Franklin was committed to social justice, appearing with Rev. Jesse Jackson (far left) and Tom Todd at an event for their Operation PUSH in 1972.
Franklin was committed to social justice, appearing with Rev. Jesse Jackson (far left) and Tom Todd at an event for their Operation PUSH in 1972.
Jim Wells/AP/Shutterstock

The Radical Poet Who Perfectly Captured Aretha Franklin

by Greg Tate
August 23, 2018, 11:30am EDT

Some folks would never consider Ms. Aretha a “political artist.” But those are folks who never dug that Black women in “The Struggle” have always been two souls warring in one body against white supremacy in the world, and against a differently hued form of patriarchy in the home.   

“Respect” was the anthemic precursor to what by the ’70s got tagged as Black Feminism -- or, per author Alice Walker’s corrective coinage, Black Womanism. But in that 1967 moment, “Respect” amplified, via top 40 radio, the raised fist of the Black Power Movement and the simmering clamor within it for women’s rights as a human justice issue, too. James Brown declared himself Soul Brother Number One but the community crowned Aretha the Queen of Soul with no lobbying needed.   

Billboard counts 100 songs by The Queen on its Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, but those successes tell only one side of her story. For me to understand who Aretha, aka ­“Re-Re,” was to Mama Tate and her generation of self-emancipating woman activists meant acquiring intimate knowledge of the ways justice-seeking women give in love, hurt in love and break down because of love and other demons.   

Before I got old enough to understand why Aretha’s blues performances could move women on the guerrilla front lines of "The Struggle", I heard Nikki Giovanni’s “Poem for Aretha.” Giovanni -- another superlative Black woman artist that Mom brought into the crib -- performs it on her 1972 album, Truth Is On Its Way, with musical accompaniment by The New York Community Choir under the direction of Benny Diggs.   

Born in 1943 in Knoxville, Tenn., Giovanni became a poetic exemplar of the Black Arts Movement instigated by Amiri Baraka in the late ’60s. That artfully militant initiative sought to align poetic aims with revolutionary political sentiments, and Giovanni early on demonstrated that she was as dedicated to craft and lyricism as to her young gifted generation’s politics. On Truth Is On Its Way, her warm, understated delivery contrasts remarkably with contemporaries like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron but is no less provocative or penetrating.

“Poem for Aretha” holds up Franklin not only as the dominant artist of Giovanni’s time but also as a discreet race leader who never claimed her potential to incite unrest. It’s a poem as essay and ultimate fan letter rolled into one. Yet in plaintive, conversational mode, Giovanni accuses us all, too, of vampiric-fan mentality. Her take on the road’s emotional toll on Aretha’s soul should be readily overstood by any working pop musician of ’60s/’70s vintage with a bevy of hits in their quiver -- and by any modern working mother pulling double shifts, running daily commutes along the interstate or serving an overseas tour of duty:

Cause nobody deals with Aretha -- a mother with four children -- having to hit the road...
The strangers, pulling at you cause they love you but you having no love to give back

She admonishes We the Listening Public:

We eat up artists like there’s going to be a famine at the end of those three minutes...
Aretha doesn't have to relive Billie Holiday’s life doesn't have to relive Dinah Washington’s death

Giovanni testified to Aretha’s artistic and political power, but also empathetically recognizes that there’s a real human being inside the icon, prey to marital challenges, health issues, the encroachment of scandal-focused media, business pressures and the creative maintenance of her legacy -- not to mention career momentum in a world full of hungry competitors. She couldn't know how fiercely and regally Aretha would sustain her relevance -- but she makes clear why Aretha’s stature was already unassailable and unattainable to any who would come pecking at her heels. Her poem reads as timeless and comprehensive a musicological elegy as any we’ll find now:

She is undoubtedly the one who put everyone on notice...
Aretha was the riot was the leader
If she had said “come let’s do it” it would have been done.
 

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of Billboard.

Top photo: Franklin was committed to social justice, appearing with Rev. Jesse Jackson (far left) and Tom Todd at an event for their Operation PUSH in 1972.