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Aretha Franklin: music icon and freedom fighter

A LEGACY LIKE NO OTHER: Aretha Franklin sings at a memorial of her father and brother

Celebrities and public figures from across the world have paid tribute to the legendary American soul singer Aretha Franklin, who passed away on August 16.

The Queen of Soul will always be remembered for achievements in music, a career that saw her win 18 Grammy Awards, including a Grammy legend award and sell 75 million records.

But her musical genius is not the only legacy that she will leave.

Franklin was a key part of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, hailed for the way in which she used her fame and music to support the struggle for racial equality.

And her songs would go on to become civil rights anthems.

Many of the now-famous faces of the Civil Rights movement were a key part of Franklin’s childhood in 1950s Detroit.

Franklin’s Baptist minister father was the organiser behind the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom which was, until the famous March on Washington later that year, the largest ever civil rights demonstration.

Dr Martin Luther King was a frequent guest in her father’s home and when she was 16, Franklin went on tour with him, just after recording her first album, Songs of Faith, in 1956.

She would go on a number of tours throughout the 1960s.

Another civil rights icon, Rev Jesse Jackson, recalled the support that Franklin gave.

He told The Detroit Free Press: “When Dr King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll. On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte…and they put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home and did a fundraiser for my campaign.

“Aretha has always been a very socially conscious artist, an inspiration, not just an entertainer. She has shared her points of view from the stage for challenged people, to register to vote, to stand up for decency.”

The legendary singer would go on to sing at Dr King’s funeral in 1968.

Another example of her civil rights activism was when she supported black activist and revolutionary Angela Davis, a member of the Communist Party.

Davis had been accused of purchasing firearms used in the takeover of a court room in California, and who was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder.

Franklin offered to post bond for Davis and told Jet magazine that her support had little to do with communism.

She said: “...she’s a black woman and she wants freedom for black people.”

Franklin added that she had the money to post bond because she’d earned it from black people and wanted to use it “in ways that will help our people”.

Ultimately, she was unable to post the bond because she was out of the country at the time.

Her huge 1967 hit Respect became the anthem of the Civil Rights campaign and the feminist movement. But the singer told Elle magazine in 2016 she was “stunned” by its success. “It was the right song at the right time,” she said.

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Her growing success as an artist in the 1960s and ‘70s did not see Franklin leave her activism behind.

She also told Elle that her contract in the 1960s included the clause that she would never perform for a segregated audience.

The Queen of Soul remained a prominent voice for African American civil rights throughout her life.

She sang at the inaugurations for three different presidents – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Paying tribute to Franklin after she learned of the singer’s passing, Martin Luther King’s daughter, Dr Bernice King, called Franklin a “shining example” of how to use the arts to support social change.

She said: “From the time she was a teenager, Ms Franklin has been singing freedom songs in support of my father and others in the struggle for civil rights.

“As a daughter of the movement, she not only used her voice to entertain but to uplift and inspire generations through songs that have become anthems such as Respect and Bridge over Troubled Water.”

Dr King continued: “After my father’s assassination, her relationship with my mother continued and grew stronger. She was one of the many artists that joined my mother in her unwavering efforts to establish the King Holiday.

“As talented as she was as a singer and songwriter, Ms. Franklin’s legacy extends far beyond that of a dynamic singer and entertainer. She was a shining example of how to utilise the arts and entertainment to support and promote nonviolent social change.”

American politician and civil rights leader John Lewis also paid tribute to Franklin’s activism.


ACTIVIST: Franklin, centre right, was heavily involved in human rights movements, here pictured with Rev Jesse Jackson as part of PUSH (People United to Save Humanity)

He said: “What made her talent so great was her capacity to live what she sang. Her music was deepened by her connection to the struggles and the triumphs of the African-American experience growing up in her father’s church, the community of Detroit, and her awareness of the turmoil of the South. She had a lifelong, unwavering commitment to civil rights and was one of the strongest supporters of the movement. She was our sister and our friend.”

Lewis continued: “When she sang, she embodied what we were fighting for, and her music strengthened us. It revived us. Her music gave us a greater sense of determination to never give up or give in, and to keep the faith.” Former president Barack Obama and wife Michelle Obama released a joint statement praising Franklin’s activism. The Obamas said: “Through her compassion and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade – our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hardwon respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.”

They concluded: “Aretha may have passed on to a better place, but the gift of her music remains to inspire us all. May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace.” Fellow activist Reverend Al Sharpton called her a “Civil Rights and humanitarian icon”. He said: “Most people knew Aretha for her chart-topping hits that cut to the core of the human experience – no matter your background. But I knew Aretha for the Civil Rights and humanitarian icon that many forget: the Aretha that uplifted her community and the civil rights movement.”

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) tweeted that Franklin’s music would “continue to inspire us for generations”.

And following the news of her passing, tributes to her work were widely shared on social media by leading celebrities across the world.

Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, said: “Though never signed to Motown, Aretha was considered part of my family.

“We always shared fond memories of the Motor City, life, and just things. Her passing is not only a tremendous personal loss for me, but for people all over the world who were touched by her incredible gift and remarkable spirit. Aretha Franklin will always be the undisputed Queen of Soul, and her legacy will live forever.”

Clive Davis, the music mogul who brought her to Arista Records and helped revive her career in the 1980s, said he was “devastated” by her death. He added: “She was truly one of a kind. She was more than the Queen of Soul. She was a national treasure to be cherished by every generation throughout the world.

“Apart from our long professional relationship, Aretha was my friend. Her loss is deeply profound and my heart is full of sadness.”

Smokey Robinson, who grew up with her in Detroit, said: “This morning my longest friend in this world went home to be with our Father. I will miss her so much but I know she’s at peace.”

Diana Ross said: “I’m sitting in prayer for the wonderful golden spirit Aretha Franklin.”

Lionel Richie said: “Her voice; her presence; her style. No one did it better. Truly the Queen of Soul. I will miss you!”

John Legend shared his thoughts on the soul singer’s passing on Twitter.

He wrote: “Salute to the Queen. The greatest vocalist I’ve ever known.”

Speaking about Franklin, Dreamgirls star and Voice UK judge Jennifer Hudson said of Franklin that “while teaching me about your life, u [sic] taught me so much about life and schooled me in mine. I will never forget those teachings”.

Celebrated ‘80s soul singer Alexander O’Neal said that the world had “lost a true legend, an icon, an inspiration. Aretha Franklin broke ground and created a path the rest of us walked down. RIP Queen of Soul, and thank you for your voice, your music and your spirit.”

Paul McCartney encouraged his followers on Twitter to “take a moment to give thanks for the beautiful life of Aretha Franklin.”

Former First Lady and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also posted a heartfelt message to Franklin.

She tweeted: “Mourning the loss today of @ArethaFranklin who shared her spirit and talent with the world. She deserves not only our respect but also our lasting gratitude for opening our eyes, ears and hearts. Rest in eternal peace, my friend.”

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