There are few words that come close to adequately describing the mark on our lives that Aretha Franklin has made. And fewer, still, that haven't already been shared by those who knew her best and loved her.
I'm not even going to try to surpass those statements. Instead, I'm simply going to talk for a few minutes.
When I saw the news posted earlier this week that Aretha was in hospice care at her home, I knew it was simply a matter of time. I was hoping that somehow she would be able to pull through this and get to spend some more time here among us. But when you hear and see the word "hospice" you know what is coming next.
I began to remember being a kid and my mother singing along with Aretha on the radio around the house or in the car. I remembered the feeling I got when I heard and listened to Aretha sing A Change Is Gonna Come.
And just like the first time I still get chills. At the time I was too young to understand the full depth of what the song was about. Having not lived that particular part of life, I'll likely never understand fully what fueled that passion and emotion she put into that piece. Being part of a minority of a different kind, I can relate in a way.
Consistently and steadily throughout my life, and I imagine most peoples lives in the US and abroad, her voice became a natural part of my world. Instantly recognizable and reassuring in the soundtrack of life.
Years later when I came more fully to the world of the Blues, I started to see the other side of the soul sound that Aretha put into her music. Not just the beautiful voice on the music charts, but the passion and meaning she put into every song singing from history and life.
In a genre that is uniquely American, the history that brought it forward informs a great deal the sound that it makes in our hearts. An honest and complete look at the good and the bad, the bright and the dark, the trouble and the peace.
When you hear the words and take the time to learn some of the history you can then begin to understand the lyrics to the songs in a much more meaningful way.
Aretha, having grown up a preachers daughter and starting in gospel, brought that passion and soul into her music naturally. It was the foundation upon which her future was built. And with that foundation she not only found a calling and a career, she found a way to help push forward the fight for equality in this country. She was able to celebrate the victories, the battles, and mourn the losses with that gift.
Something that I didn't learn until years later was that Aretha sang at Martin Luther King Jr's funeral. I learned that bit of history when I saw her sing at President Barack Obama's inauguration. Quite the book ends of the spectrum.
She could lift us all up and paint a picture of history and with her voice she could bring world leaders to tears.
Her final public performance being one of singing at a gala that Sir Elton John held as a benefit for AIDS research. Her willingness to stand in any lane to bring equality and peace forward is something that will forever mark her legacy.
Several years ago I was lucky enough to get the chance to see her perform live, just a few blocks from my home. Others have used similar words to describe hearing and seeing her perform and they are quite accurate... "Otherworldly" is the one that stands out for me because when I walked out of that concert I could only describe it as having felt like I'd been taken to the mountain top and shown what beauty can truly look and feel like.
Aretha Franklin has, in one way or another, touched all of our lives to some degree. If it was just having fun singing along in the car ride to the grocery store, enjoying a moment of equality amongst friends in a restaurant with there no longer being a "colored section", or in tears of joy and or pain when love has lifted us or left us.
Much of her efforts are obvious, and in a way that we may or may not ever truly understand, her efforts for beauty, art, music, equality, and kindness to one another have forever shaped the world in which we live.
The arts enrich our lives and keep society moving forward in times of darkness, they reach down and pull us up to propel us forward down the road. Without the arts the world would be a much different place and I would argue a much darker place. With artists like Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Etta James, and a list that continues into the decades of history; we have seen our world pushed forward and pulled together even when it seems to be ripping itself apart.
We lose celebrities frequently and we are saddened but move forward. When we lose icons and individuals who have moved more than concert ticket sales or election cycles, but instead moved us as a people forward in a positive manner, those are moments that will always live with us. Musicians, leaders, scientists, authors, and friends, when we lose those individuals then we are left with a mark on us of bittersweet memory.
Memories like seeing Aretha sing Respect live and remembering being a kid and hearing and seeing your mother beautifully sing along with the radio...
Rest Aretha, you've carried us farther than you know and became a star. And now you rest among the stars that number the heavens and are a part of each and every single living thing in the world. From star dust comes life, and that life sometimes turns into a whole new kind of star.