by Dom Jones
Many people, on social media, in person, and at the funeral, talked about how they grew up listening to the magnetic, magnificent voice of Aretha Franklin. That’s not really my story with her music. Sure, I’d hear her on the radio on a car ride somewhere as a child, but since my mother was a strict and devout Christian, there were only certain non-gospel musicians allowed to be played in our home. They were James Brown and Stevie Wonder. Now, my father was nowhere near a Christian for much of my childhood, so I still heard The Temptations, The Stylistics, Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, and other soul luminaries through his musical collection and the musical choices of my older sisters, my church friends, and eventually, myself. But it was hip-hop that would make me delve deep into Aretha’s catalog and become the fan that I am today.
In 1998, Lauryn Hill would write and produce a hit song for Aretha, called “A Rose is Still a Rose.” I’d probably already heard all of Ms. Franklin’s big hits before this song came out, but I looked at her in a different light. A legend was willing to work with a rising star, and not just Lauryn hill, but we see amazing vocalists and writers such as Amel Larrieux and Faith Evans in the video gathered around Aretha on the piano as well. Everything about the song, from the writing, to the production, to the aesthetic and camaraderie of these artists was about empowering women who looked (and sounded) like me. I would later learn that this kind of solidarity with women was an integral part of Ms. Franklin’s value system. I was (and still am) a huge Lauryn Hill fan, and so by proxy, my interest in the music of Aretha grew through this collaboration. I started digging a bit more to find songs that weren’t necessarily hits.
In 1999, a Brooklyn rapper, then known as Mos Def
(now known as Yasiin Bey), released a hit single called “Ms. Fat Booty,” which samples Aretha’s “Daydreaming.” This sent me into a whirlwind of exploration because I was also super interested in the way sampling could reimagine and reintroduce older (and many times, forgotten) music in a more contemporary way. I went looking for more Aretha songs and I started actively looking up the artists who were sampled by my favorite hip-hop artists. I found out more about the music of Curtis Mayfield, The Isley Brothers, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers and others because their music had been sampled in some of my favorite hip-hop songs. My musical palette was expanded so much through this practice, but it all started with my curiosity around Aretha Franklin’s music.
And, of course, I have to talk about Ms. Franklin’s unapologetic body positivity. A career that spanned 60 years and an epic funeral sendoff that spanned nine hours led Rev. Al Sharpton to comment, “She stood for something, she never shamed us, she never disgraced us. She represented the best in our community, and she fought for our community until the end.” And while he was referring to the African-American community, I thought about this comment and how it applied to other groups within which Ms. Franklin fit. Whether she was a size 6 or a size 16, she walked like the star she was, she dressed like the queen she was, and her talent was always front and center.
Many of my peers have commented about how we’re “losing the legends.” But we all know that music is the gift that immortalizes the musician. As their bodies leave this earth, I choose not to look at it as a loss, but a baton reaching out for the next generation to continue the race of musical greatness. No, we’ll never hear a “new” Prince song or see another Michael Jackson performance. Whitney Houston will never grace another stage again, but all of these legends will live on through their legacies and the way they’ve inspired generations of musicians. I want to inspire someone the way Aretha Franklin inspired me to be a great musician who uses their platform for change. Don’t you? That’s the challenge, and that’s why she wore the crown.