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By Aesha Adams-Roberts
I first heard Aretha Franklin’s voice when I was just seven or eight-years-old, when she sang “Freeway of Love.” I’m almost certain I heard the song at my Granny’s house. Granny didn’t go to church. But with a father who was a church musician and a mother who was a Pentecostal evangelist, we didn’t get to listen to a lot of “worldly” artists unless we were at Granny’s.
Granny was a lot like Aretha. Sassy. Stylish. Sensual. And going to Granny’s house meant I got to dance and listen to otherwise forbidden songs by Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and of course, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. For the church girl in me, Aretha Franklin allowed me to flirt with the possibilities of a spirituality that was free from legalistic rules about who you could and couldn’t listen to if you were really saved. Imagine my surprise when I discovered as a young adult that Ms. Franklin was both a prolific gospel artist and a powerhouse soulsinger. No wonder my Granny loved her. Aretha took us to church!
I’d later come to discover the works of womanist theologians through the course of my graduate studies. They told me the same truths that my Granny and Ms. Franklin demonstrated to me decades earlier. I learned that in our embodied experiences as Black Women, the sensual is spiritual, and the soul song is a form of worship. Through Aretha, my Granny connected me to a womanist tradition. We worshipped God each time she called me into her living room, turned on the record player, and let me dance with the Queen.
That’s why I wept when I bore witness to the video Ms. Franklin’s granddaughter posted on social media, right after she ascended, of her grandma playing the piano. Aretha looked like my Granny did right before she succumbed to her own battle with pancreatic cancer. Watching the video, I felt like I’d lost my own grandmother again. In some ways, I did. Because Aretha made a way for my Granny to find God within and to love her fiercely (Ntozake Shange). Granny taught me to do the same. And now they both are gone.
Thank you Queen for reminding me to let the little black girl within me come out and dance, to stand in the power of knowing that it’s just as holy to bop to “Freeway of Love” as it is to shout to “Highway To Heaven.” I will always honor the gift of freedom your music gave to me and my Granny.
Dr. Aesha Adams-Roberts holds a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from The Pennsylvania State University (University Park). After 10 years in higher education, she redirected her skills as a teacher, researcher and communicator in a powerful way: to help Black women create romantic relationships that are as liberating as they are loving. She’s been featured on Lifetime TV, GSN, Madame Noire, The Chicago Tribune and BlackandMarriedwithKids.com for her trailblazing work as a relationship expert.