Aretha Franklin Was the Personification of Black Woman Magic

Aretha Franklin, in an undated photo, performing live onstage in Britain.

When Aretha Franklin roared, in several octaves no less — listen to the “Ahhhhhh-hhhhhh!” refrain from “Rock Steady” — I imagined it sprang from a place many black women know all too well.

A fire in the belly. A well of pain. A personal altar for communing with a higher power. And, yes, a basic understanding that you don’t have to like her, but you will respect her.

When Ms. Franklin died at 76 on Thursday, it hit particularly hard. It was, in some ways, worse than David Bowie’s passing. Worse than the realization that Muhammad Ali is no more.

Because Aretha Franklin was a symbol of black woman magic.

Scholars and music critics are spilling barrels of ink to rightfully praise her voice, her civil rights activism, her place in the pantheon of music. She’s a groundbreaker, a giant — yes, a thousand times, yes. First woman admitted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Winner of 18 Grammys. Songwriter whose tunes became anthems for a people’s struggle.

But for many women, the pride came in knowing that she looked like our aunts, mothers, sisters and girlfriends. It made her thrilling and untouchable and relatable at the same time. Everyone had an Aretha in the family, right? No, not really.

Her image, the manufactured bits and the glimpses of personal life — glamour shots on the covers of Jet or Ebony or Time magazine; pictures of her with her husband Glynn Turman; rumblings of trouble in the marriage; headlines declaring “Aretha Franklin tells why weight doesn’t worry her anymore” — resonated from the Deep South to a yellow house on stilts in South America. There, I first heard her wailing from a newfound 45 in my grandmother’s record collection in Guyana.

[Read Wesley Morris’sappraisal here and more on Ms. Franklin as a model of empowerment and pride.]

I stood mesmerized one Sunday morning in the 1970s by the Gramophone in my nice dress, ribboned hair and shiny Clarks after service at St. Mary’s Church. (On Sundays, my grandmother let me flick through her collection of calypso, reggae and American records to blast my own playlist while she cooked and my mother, an exhausted nurse, rested.)

I kept picking up the needle to start over again, scratching the record silly.

What. Did. She. Say?

Who is this woman?

“You’re a no-good heart breaker. You’re a liar and you’re a cheat …”

This was different from a genteel Patsy Cline or a Diana Ross rumination about unfaithful lovers or a plea about where did our love go. The lyrics sounded like the invectives my grandmother would spit out at my grandfather on a sunny Sunday morning — you’ve been busted gallivanting around town, so don’t even try.

Her yowls were a secret language every woman could understand. They meant everything. Rage. Joy. A siren call. An exultation. Then she’d bend a note … just so.

I was hooked. I saw in her the women of the Caribbean who struggled with men and weight and money — and still took care of business. Except she was a genius.

“I think women have to be strong,” she once said, adding that if you aren’t, “some people will run right over you.”

At times she looked ordinary, and so was legion. Then she looked ethereal, worthy of a pedestal. She had a body that spread out naturally over the years, and many could relate: from lithe youthfulness to ka-POW curves to chubby to a marvel of folds and hills — shrouded in fur coats and décolletage-baring gowns that dared you to have a problem with the flesh that housed that soul.

She took up space — regally, unapologetically. And she presented all the seasons of her physical self with an imperial gaze: What.

In fact, she was the embodiment of the feminist paean “Nice for What,” before Drake sang those words in praise of talented, powerful, transcendent women. She was private, sometimes icy, crabby, a preacher’s daughter, a wife, a mother of black sons.

She had architecturally popping hairstyles that black women create in their kitchens and a wig for all occasions. In her beehives and hair flips I saw the women of my childhood primping and curling and tugging and applying creams in living rooms and salons. I could smell the pressing combs and feel the burn.

In her I saw my mother, whose smaller waist atop ample hips was perfect to wrap arms around, and whose bosom was the perfect place to rest my head. Yes, I projected a lot on Aretha Franklin. But mostly her songs were the soundtrack of our lives.

Starting in New York at age 16, I bought and “borrowed” my share of Aretha Franklin tapes and CDs. My favorite song was not “Respect,” but “Rock Steady.” Echoing the name of the slow-dance music that originated in Jamaica, it reads like a sly sexual tutorial from a woman who knows what she wants.

Before Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj performed “Side by Side,” their frank boudoir anthem to women on top, Ms. Franklin confidently laid down a similar groove, setting the pace for “this funky dance all night.”

Rock steady baby!
That’s what I feel now
Let’s call this song exactly what it is
Step n’ move your hips
With a feelin’ from side to side
Sit yourself down in your car
And take a ride
And while you’re movin’
Rock steady
Rock steady baby
Let’s call this song exactly what it is …

On Aug. 31, Detroit, her hometown, will bury one of its most famous daughters. On Monday, MTV’s Video Music Awards will throw her a raucous send-off at Radio City Music Hall in New York, where divas will probably crowd onstage to honor her legacy, out-wailing one another until they’re hoarse. And I’ll think of music lost.

Every time I’ve changed phones over the years, songs have disappeared from my library: tunes to beat back a rainy day, songs to clean the house by, hymns for a Sunday kind of love. But I couldn’t seem to lose Aretha.

Between cursing the geniuses who couldn’t help to seamlessly transfer my songs and writing off some as a loss, I felt compelled to buy her tunes over and over again. So ReRe’s voice lives, on vinyl, old BlackBerrys and iPhones. Timeless.

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