Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, belonged to her God, her city, her community, and now, to the ages.
The cultural institutions she loved have been on full display in the celebration of her life leading up to her homegoing services on Friday. More than two dozen ministers, performers both secular and gospel, along with black entertainers, athletes and civil rights activists make up a who’s who list of black America that will pay tribute to Franklin in a marathon service scheduled to last at least five hours.
Like Franklin, her ceremony will be undoubtedly and unapologetically black, said Detroit native and Georgetown University sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, who will speak at Franklin’s funeral.
“She was our voice for half a century,” said Dyson. “She gave expression to our desires — our spiritual desires, our political desires, our spiritual and sexual desires … She was a full-service queen. She was The People’s Diva.”
Franklin died Aug. 16 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76.
From the black museum that hosted Aretha Franklin’s public viewing for thousands of her fellow Detroiters, to the gospel tradition that launched her singular musical gifts, to her commitment to social justice through both song and financial assistance, so many here and around the country have expressed their gratitude to Franklin for staying in a city many had long since abandoned, for continuing to inspire a people so often deprived of dignity.
She was a constant and common denominator of black life. In her final role, the funeral will cap a week of tributes that have been not only a testament to her life and musical legacy, but a triumph of black culture.
“Everybody don’t do funerals like we do in the black church,” said gospel artist Marvin Sapp, among the performers Friday.
“We don’t even call them funerals. We call them homegoing services, and we know how to send people home.”
The mix of pomp and circumstance with the everyday people Franklin knew and loved began Tuesday under the roof of The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, which long housed the world’s largest permanent exhibit of African-American culture. Franklin lay in repose at the museum for two days as thousands of Detroiters from all walks of life came to say goodbye.
She was brought to and from the museum in the same white 1940 Cadillac LaSalle hearse that carried her father, legendary minister C.L. Franklin, and civil rights icon Rosa Parks to their final resting places.
Church, gospel music core to tributes
The black church and gospel, both of which loomed large throughout Franklin’s life, have been heavily represented in her farewells. The final public viewing was held at New Bethel Baptist Church, the Detroit headquarters of the civil rights movement, where her father preached from 1946 to 1979.
“She would have had it no other way,” said Bobby Jones, a pillar of the gospel community who currently hosts the Bobby Jones Radio Show and was the longtime host of the popular Bobby Jones Gospel on Black Entertainment Television.
Friday’s funeral services at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit will have a jazz, mainstream and gospel section — appropriate because of her contribution to help popularize the genre, Jones said.
“Gospel was written when black people were striving,” said Jones, who is leading the gospel section on Friday that includes genre powerhouses The Clark Sisters, Pastor Shirley Caesar and Tasha Cobbs-Leonard.
“They needed inspiration, joy and peace,” Jones explained. “Elitists thought it was just for the downtrodden. Aretha and Mahalia Jackson and others who were able to break through to other type of audiences helped to erase that.”
“The church meant an awful lot to her,” Jones said. “She was just church, even when she sang other types of songs. She wanted people to know she was a Christian.”
We really recognize that those we call the ‘dearly departed,’ they wouldn’t want for us to cry and be sad and sorrowful. They would want us to celebrate their lives.– Gospel artist Marvin Sapp
Franklin’s faith is steeped in a proud tradition in the black community embodied by her father, considered one of America’s great preachers.
“He established a particular style of preaching that is connected to the local urban black church that is still being used today,” said Sapp. “Her rearing in the church and having a father like her father is really the reason why she has had such a strong faith and why she stayed so close to church.”
Franklin will be eulogized by the Rev. Jasper Williams, who also eulogized her father. Williams is known for his “whooping” preaching style — similar to C.L. Franklin’s— that features a fiery delivery in the tradition of the black church and combines scripture with social issues.
The church helped keep Franklin tethered to her Detroit community. She held annual revivals at New Bethel. Sapp said fans will see the impact of the black church on her life and career at Friday’s service.
“We really celebrate because we really recognize that those we call the ‘dearly departed,’ they wouldn’t want for us to cry and be sad and sorrowful. They would want us to celebrate their lives because they transitioned from this life to a better one.”
Sapp wouldn’t reveal what he will perform Friday, but said that every song is one picked out by Franklin.
Commitment to social justice
Franklin’s faith was wrapped up in the fight for civil rights, and she performed gospel and her other hit records to energize blacks living in segregation, and to raise money for the cause.
Her commitment to social justice was also born in the black church. Franklin’s father was a major civil rights figure in the city and a supporter of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, the largest unit in the organization.
“That support was done in ways in which she didn’t seek credit; she just wanted to get the job done,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson, a Detroit native who will attend Friday’s funeral.
“African-Americans feel disrespected now. When you think about her song Respect, it’s as much of an anthem today as it was when she made it.”
Actress Cicely Tyson, who will offer personal reflections about Franklin, was a pioneering actress during segregation who also lent her talents to racial progress. Others who will likely weigh in on her social justice work include former Attorney General Eric Holder and the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. William Barber.
But it is Franklin most of all, and what she has represented so long, for so many, that will be the balm to those left grieving her loss. Her message of respect rings true and is reborn in the current political and social climate for many, Dyson said.
“Even when we have … the vicious resurgence of bigotry in this country, Aretha Franklin stood and said, ‘You will respect me as a human being, as a black person, as a woman, and as a member of this American community,”‘ Dyson said.
“We had access to her because she loved blackness without hesitation or apology.”