The aficionados of black music would recognize a familiar ring in the title of this piece. It is a take-off on the Nina Simone song‘Why? (The King of Love is Dead)’.
‘The King’ referred, of course, to Martin Luther King Junior, who had just been murdered on a hotel balcony when Nina sang the song. The tears were flowing freely in those dark days. Passions were running rife, and chaos and death were in the air all over the United States of America.
Nina Simone was an African-American diva, and something of a precursor for Aretha. She was weird, and she was larger than life.
There will be another time to talk about Nina Simone, whose voice was deep and dark, so much so that it put the fear of God in the people who heard her music and were enthralled by it, including those who did not like black people. It’s not over, the common saying goes, to this day, until the fat lady sings.The fat black lady. And Nina was not even fat. Aretha was.
O – Aretha!
She was the quintessential ‘black’ voice. Her voice that defined – more than any other, your youthful consciousness and emerging artistic sensibilities, growing up.
Now that she is dead, you feel as though you have known her all your life. Getting into boarding school at Government College Ibadan as an eleven-year-old stripling, going away from home and parents for the first time, you were suddenly an individual, distinct from everyone else. You were expected to have – opinion.
It was a very liberating feeling. But it was also a scary feeling, with a lot of gaps in choices and preferences that you found yourself having to fill, going forward. People you liked. People you could not stand. Music to dance to. Music to listen to.
A welter of culture icons with their creations hit you in the eye. In your boarding house – Grier House, as in the rest of the school, the music of James Brown had everybody shaking their heads furiously on their necks as if they wanted to throw them off and gyrating their hips in something they called the ‘Boogaloo’. It was amusing to watch the older boys dancing at the House ‘Socials’ that held – was it once in a month? The small boys would snigger in the corner at the seriousness with which some of the big boys practised the steps, especially the more studious ones who you might have sworn would have no truck with dancing. There was a fever especially when the end of year was approaching, with a date set for ‘Endo’ – the End of Year party at which the big boys played host to girls from St Anne’s School in town. Beyond their sniggering, the little boys would practice the steps they copied from their seniors in the safety of the communal washroom, or even in class, during break.
But for you, Aretha’s was the real musical discovery of those early days. Her sharp, rasping voice belting out the notes and sentiments of ‘Respect’ made a powerful impression on you. You found the voice and the words reverberating inside your head, over and over again – in class, in lonely moments, playing on the field. Sometimes, inexplicably it brought you to tears.
You would understand the experience later, as you matured. You had discovered The Black Voice, and its spell would stay with you. It was a label on a door, and as you grew in years, other powerful black women – Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Billie Holliday would walk through that door and inhabit your life and space. But Aretha was your first taste of that world, and the sound of her voice would always evoke in you complex details of the past and the present in a bitter-sweet mix that was difficult to explain to anyone, not to speak of sharing. Even when they hit a joyful note, those women, they spoke of a primordial pain and passion that you automatically empathized withand could feel in your bone.
Aretha Franklin died on August 16, 2018, after a long struggle with cancer of the pancreas.
She was a preacher’s daughter who sang in the choir, and started off singing gospel music. She was no saint, and not your prototypical ‘choir girl’. She had her first baby at the age of twelve, and her second when she was fourteen. She was twice married and twice divorced.
At the age of eighteen she began a professional career in a customized genre of secular music that was labelled at various time Rhythm and Blues, Pop, Rock, Soul and even Jazz.
Her father was a cross between motivational speaker and gospel preacher. He made a good living giving rousing speeches to black Christian congregations across the land. He often took her on his travels. Through these, she was able to meet several celebrities in music and the civil rights struggle, including Martin Luther King.
But all of this was mere detail. The real story of Aretha’s life was that she recorded one hundred and twelve singles that found their way into the Billboard Charts. Out of these seventeen were Top-Ten pop singles and twenty were Number One R&B single. She was the most charted female artist in history. She won eighteen Grammy Awards, and sold more than seventy-five million records. ‘Respect’, ‘You make me feel like a natural woman’ ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘Don’t play that song for me’ among others in her oeuvre have become part of the musical treasure of the whole of mankind. Even songs written by other people such as Carol King were taken over by her persona, once she sang them, and made permanently into her own for all eternity. Rolling Stone magazine in 2010 named her the greatest singer of all time.
Without carrying placards or joining civil rights marches, her voice and the words of her songs became part of the civil rights struggle, and the struggle for female empowerment.
It was symbolic of the stature and meaning of her life that she sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King Junior – the emotional nadir of black -American experience, as well as at the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first black President of America – their emotional peak to date.
The world, surely, is poorer by the absence of Aretha Louise Franklin.
May her soul rest in peace.