Angela Davis sings in tribute to Aretha Franklin at the Detroit Music Weekend in 2017
In the wake of the death of Aretha Franklin–as well as for the decades she was a living legend–hundreds of thousands of words have been written about her extraordinary contributions to music, to performance, to singing. I can’t add to them; I can just point you to some of the good ones. Before she died last week, I didn’t know much about Aretha Franklin as a human being. Here’s the story that caught my eye:
In 1970, Franklin offered to post bail for Angela Davis, a prominent black revolutionary at the time (and an important radical political figure to this day). Davis was jailed on trivial charges. Here’s what she told Jet Magazine at the time about why she made the offer:
My daddy says I don’t know what I’m doing. Well, I respect him, of course, but I’m going to stick by my beliefs. Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money; I got it from Black people—they’ve made me financially able to have it—and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.
Franklin also contributed to the civil rights movement.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Franklin anonymously helped fund the movement for decades. He said, “When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll. … Aretha has always been a very socially conscious artist, an inspiration, not just an entertainer.”
Talent, artistic and commercial success, and even meaningful social commentary in your art don’t necessarily tell us anything about how performers and stars live their lives. And being at the top of the heap gives celebrities really good reasons to keep their social contributions under wraps, because they are constantly being tapped for money for hundreds of causes and thousands of individual problems. That’s why we didn’t know about Prince financing Green for All until after he died, and why neither Jesse Jackson nor Aretha Franklin shared her role in keeping the flame alive.
Aretha Franklin’s name is inextricably linked to “Respect.”
The more I learn about her, the more I respect her.