Singing and Praying Justice

Singing and Praying Justice

“What’s going on?” — Marvin Gaye

The soundtrack of the 1970s still speaks to us. Life, as many had known it, was rapidly changing back then. A generation had found its revolutionary voice and was confronting oppression domestically and abroad. Disenchantment with status quo Americanism had sparked the nation’s social consciousness. And from the center of this whirlwind emerged a cry for deep justice.

A singer captured the ethos of the age: “What’s going on?” he asked.

War, social decay, and racial unrest conspired against a generation. Too many mothers were crying, too many brothers dying. “We don’t need to escalate,” he urged. Please stop judging and punishing picket signs with brutality. “We’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”

Fast-forward almost 40 years and Marvin Gaye’s music feels as timely as ever.

Where’s the “Lovin’ Here Today”?

At its core, the Gospel is a story about a loving God who reconciles humanity into loving relationships with Himself, themselves, and each other. Justice fits into the story as Christ rights the wrongs that prevent those relationships. Worship as both music and lifestyle should reflect this. But does it?

In a world marked by wars, genocide, street gangs and terror thugs, ethnocentrism, generational poverty, famine, AIDS, substandard housing and education, rampant materialism, religious hatred, and environmental degradation, where’s the lovin’ in our church music? The kind of lovin’ that rights wrongs and reconciles relationships?

The songs that typically rank as the “most popular” in mainstream evangelical churches today are filled with beautiful expressions of God’s holiness and love. But they seem to lack a consistent emphasis on worship that moves beyond a personal experience to include a clear declaration of the social-justice dimension of God’s activity in the world.

Sadly, too often our church music is directed inward as a distorted, selfish facsimile of worship. We long for God to meet personal needs and mediate justice on our own behalf, radically reducing our songs to individualized laundry lists of wants. Consider these popular contemporary worship song lyrics:

“Every time I turn around there will be blessings on blessings, blessings on blessings / The favor of the Lord rests upon me, in my hands I have more than enough” (from Blessings on Blessings from Anthony Brown & group therAPy)

“I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone / When the praises go up, the blessings come down / It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap” (from “Blessings,” by Chance the Rapper featuring Jamila Woods)

“I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now”
(from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).

“I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now”
(from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).

“In my life I’m soaked in blessing / And in heaven there’s a great
reward / … I’ve got Jesus, Jesus / He calls me for His own / And He lifts me, lifts me / Above the world I know”
(from “God Is in the House,” by Hillsong United).

“(I got the) anointing / (Got God’s) favor / (And we’re still)
standing / I want it all back / Man give me my stuff back / Give me my stuff back / … I want it all / … I want that”
(from “I Want it All Back,” by Tye Tribbett).

Contrast those with the three recorded songs that accompanied Jesus’ birth. While the melodies have been lost to time, the lyrics reverberate through history.

The first, a spontaneous soulful utterance by a pregnant virgin, marveled about the Mighty One who miraculously conceived His child within her. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). What of the Rolls Royce-driving, private jet-flying, multiple mansion-dwelling, high fashion-wearing preachers and modern Christian subculture profiteers? What about the good life to which their songs and sermons aspire? What fills them?

The second, a choir song performed by heaven’s finest angels for an audience of outcast shepherds, proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). The peace of which they sang is shalom, and favor refers to “the year of the Lord’s favor” embraced within Christ’s mission (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61). More than the absence of strife, shalom is what the Prince of Peace came to reestablish: The interdependency of vibrant communities; the vitality of healthy bodies; the manifold mysteries of parental love; and the majesty of the cosmos. The condition of sin robs shalom, but Jesus’ justice restores it. When the most affluent people in recorded history attempt to co-opt Jesus’ favor as a rationale to get more stuff, we cheapen everything the gospel represents.

The third song, by an old man long past his prime, declared Jesus, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” He then explained the lyrics to Jesus’ parents: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:32, 34-35). Not much touchy feely hoopla here either.

Not one of these songs celebrates the themes that predominate our weekly worship services. No mention of “me,” except in the context of calling and responsibility beyond oneself. No focus on “blessing,” except as it relates to our ability, empowered by God, to bless others. No pursuit of personal comfort; rather, the promise of a sword to pierce one’s soul.

Indeed, the soundtrack that accompanied heaven’s lyric — the Word made flesh and dwelling among us — bears little resemblance to popular songs we sing in our churches. When that timeless Word “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message) his manner of doing so invited shame and ridicule, not material bounty. He lived among us as a child of poverty (born in a barn); political refugee (in Egypt); social pariah (survivor of unmarried pregnancy, a capital crime); ghetto immigrant (“What good comes from Nazareth?”); and blue-collar subject (carpenter) of an imperialistic colonizer (Rome). He was a friend of prostitutes (such as the woman who anointed his feet with perfume), crooked bureaucrats (tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus), and terrorists (including his disciple Simon, the Zealot, a card-carrying member of a first-century Palestinian terror organization).

If He actually showed up to one of our stylized worship experiences, He may well sing a different tune, one that sounds more like the warning He gave through the Old Testament prophet Amos:

“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice — oceans of it. I want fairness — rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want” (Amos 5:21-24, The Message).

Taking Amos at his word, if all God wants is oceans of justice rather than egocentric noise, then the needs of a broken world must reclaim center stage from personal blessings during corporate worship experiences. Notwithstanding the public repentance for neglecting the poor by high-profile leaders like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, many churches remain mute on such issues and have abandoned prophetic moments in lieu of religious protocol.

What to Do?

How can worship leaders help navigate oceans of justice within congregational gatherings? First, in the music and expressions of worship we embrace; and second, by facilitating worship as lifestyle, not just musical ritual.

Marvin Gaye’s opus reminds us that music ennobles ideas, emotes passion, and defines eras. Because we feel it, music penetrates hearts and stimulates a response. Combine inspired notes with well-crafted lyrics and the results can be liberating. Or lethal.

In Call and Response, a 2008 documentary about sex trafficking, Dr. Cornel West describes music’s power to accentuate and ultimately eradicate injustice:

“Music is about helping folk … by getting them to dance. Getting them to move. Getting them to think. Getting them to reflect. Getting them to be themselves, to somehow break out of the conventional self that they are.”

As musicians use that power to draw attention to injustices, people cannot help but get involved, West contends, because “justice is what love looks like in public.”

Historically, some denominational traditions have embraced justice-oriented hymns and music (e.g., Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and “O Healing River“), and Native Peoples have more than most (e.g., “Every Part of this Earth,” words by Chief Seattle). CCM pioneer Keith Green was an anomaly among evangelicals through the ’70s and early ’80s with songs like “Asleep in the Light,” which challenged: “Open up, and give yourself away / You’ve seen the need, you hear the cry, so how can you delay.” But increasingly music ministers across traditions are giving voice to justice within worship services (e.g., Jason Upton’s “Poverty,” Brian McLaren’s “A Revolution of Hope,” and Aaron Niequist‘s “Love Can Change the World”).

Jesus’ mission — Good News for the poor, sight for the blind, and liberty for the oppressed — requires the courage to break free from convention, perceive the new things God is doing in our midst, and zealously pursue them.

How We Get There

1. Refocus. Reductionist Western worship is possible because we have lost a sense of awe and reverence for Who God is, fashioning instead a God in our own image. Mark Labberton in his book, The Dangerous Act of Worship, writes:

The God we seek is the God we want, not the God who is. We fashion a god who blesses without obligation, who lets us feel his presence without living his life, who stands with us and never against us, who gives us what we want, when we want it.

Rather than appealing to God on account of his character — a holy, righteous, just, and mighty God — we have become gods unto ourselves, presupposing long before we encounter His presence what He needs to do on our behalf and prejudging what matters most. Let’s refocus on Who really matters.

2. Repent. The failure to incorporate laments for justice into corporate worship underscores a much deeper problem. Fundamentally we misunderstand what worship really is. Worship is neither the rhythmic pursuit of a euphoric high nor the somber embrace of silent reflection. Such either/or myopia forgets that Jesus describes true worshipers as those who worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

Paul elaborates that “our spiritual act of worship” requires offering our very selves as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1-2). First century Romans familiar with ritual sacrifices understood that phrase to be a contradiction. One did not sacrifice living bulls, for example. The peril of potential impaling demanded that sacrifices be dead first. Yet God invites worshipers to voluntarily self-sacrifice. Paul continues: “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world” — white picket fences, trendy fashions, and such — “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Where our will conforms to the world’s patterns and trumps God’s will, let’s repent for rejecting true worship.

3. Remember. The holy God we revere is also our righteous king who exacts justice on behalf of his people. Moses and Miriam remembered in Exodus 15 when they praised Yahweh for demonstrating justice in his dealings with Pharaoh and liberating his people. Hannah remembered when she thanked God for his justice on her behalf (1 Samuel 2). King David remembered when he declared, “The Lord reigns!” and embraced a heavenly King who ruled above him and all other powers, whose eternal justice and righteousness are irrevocable. Let’s also remember that our “Lord loves justice” (Isaiah 61:8).

4. Reconnect. No longer should worship gatherings embrace the first part of the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” at the expense of the second part, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Let’s reconnect His love in a coherent whole.

5. Realign. Justice and worship at their core both deal with power and the abuses of power. By emphasizing God’s kingship, his rule over all creation, and his impeccable character, we intentionally create space for the Most High to address the fallen powers in our churches, states, nation, and world. Let’s realign our congregations under God’s power as work within us rather than the abusive power structures dominating the world.

6. Rediscover. As we identify and proclaim the laments of the marginalized with a deep understanding that their cries are our cries, we will begin to see our perspectives shift and the power of God move in ways that we never would have imagined.

Let’s rediscover the unleashed, all-powerful God, not our tempered and tame God in a box. Like Aslan of Narnia, He may not be safe, but “He is good.”

Battle lines form over social justice: Is it gospel or heresy?

Battle lines form over social justice: Is it gospel or heresy?

Clergy and faith leaders march to counter protest the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. RNS photo by Jordy Yager

An old question has recently found new energy among Christians.

“What does the gospel have to do with justice, particularly social justice?”

Justice has been a frequent topic these days — in the face of a stream of cellphone videos capturing instances of police brutality, conflict over the presence and future of Confederate monuments and racially charged responses to the nation’s changing demographics.

Christians, both as people of faith and citizens of this country, have pondered what to do in this current social climate. They have called for Christians to join or start movements for change as an explicit expression of discipleship and obedience to the prayer that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

And they have called for the church to make amends for the racial divisions of the past and present.

Others take a different view.

Where some see calls for biblical justice, they see heresy.

This week a group of Christians published “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” a response to what they call “questionable sociological, psychological, and political theories presently permeating our culture and making inroads into Christ’s church.”

The statement comes just after a short blog series posted by well-known Christian preacher and teacher John MacArthur, warning of the dangers of social justice.

MacArthur calls social justice a distraction from the gospel.

“Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of ‘social justice’ is a significant shift — and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results,” he wrote.

MacArthur is one of the initial signatories of The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, which echoes his blog posts.

While Christians from many traditions, races and ethnicities have displayed a concern for social justice, it is a topic that particularly concerns black and brown folks. We have endured a long history of race-based discrimination that did not simply disappear after the March on Washington, the passage of the Civil Rights Act or the election of the nation’s first black president.

The Rev. Pamela Lightsey, center, leads advocates from the Black Lives Matter movement as they disrupt proceedings of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. The demonstrators marched into the plenary session chanting slogans and gathered around the central Communion table. Photo by Maile Bradfield, courtesy of UMNS

Statements that dismiss social justice send a message that the ongoing marginalization many minorities still experience and struggle against is of no concern to their fellow Christians.

Or to God.

Or to the Bible — despite ample scriptural evidence that demonstrates God’s concern for the poor and the powerless and anger toward those who create oppressive conditions (Amos 5:24, Micah 6:8, Psalm 103:6, Isaiah 10:1, Luke 1:52-53, Luke 4:18).

Although much about this statement needs discussion, I will highlight one section in particular.

It reads: “We affirm that some cultures operate on assumptions that are inherently better than those of other cultures because of the biblical truths that inform those worldviews that have produced these distinct assumptions.”

The best word to describe the assertion above is “ethnocentric.”

Who gets to decide which cultures and which assumptions are closer to biblical truth? For most of American history, white Christians have claimed that privilege. That privilege is now being challenged.

I’m tempted to refute the recent statement on the gospel and social justice point-by-point — showing how it falls short of the Bible’s call for justice. But I think our time would be better spent on other pursuits. There’s too much work to be done — work that will be delayed by endless debates.

Here’s my advice.

Many of the people who authored and signed this statement have large ministries and platforms.

Avoid them.

Find other authors, preachers and teachers from whom you can learn. People like Austin Channing Brown or the podcasters and bloggers at Truth’s Table or The Witness, where I am a contributor. Or read Howard Thurman, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bryan Stevenson, James Baldwin or the other writers who have explored issues of justice.

If the supporters of statements that dismiss social justice as a distraction from the gospel headline a major conference, state your concerns to the organizers. If nothing changes, then don’t go.

If they do an interview on a podcast, find another episode to listen to. If they write more blogs to state their case, share other ones instead.

Statements like these are a distraction. They siphon off energy and attention that could be used to create new organizations and initiatives that help bring about justice and equality.

Instead of writing a rebuttal to the statement on social justice, why not write a proposal for a new scholarship to help underrepresented groups go to college and stay out of debt? Why not donate money to support ministries run by and geared toward racial and ethnic minorities? Why not research a cause and find out how you can get involved?

Refusing to give more attention to the people who oppose social justice is not a statement on their standing with God. This does not mean they are not sincerely attempting to follow Christ. It does not mean that they have not said helpful things on other topics in the past.

It simply means that in this case, they have made statements so troublesome that we must register our objections in visible ways.

Christians should never give up hope that people can change. Yet going back and forth, especially online, about social justice with those who see it as a dangerous intrusion into the church often does not alter anyone’s opinions and may lead to more frustration.

In the end, I think more people will be persuaded to change their minds about social justice by looking at the fruit of the people who engage in it rather than by arguing on social media about the validity of doing so.

Half a century after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it’s easy for people to claim that they would have been among the protesters and marchers and those who risked it all for the cause of justice. Well, the struggle for civil rights never ended. Now is your chance to get involved for love of God and love of neighbor.

(Jemar Tisby is president of the black Christian collective The Witness and author of the forthcoming book “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

Fans mourn Aretha Franklin at gospel-infused public viewing

Video Courtesy of Click On Detroit | Local 4 | WDIV


Mourners began pouring into Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on Tuesday to pay their final respects to Aretha Franklin.

They approached her gold-plated casket to the sounds of her gospel recordings. She was in repose, dressed in red from head to high-heeled shoes, legs crossed at the ankles.

As they approached, people who came from as far away as Las Vegas and Miami cried, crossed themselves, bowed their heads or blew kisses.

Museum board member Kelly Major Green said the goal was to create a dignified and respectful environment akin to a church, the place where Franklin got her start.

“What we wanted to do is be reflective of the Queen,” Green said. “It’s beautiful. She’s beautiful.”

Aretha Franklin lies in her casket at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History during a public visitation in Detroit, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Franklin died Aug. 16, of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, Pool)

With her legs crossed at the ankles, Green said Franklin communicates both power and comfort, as she did in life.

The shoes, in particular, show “The Queen of Soul is diva to the end,” Green said.

Tammy Gibson, 49, of Chicago said she arrived about 5:30 a.m. She came alone but made fast friends with others who sang and reminisced.

Growing up, Gibson said she heard Franklin’s music “playing all the time” by her parents, who “told me to go to bed — it’s an adult party.”

Outside the museum, she said: “I know people are sad, but it’s just celebrating — people dancing and singing her music.”

Franklin has been a constant in her life.

“I saw the gold-plated casket — it dawned on me: She’s gone, but her legacy and her music will live on forever.”

The setting for the two days of public viewings could not be more fitting, according to Paula Marie Seniors, an associate professor of Africana studies at Virginia Tech.

“I think it’s incredibly significant — she is being honored almost like a queen at one of the most important black museums in the United States,” said Seniors, who visited the museum several years ago when she was in Detroit doing research.

The Queen of Soul, Seniors said, was “a singer of the universe.” Yet she added that Franklin, who died Aug. 16 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76, also was “so unapologetically black — she was so proud of being a black woman.”

To be sure, Franklin did not consider herself a catalyst for the women’s movement or on the front lines of the fight for civil rights. But she represented and pushed for both in ways big and small — none, perhaps, more prominently or simultaneously as her mold-breaking take on the Otis Redding song, “Respect.” She later said that with her interpretation — which even Redding acknowledged became the standard — sought to convey a message about the need to respect women, people of color, children and all people.

The museum, which had been the largest black museum in the U.S. until the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, D.C., in 2016, also hosted similar viewings for civil rights icon Rosa Parks after her 2005 death. In further symbolic symmetry, Franklin sang at Parks’ funeral, which was held at the same Detroit church as Franklin’s, and the singer will be entombed in the same cemetery as Parks.

The women came to their activism from different places and used different techniques, but “in the long run, they were both fighting for the same cause, which is freedom,” Seniors said.

Seniors said if she could attend the viewings, she would bring her 8-year-old daughter, Shakeila, who has sung along with Franklin’s videos.

“I want my daughter to know anything and everything about African-American culture and history,” said Seniors, whose father, Clarence Henry Seniors, was roommates at Morehouse College with Franklin’s brother, Cecil. “I would want my daughter to know of the people like Aretha Franklin — to be able to listen to that voice … and hear that there is something special about it.”

A Tribute to the Life and Legacy of the ‘Queen of Soul’

A Tribute to the Life and Legacy of the ‘Queen of Soul’

Courtesy of Time magazine


Aretha Franklin, the undisputed “Queen of Soul” who sang with matchless style on such classics as “Think,” ”I Say a Little Prayer” and her signature song, “Respect,” and stood as a cultural icon around the globe, has died at age 76 from pancreatic cancer.

Publicist Gwendolyn Quinn tells The Associated Press through a family statement that Franklin died Thursday at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit. The statement said “Franklin’s official cause of death was due to advanced pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type, which was confirmed by Franklin’s oncologist, Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute” in Detroit.

The family added: “In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart. We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.”

The statement continued:

“We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world. Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”

Aretha Franklin performing live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, New York on March 21, 2008. © Atlas / MediaPunch /IPX

Funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days.

Franklin, who had battled undisclosed health issues in recent years, had in 2017 announced her retirement from touring.

A professional singer and accomplished pianist by her late teens, a superstar by her mid-20s, Franklin had long ago settled any arguments over who was the greatest popular vocalist of her time. Her gifts, natural and acquired, were a multi-octave mezzo-soprano, gospel passion and training worthy of a preacher’s daughter, taste sophisticated and eccentric, and the courage to channel private pain into liberating song.

She recorded hundreds of tracks and had dozens of hits over the span of a half century, including 20 that reached No. 1 on the R&B charts. But her reputation was defined by an extraordinary run of top 10 smashes in the late 1960s, from the morning-after bliss of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” to the wised-up “Chain of Fools” to her unstoppable call for “Respect.”

Her records sold millions of copies and the music industry couldn’t honor her enough. Franklin won 18 Grammy awards. In 1987, she became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Clive Davis, the music mogul who brought her to Arista Records and helped revive her career in the 1980s, said he was “devastated” by her death.

“She was truly one of a kind. She was more than the Queen of Soul. She was a national treasure to be cherished by every generation throughout the world,” he said in a statement. “Apart from our long professional relationship, Aretha was my friend. Her loss is deeply profound and my heart is full of sadness.”

Fellow singers bowed to her eminence and political and civic leaders treated her as a peer. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a longtime friend, and she sang at the dedication of King’s memorial, in 2011. She performed at the inaugurations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and at the funeral for civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Clinton gave Franklin the National Medal of Arts. President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2005.

Washington, DC – January 20, 2009 — Aretha Franklin performs at the the 56th Presidential Inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States in Washington, DC. Credit: Pat Benic – Pool via CNP /MediaPunch /IPX

Franklin’s best-known appearance with a president was in January 2009, when she sang “My Country ’tis of Thee” at Barack Obama’s inauguration. She wore a gray felt hat with a huge, Swarovski rhinestone-bordered bow that became an Internet sensation and even had its own website. In 2015, she brought Obama and others to tears with a triumphant performance of “Natural Woman” at a Kennedy Center tribute to the song’s co-writer, Carole King.

Franklin endured the exhausting grind of celebrity and personal troubles dating back to childhood. She was married from 1961 to 1969 to her manager, Ted White, and their battles are widely believed to have inspired her performances on several songs, including “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” ”Think” and her heartbreaking ballad of despair, “Ain’t No Way.” The mother of two sons by age 16 (she later had two more), she was often in turmoil as she struggled with her weight, family problems and financial predicaments. Her best known producer, Jerry Wexler, nicknamed her “Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows.”

Franklin married actor Glynn Turman in 1978 in Los Angeles but returned to her hometown of Detroit the following year after her father was shot by burglars and left semi-comatose until his death in 1984. She and Turman divorced that year.

Despite growing up in Detroit, and having Smokey Robinson as a childhood friend, Franklin never recorded for Motown Records; stints with Columbia and Arista were sandwiched around her prime years with Atlantic Records. But it was at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father was pastor, that Franklin learned the gospel fundamentals that would make her a soul institution.

Aretha Louise Franklin was born March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee. The Rev. C.L. Franklin soon moved his family to Buffalo, New York, then to Detroit, where the Franklins settled after the marriage of Aretha’s parents collapsed and her mother (and reputed sound-alike) Barbara returned to Buffalo.

C.L. Franklin was among the most prominent Baptist ministers of his time. He recorded dozens of albums of sermons and music and knew such gospel stars as Marion Williams and Clara Ward, who mentored Aretha and her sisters Carolyn and Erma. (Both sisters sang on Aretha’s records, and Carolyn also wrote “Ain’t No Way” and other songs for Aretha). Music was the family business and performers from Sam Cooke to Lou Rawls were guests at the Franklin house. In the living room, the shy young Aretha awed friends with her playing on the grand piano.

Franklin occasionally performed at New Bethel Baptist throughout her career; her 1987 gospel album “One Lord One Faith One Baptism” was recorded live at the church.

Her most acclaimed gospel recording came in 1972 with the Grammy-winning album “Amazing Grace,” which was recorded live at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South Central Los Angeles and featured gospel legend James Cleveland, along with her own father (Mick Jagger was one of the celebrities in the audience). It became one of of the best-selling gospel albums ever.

The piano she began learning at age 8 became a jazzy component of much of her work, including arranging as well as songwriting. “If I’m writing and I’m producing and singing, too, you get more of me that way, rather than having four or five different people working on one song,” Franklin told The Detroit News in 2003.

Franklin was in her early teens when she began touring with her father, and she released a gospel album in 1956 through J-V-B Records. Four years later, she signed with Columbia Records producer John Hammond, who called Franklin the most exciting singer he had heard since a vocalist he promoted decades earlier, Billie Holiday. Franklin knew Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and considered joining his label, but decided it was just a local company at the time.



Courtesy of Hans vd Linden


Franklin recorded several albums for Columbia Records over the next six years. She had a handful of minor hits, including “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” and “Runnin’ Out of Fools,” but never quite caught on as the label tried to fit into her a variety of styles, from jazz and show songs to such pop numbers as “Mockingbird.” Franklin jumped to Atlantic Records when her contract ran out, in 1966.

“But the years at Columbia also taught her several important things,” critic Russell Gersten later wrote. “She worked hard at controlling and modulating her phrasing, giving her a discipline that most other soul singers lacked. She also developed a versatility with mainstream music that gave her later albums a breadth that was lacking on Motown LPs from the same period.

“Most important, she learned what she didn’t like: to do what she was told to do.”

At Atlantic, Wexler teamed her with veteran R&B musicians from Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, and the result was a tougher, soulful sound, with call-and-response vocals and Franklin’s gospel-style piano, which anchored “I Say a Little Prayer,” ”Natural Woman” and others.

Of Franklin’s dozens of hits, none was linked more firmly to her than the funky, horn-led march “Respect” and its spelled out demand for “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Writing in Rolling Stone magazine in 2004, Wexler said: “It was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it’s hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined.”

Franklin had decided she wanted to “embellish” the R&B song written by Otis Redding, whose version had been a modest hit in 1965, Wexler said.

“When she walked into the studio, it was already worked out in her head,” the producer wrote. “Otis came up to my office right before ‘Respect’ was released, and I played him the tape. He said, ‘She done took my song.’ He said it benignly and ruefully. He knew the identity of the song was slipping away from him to her.”

In a 2004 interview with the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, Franklin was asked whether she sensed in the ’60s that she was helping change popular music.

The American blues and soul singer Aretha Franklin during recordings for a TV show in a Cologne studio, pictured on 13th May 1968.

“Somewhat, certainly with ‘Respect,’ that was a battle cry for freedom and many people of many ethnicities took pride in that word,” she answered. “It was meaningful to all of us.”

In 1968, Franklin was pictured on the cover of Time magazine and had more than 10 Top 20 hits in 1967 and 1968. At a time of rebellion and division, Franklin’s records were a musical union of the church and the secular, man and woman, black and white, North and South, East and West. They were produced and engineered by New Yorkers Wexler and Tom Dowd, arranged by Turkish-born Arif Mardin and backed by an interracial assembly of top session musicians based mostly in Alabama.

Her popularity faded during the 1970s despite such hits as the funky “Rock Steady” and such acclaimed albums as the intimate “Spirit in the Dark.” But her career was revived in 1980 with a cameo appearance in the smash movie “The Blues Brothers” and her switch to Arista Records. Franklin collaborated with such pop and soul artists as Luther Vandross, Elton John, Whitney Houston and George Michael, with whom she recorded a No. 1 single, “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me).” Her 1985 album “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” received some of her best reviews and included such hits as the title track and “Freeway of Love.”

Critics consistently praised Franklin’s singing but sometimes questioned her material; she covered songs by Stephen Sondheim, Bread, the Doobie Brothers. For Aretha, anything she performed was “soul.”

From her earliest recording sessions at Columbia, when she asked to sing “Over the Rainbow,” she defied category. The 1998 Grammys gave her a chance to demonstrate her range. Franklin performed “Respect,” then, with only a few minutes’ notice, filled in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and drew rave reviews for her rendition of “Nessun Dorma,” a stirring aria for tenors from Puccini’s “Turandot.”

“I’m sure many people were surprised, but I’m not there to prove anything,” Franklin told The Associated Press. “Not necessary.”

Fame never eclipsed Franklin’s charitable works, or her loyalty to Detroit.

Franklin sang the national anthem at Super Bowl in her hometown in 2006, after grousing that Detroit’s rich musical legacy was being snubbed when the Rolling Stones were chosen as halftime performers.

“I didn’t think there was enough (Detroit representation) by any means,” she said. “And it was my feeling, ‘How dare you come to Detroit, a city of legends — musical legends, plural — and not ask one or two of them to participate?’ That’s not the way it should be.”

Franklin did most of her extensive touring by bus after Redding’s death in a 1967 plane crash, and a rough flight to Detroit in 1982 left her with a fear of flying that anti-anxiety tapes and classes couldn’t help. She told Time in 1998 that the custom bus was a comfortable alternative: “You can pull over, go to Red Lobster. You can’t pull over at 35,000 feet.”

She only released a few albums over the past two decades, including “A Rose is Still a Rose,” which featured songs by Sean “Diddy” Combs, Lauryn Hill and other contemporary artists, and “So Damn Happy,” for which Franklin wrote the gratified title ballad. Franklin’s autobiography, “Aretha: From These Roots,” came out in 1999, when she was in her 50s. But she always made it clear that her story would continue.

“Music is my thing, it’s who I am. I’m in it for the long run,” she told The Associated Press in 2008. “I’ll be around, singing, ‘What you want, baby I got it.’ Having fun all the way.”

HOLLYWOOD, FL – MARCH 16 : Aretha Franklin performs at Hard Rock live held at the Seminole Hard Rock hotel and casino on March 16, 2010 in Hollywood Florida Credit: MPI04 / MediaPunch /IPX

Lifting Up the Queen of Soul

Lifting Up the Queen of Soul


People are praying for Aretha Franklin in the Detroit church where her father was once a pastor.

The special vigil at New Bethel Baptist Church began before dawn Wednesday.

The prayers come one day after Stevie Wonder visited the ailing Queen of Soul at her home. Franklin’s ex-husband, actor Glynn Turman, also visited Franklin, who is seriously ill.

A person close to Franklin, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not allowed to publicly talk about the topic, told The Associated Press on Monday that the singer is ill. No more details were provided.

The 76-year-old canceled planned concerts earlier this year after she was ordered by her doctor to stay off the road and rest.


Across social media, people are remembering the “Queen of Soul” and her impact and legacy.