Aretha! Unapologetically Black, Unapologetically Woman

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, passed at 76.  She leaves a legacy of music, commitment to Black and human liberation and defined America’s DNA

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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us.

Aretha Franklin just passed away. The Queen of Soul, people called her, because she was the Queen of Soul. From the 1960s, early ’60s to the day she passed, she was our cultural DNA. She defined America with her words and songs. She was a woman who didn’t just sing, she lived it. As I like to say, she walked the talk. She sang the talk. Do you know that when Aretha Franklin found out that people like Angela Davis were in prison, her first move was to say, I want to bail you out. The black people of America made me rich, and I’m going to give back. She wrote the Panthers and supported them. She marched with Martin Luther King. And she brought us the greatest music of all time, and brought people to their knees, because she was the one and only Aretha.

So what we’re doing here at Real News, we’re having a little conversation about her today with two of my favorite people at Real News. And then next week we’re going to bring you a much longer piece about Aretha Franklin; talk to people all across America about who she was and what she meant, and bring you that a week from today.

But right now, here with me in the studio is Executive Producer Khalilah Harris. Good to have you here.

KHALILAH HARRIS: Thank you, Mark. Good to be with you, as always.

MARC STEINER: And Ericka Blount is with us. Ericka Blount is a producer here. She produces Rattling the Bars with Eddie Conway, and wrote the book Love, Peace, and Soul, which was a story of Soul Train, the great TV show that she appeared on my radio show for two hours talking about a little bit ago. And Ericka, good to have you here, as well.

ERICKA BLOUNT: Always a pleasure to be with you.

MARC STEINER: Let’s just talk for a minute, because we’re going to bring a much longer piece, all of us, bring this piece to our viewers. But who was Aretha to you? Especially the two of you, I’m really curious. Because I’m older. So you know, you start with someone of my age, and she was maybe four years older than me. So when she started singing she was 18, I was 14, whenever that was. So that was, that’s one thing to come up with Aretha over all these years, and all the changes she made. You two women are a little younger. A lot younger, actually.

KHALILAH HARRIS: Just a little bit. Thank you for that. I’ll take it.

KHALILAH HARRIS: It’s lke babies is all y’all. Come on. But- so talk a bit about what Aretha meant to you, and what you think she meant to America. Khalilah?

KHALILAH HARRIS: You know, I think Aretha was definitely the epitome of and really our first instantiation of black girl magic. She was unapologetically black. She was unapologetically woman. And she commanded that people see her as she was, for everything that she brought to the table, and that she not be required to shrink in order to be her full self.

In addition to her being genius when it comes to musical production, her voice being flawless and having an immaculate level of control over it, she really just stood out as someone who was formidable, and was a true example of how you move in the world in a way that people respect who you are, and that you don’t change yourself to fit into a world that really doesn’t want to accept you. So that’s what she meant to me.

MARC STEINER: Detroit. Born in Memphis, raised in Detroit.

ERICKA BLOUNT: Yeah. To piggyback off of that, yeah. I mean, just for me, my mother, I grew up with hearing her songs all throughout my childhood. And my mother sort of, you know, we had pictures of her, we had pictures of her and Sam Cooke. And to me she was almost like a second mother to me, because she reminded me of my mother. She, you know, everything about her was something that was familiar. Whether it was the way she, like you mentioned, you know, the way that she carried herself, the way that she sang, the way that she presented herself, and like you said, commanded respect, was something that was familiar to me from, you know, my teachers, to people in the neighborhood, to anybody. Like, she represented black womanhood.

And then her, her voice. There is nothing that’s comparable to that. And you know, her gospel beginnings were she didn’t, you know, forsake that in order to move into R&B or to go into pop. There was always that gospel sound within nearly every song that she sang, up until, you know, she passed, really. And an incredible, lengthy career. You’re talking about, like, she had 42 solo albums. That’s unheard of. And to continue to, you know, just continue that kind of career from, you know, as a little girl, an amazing pianist as a little girl up until, you know, the hip hop generation is just, I, I can’t, I don’t know anyone else that compares to that.

KHALILAH HARRIS: I love that so many people have been able to experience Aretha firsthand as they come into the world, right. So you have the hip hop generation being able to see her at the Grammys. And I remember in the ’80s when she sang opera at the Grammys. I think the story is-.

MARC STEINER: Oh right, that’s right. I forgot about that.

KHALILAH HARRIS: Was it Pavarotti couldn’t make it, and she just stepped in with maybe an hour or two to prepare, and commanded the operatic performance as if she were rehearsing her entire life for that moment. But it wasn’t necessary, because she was the queen. And you have so many of us having firsthand experiences, regardless of age, across several generations, being able to experience her and her gifts and talents in ways that are still so palpable that there is no generational divide between people speaking about her loss. If you look at social media you have even the Gen Zs, right, who are like, yeah, you know, she was amazing. And I’m like, what do you know about Aretha? You know, you’re baby. But you know, you could say that to me. What do you know about Aretha? when I was your age I was front row and center, right.

But you know, it was that kind of talent. And you know, the thing I think that probably also connects with the youngest generations that are exposed to Aretha is definitely the gift that keeps on giving, which is previous performances where- or interviews where she was using her voice, and using it in a way to make clear what her opinion was, unabashedly.

MARC STEINER: As a woman, especially. As a black woman, as well.

KHALILAH HARRIS: As a woman. But also willing to offer critique, and not back down, and do it in a way that was, as we sometimes say, nice-nasty.

ERICKA BLOUNT: Or throwing shade.

KHALILAH HARRIS: She was the shade queen. Not only was she the Queen of Soul, but definitely the shade queen. There was none before her, there may be none after her. But she is the gift that keeps on giving. And we’re so grateful.

MARC STEINER: I mean, she was the original. She’s the one who brought her style of music to the broader world. I mean, because when you think about it, Aretha, she came on the scene as the battle against segregation was at its full height. And she supported King, and she supported that, and walked with him. And it was, it was a time when the black world was making its presence known to America and the world as this will not be ignored. And she was voice of that, in many ways. That’s why we say she’s our DNA. She’s our cultural DNA. She’s our singing DNA, right. That’s who she is.

ERICKA BLOUNT: Yeah. And against, you know, the forces that be. So it’s a lot of times the record labels didn’t want their artists to speak out. And she, she made her own path.

KHALILAH HARRIS: And she also didn’t fit the mold for what they wanted in appearance for, you know, soul diva, R&B diva. And you know, she loved her full self, and I loved it, too. It’s a wonder to see so many people who came up with her paying homage to her, right. With Patti LaBelle, Mavis Staples, and all of these folk, just no questions asked, she was the queen. Regardless of what I felt about her, any difference I have with her, there is no question, and all should pay that respect.

MARC STEINER: -have to go next week and beg Mavis to come on the show here with us and talk a bit about that.

ERICKA BLOUNT: Yeah. Even Etta James, Sarah Vaughan.

MARC STEINER: Knew her and worked with her for your book, right?

ERICKA BLOUNT: Right. Yeah. And it’s funny. For Al Bell from Stax Records, he wrote the forward from my book. But for whatever reason Stax missed the opportunity to sign her, which would have been, you know, an amazing collaboration with Al Bell and all of the people that were on Stax Records. But you know, she managed to make her way with Atlantic, and you know, Columbia before that, and Arista. But just imagining what Stax would have done with her would have been a whole another, you know.

MARC STEINER: What was the story you were telling before we walked into the studio, about when they wanted to cut her contract? It was a record company was going to cut her contract because she wasn’t selling-.

ERICKA BLOUNT: Oh, yeah. So, yeah. So Jerry Wexler.

MARC STEINER: Jerry Wexler, that was it, yeah.

ERICKA BLOUNT: My kids know Aretha primarily from the Sparkle soundtrack, because I listen to it consistently. And I watch the movie, you know, too many times, that I know the words. But anyway, so I was telling them about how at one point Aretha had two albums that had not charted. And this was ’74, I think, and ’72, were the last two albums. So Jerry Wexler had considered dropping her from Atlantic.

And I met [inaudible] had suggested that she work with Curtis Mayfield. And they put together the sparkle soundtrack, which did phenomenally well. And so that’s what kept her on the label. But could you imagine if they had dropped Aretha? Like, how.

MARC STEINER: It was not in the stars. It was not going to happen. So before we conclude, I was thinking about, we were saying this before we went on the air together. That I would consider one of her final performances when she performed, when Carole King got the Gershwin Prize from Barack Obama.

And that particular concert, and that song when she came out, and what it did to the audience. Barack Obama’s up there crying, and Carole King was beside herself not knowing what to do. Had written so many of the songs that Aretha sang. And then when she got up on stage and she threw that coat off.

KHALILAH HARRIS: Prime Aretha. Like, you are not worthy. Pull off. I mean, you know, she had so many of those moments. But when they happened, you kind of melt further into her because it’s like, yes, we are so honored. And Carole King, when you watched that performance, you would have thought it was an honor for Aretha, because Carol loves her so. And you know, it’s when genius recognizes genius, who are you to question whether or not she can drop her coat and go to sing. Right? So it was a beautiful thing, but a long line of moments where you just see her- you know, some people call themselves a diva. But she was due that title.

MARC STEINER: And she wasn’t, in the way she behaved acted towards other human beings. Closing thought from you, Ms. Blount?

ERICKA BLOUNT: Wow, no. Khalilah said it all. I mean, she earned the right to be a diva in every way.

KHALILAH HARRIS: In the truest sense. Not in the prima donna sense.

ERICKA BLOUNT: Exactly. Exactly. Not in the way that some artists are.

MARC STEINER: Well, Aretha Franklin was a woman who spoke to all of us throughout the planet, as a woman who understood a deep political and human consciousness, as a woman, as a black woman, as somebody who just believed in life. This is just a taste of what Real News is going to give you. Next week we’re going to do our best to bring you a string of incredible people talking about Aretha Franklin. And a week from Friday, a week from today when we’re taping this, we’re going to bring that back to you. Because we have to remember this woman who defines everything about who we are as Americans, as citizens of this world. Aretha Franklin, rest easy. We miss you. You’ll always be with us. .

And Khalilah Harris and Ericka Blount, thank you so much for jumping in. It’s great to have you two here.

KHALILAH HARRIS: Thank you.

ERICKA BLOUNT: Thank you.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News Network. Have a great weekend, and we’ll be talking together soon. Aretha’s coming back to us. Take care.