The big, spectacular black female voice is now a staple in American culture. The voice that moves rooms and stirs the soul delivered to us from a woman in a gown at center stage—or sitting at the piano—sharing her blues. And this tradition was amplified to new heights with one Aretha Franklin.
Aretha Franklin’s lyrics soaked in her gospel-tinged voice, and the music needed a name like soul to accurately describe it. These sounds were not just something made with hallowed wooden and metal materials and a vocal chords; there was something spiritual happening when you heard Franklin sing that she was daydreaming, and thinking of you. Music moves the body. Soul music moves the heavenly body. And Aretha Franklin was the queen of soul.
But, for me, it was the drag queens of midtown of Atlanta that transported Aretha Franklin’s music into a part of my pride and queerness.
It was in tiny bars that were suffocated with lust and cigarette smoke, with disco balls hanging in thin-air, that I witnessed drag queens confidently lip-syncing their version of Aretha Franklin classics like “Respect” and “Natural Woman”, and my heavenly body once again began to move and reveal itself. It was a queer gospel experience.
My heavenly body was queer and longed to be respected and seen as natural—something inherent, not learned.
The performance of the drag queens moved me to see that Aretha Franklin’s music in these queer spaces with these black folks, too, was a radical affirmation. Franklin’s music was a vehicle to express that not only were we here and queer, as the slogan goes. We were also here, queer, and we had soul.
In Aretha Franklin’s own life she supported the LGBTIA+ community in ways that may be read as quiet, but were just as soulful and powerful. In 2011, Franklin performed at a wedding between two men. She sang her hit “Say A Little Prayer”, and of course, “Respect”. It seems that Franklin, too, knew that her battle cry for appreciation and respect originally recorded by soul legend Otis Redding resonated with folks that were constantly disrespected by both society and policy.
These acts of resistance were not new to The Queen of Soul. In the 1960s, notorious black revolutionary Angela Davis was jailed and Aretha Franklin offered to post bail. Franklin said about the transgressive act, “I’m going to set Angela free.“ She continued, “Not because I believe in communism but because she’s a black woman who wants freedom for all black people.”
Now, with Aretha Franklin gone but her music still a very real and present thing, it’s important to hold in the memory not just the soul in her music but the soul she kept in her life.
Celebrity often calls for humans to flatten and censor themselves, but Franklin pushed against this by leading with honesty in both her art and her daily life. It is no wonder she served as a LGBT+ icon, especially for black folks in the community, because in her work and daily life, she centered authenticity. This authenticity inspired legions of voices that have served as the soundtrack of our lives like Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson, Jazmine Sullivan, Beyoncé, and Phyllis Hyman.
Artists create work, while icons birth universes of possibilities. Aretha Franklin is an icon.
Franklin’s hits were always a part of my life. However, the first song in her catalogue that enraptured me in the dark privacy of my bedroom was “First Snow in Kokomo”.
The song is haunting and dynamic. The song is from the stellar album Young, Gifted, and Black and is a sort of portrait of folks around her learning to play instruments during the first snow in Kokomo.
The lyrics are narrative and simple, but also served for me as a type of fairy tale about the birth of music, namely soul music. Franklin’s perspective was that of God: omnipresent, knowing, and in control.
In the wake of her death, I return to this song and realize how grateful we’ve been to have one of the orchestrators of soul music walking this Earth with us for so long. With her now gone, this feels like the first snow in American soul music and the chill—her absence—will never be warmed.