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Ruminations on the (Black) womanist power of Aretha Franklin | Think Piece

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“I never knew how much I loved her,” professed my friend when we lamented on the passing of Aretha Franklin.

I guess, I never knew how much her melodies embedded themselves into my heartbreaks, my declarations of woman power, and the old school reads I grabbed from the seasoned aunties in my life.

Since the announcement of Aunt ReRe’s death, my meditation on life deepened. In the midst of a mercury retrograde that has challenged communication with many and my finances, the looping of the more than 100 released songs for the last three days, reminded me that Ms. Franklin has been with me since I blossomed in my mother’s womb.

For days, a collective of friends have been cultivating our own obituary. Flipping through photos, we noticed the transformation of flawless beauty in the beginning of her career to the refined jazz singer then the earthy soul singer, and after, the diva.

The small breasts to the sagging boobs, to the full-bodied top, the cellulite and the lopsided wigs, and the flair and fuck-you panache. The men, the groupies, the Obamas, Oprah, Huey P., the Bushes and the other Queen, Elizabeth II — all of them awed.

She, who was even loved by white supremacists, though knee-deep in Black power, passed as serene and strong as her mezzo-soprano — in grace.

While reading various snippets of a life, well-lived, I, like many in younger generations, took her for granted. She was real, all the time. And demanded her money up front. Her respect, even when she was at her lowest point. Never touch her fur coats. And showed the Pope the Black Church by catching the Holy Ghost in front of him, on site.

AUSTIN, TX – 3 SEPTEMBER 2014: Aretha Franklin performs in concert at ACL Live. (Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage)

Indeed, she was a natural woman, in that she was complicated. She lived in grace, and in shame. She indulged, and she sacrificed. And with all of her talent, the men who said they loved her, were the source of some her most visceral pain. Ironically, the most powerful in the world bowed down to her voice, her musicianship and her beauty.

Her songs are more than the soundtrack to my life, they are part of the cellular artistry of my being, as her world wraps around mine.

Ms. Franklin sits on my ancestral totem. She is a panther with pearls for eyes and bells ringing like Osun dangle as earrings. Her nails are rubies and lapis lazuli with old pieces of chicken bone between her paws.

Aretha Franklin at the American Music Award (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Ms. Franklin’s voice is what we call molasses thick peppered with cayenne. But it was the spirit invoked in each note that I hold onto with all that I can because we need a Ms. Franklin right now.

We need a woman who sings “Spanish Harlem” in the late night juke joint then “Amazing Grace” on Sunday morning and “Nessun Dorma” for tea. Who rocks the soul when she opens her mouth, but feels she has been inadequate in service for Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

So I too, never knew, how much I loved her. Now I know. Because she is me.

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Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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