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By Melanie C. Jones
I first heard your voice. An indelible voice that needs no introduction. A voice that had the ability to sustain social movements. A voice that mattered more than any song. Then, I heard your story. A story, quite like mine, of a Southern-rooted, Midwest-raised church girl, a preacher’s daughter to be exact, who lived through turbulent times and had her own gospel to bear.
You gave us embodied SOUL. A sense of soul music that could embrace our bodily passions, ranges of emotions, and erotic desires wholly and holy. You gave us rhythm and blues. Music that stirred our hearts and swayed our hips. Your music rejected rigid distinctions between the sacred and the secular and helped us to find the “Spirit in the dark.” You gave us a Black woman’s consciousness. Recorded on February 14, 1967, “RESPECT” will always be a Black woman’s anthem for those of us who have known home as a dangerous place and all of us living in a hostile world that often denies our humanity, dignity, and worth. And as sure as the meaning of your name “Aretha,” you gave us beauty. Whether adorned in big hair, bright sequin dresses, or brazen fur coats, you were not afraid to showcase your sense of style and taught women everywhere how to take up space unashamedly and unapologetically.
You are one of the greatest entertainers of not only the 20th and 21st centuries, but of all time! You earned the legendary Diva title as one of the most decorated Black female entertainers blazing trails for generations to come with 18 GRAMMY Awards, distinction as the first African American woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and as a recipient of the highest civilian honor, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. Yet, no award or accolade can explain what you meant to families listening to your records during Saturday morning chores, girls who donned your style and impersonated your fiery roar at neighborhood talent shows, or whole communities who danced after dark to your greatest hits at countless family reunions and block parties.
Next to many of our Bibles was an Aretha Franklin album. Despite the critics, you never left the Church; you carried the Church with you into the world. You gave us your heart. You didn’t back down from sharing your loves and troubles. You blurred the lines between the public and private, which shifted the personal to the political and the popular. You made natural lovin’ and bodies coming together feel godly and good again. For your many offerings and contributions to this world, may your name always be remembered. May your children forever call you blessed. May you be celebrated as a musical genius and goddess. May generations to come hear your voice and music. May your story never be forgotten or erased. May you rest in GLORY and be invested with a majestic crown fit for a Queen. Long Live the Queen!
Melanie C. Jones is the 2018–2019 Crump Visiting Professor and Black Religious Scholar in Residence at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. She is a Ph.D. Candidate in ethics, theology and culture at Chicago Theological Seminary, receiving distinguished fellowships and awards for her research. She is a graduate of Howard University and Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She is the Co-Founder of The Millennial Womanism Project (hosted on the Black Theology Project)–an enterprise committed to enhancing the wellbeing of Black millennial women of faith & justice and fostering transgenerational womanist dialogue. Her research interests include womanist theological ethics, Black aesthetics, millennials and faith, African American religious history, and Black popular culture.