respect Aretha Franklin. Because more than anything, she understood that her fame and fortune came from black people. She understood that she stood, and sang, and achieved, and succeeded on the shoulders of black people.
She understood most of all that her success came with a responsibility to help those who’d lifted her up to heights they’d never see for themselves.
Aretha Franklin, who started her career as a little girl, standing on a chair and singing in her father’s church, never forgot where she came from. And now that she’s lived a life that blessed so many, I think I know where she’s going.
Aretha Franklin earned every drop of her respect. And I’m sure the angels in heaven will give Aretha her “propers” when she gets home.
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