by Elly Savva Coyle
After a long battle with pancreatic cancer, the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin passed away in August this year at the age of 76. She was honoured by a powerful 11-hour funeral ceremony in her hometown of Detroit, attended by thousands of parishioners from a cross-section of society. Notable attendees included Hilary Clinton and her husband former President Bill Clinton, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, and Ariana Grande.
Franklin came to music at an early age, singing in a church choir and learning to play the piano purely by ear. Her natural talent shone through and with the encouragement of her Father, she began creating records at the mere age of 14. She went on to have a hugely successful career that spanned decades, performing at three presidential inaugurations and collecting a grand total of 18 Grammy Awards. Although Franklin was raised on a blend of gospel and jazz music, she later transitioned towards the R&B and soul genres, helping to throw them into the limelight of the mainstream. Even genres she wasn’t associated with appreciated her monumental talent; she even became the first woman to be initiated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Aretha Franklin’s unbelievable voice is not the only legacy she leaves behind, as she also worked tirelessly throughout her life to fight for social justice and equality. Her voice became the soundtrack for the civil rights movement; working with Harry Belafonte she completed a tour of 11 cities, donating all her profits to Martin Luther King Junior so he was able to pay his staff. She used her visibility to challenge injustices, utilizing her position of power as a weapon to help combat the unfairness in the world.
Following Franklin’s death, tributes have poured out from all over the internet and across the press. However, the way in which tributes of this sort should be made has been brought into question, as some have been criticized for being distasteful and narcissistic. The first speech that has been lambasted was made by Madonna at the VMA music awards. It has come under fire for the way she talked about her own personal journey and the connections she felt to Franklin’s music, rather than placing the emphasis on honouring the Queen of Soul’s legacy. Madonna shared an anecdote about how she impulsively turned to Franklin’s ‘You Make Me Feel’ as an audition song during a moment of panic, which began a different path for the singer. The speech involved a constant use of the word ‘I’ and although the central theme was around how Franklin changed the course of Madonna’s life, it did little to honour her talent and the impact she had. Although it is natural to consider your personal connections and memories you have of those who have passed away, as grieving is also a process of accepting the loss of the things this person brought to your life, such an opportunity should be used with a purpose to respect them in a thoughtful manner. In a private conversation, the story told by Madonna would be viewed as more sensitive and raw when shared in a moment of personal grief. However, in the public eye with the platform and opportunity she was given it came across as self-indulgent and poorly considered.
Another speech which has been criticized is the 50-minute eulogy made by Reverend Jasper Williams Junior at Franklin’s funeral. The Reverend appeared to use the eulogy as an opportunity to promote political ideas of his own rather than to reflect the beliefs of Ms. Franklin, as he chose to use the platform he was given to criticize black-on-black crime and denounce the whole Black Lives Matter movement. He also questioned single mothers’ capacity to raise sons independently and made the misogynistic suggestion that a black woman can’t raise a black boy to be a man, in a eulogy about Franklin who raised four sons independently. Cries of “Talk about Aretha!” could be overheard, as some in the church appeared notably frustrated. Aretha’s nephew Vaughn Franklin has spoken as a representative of the family to respond to the controversial speech, saying that they have found it ‘offensive and distasteful’. In a statement provided by Vaughn he said: “We feel that Rev. Jasper Williams, Jr. used this platform to push his negative agenda, which as a family, we do not agree with.”
What is clear from the two eulogies that have been chastised is that when paying tribute, the focus should be on the life of the person in question and the impact they had on the world. Aretha Franklin was an exceptionally talented star with a golden soul who used the power of her privilege to help transform the lives of others. Both her dedication to furthering social justice and the gifts of her voice and her music have brought so much light to the world, an icon to be treasured by all.
Image from – Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty