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Angela Davis: Aretha Franklin “Will Forever Animate Our Collective Sense of Desire for Change”

StoryAugust 17, 2018
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Aretha Franklin became the voice of the civil rights movement in 1967, when her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” became an international sensation. Franklin was a steadfast supporter of the civil rights movement throughout her long and remarkable career. She sang at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral after his assassination in 1968. 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.” For more, we speak with Angela Davis, author, professor and activist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. We also speak with Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature and African-American studies at Columbia University, and Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke professor of African & African American studies at Duke University.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re spending the hour on the life, the music, the genius, the activism of Aretha Franklin. She sang at three presidential inaugurations: the pre-inauguration of President Carter, the inauguration of President Clinton and the inauguration of President Obama. And that’s where we’re going to go right now. This is Aretha Franklin singing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at President Obama’s first inauguration, January 20th, 2009.

ARETHA FRANKLIN: [singing] My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my father died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry, ev’ry mountainside
Let free—freedom, freedom ring!

Our fathers’ god to thee,
Father, father of liberty,
To thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom’s holy light,
Protect, protect, protect,
Protect us with all thy might,
Let free—freedom ring!
Let, let, let free—let it ring!
Let it, let it ring!
Let it ring!
From the red land of Georgia
Let it ring!
Oh, let it ring to the heaven candy mountain
Let it ring!
Let it ring!
Let it ring!
Let it, let it, let it, let it, let it, let it, let it
Let it ring!
Let it ring!
Let it ring!

AMY GOODMAN: Aretha Franklin, singing at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama, singing before the largest audience ever to witness a U.S. inauguration. This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman. Our guests are Angela Davis—and, Angela, I just wanted to ask you, here she’s singing, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” This is the same woman who, decades before, was saying she would post bail for you, post bail for you as a black woman who must be stood up for. Sweet land of liberty. Your thoughts?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, of course, [inaudible] the meaning she imparted to the song she sang transported us all to another dimension. And so, I see a utopian element in that. She is not necessarily saying that this is the land of liberty, but that rather we should be inhabiting a land of liberty. I think it’s so important, first of all, not to be literal; second of all, to recognize that people can make contributions to political struggles by raising the consciousness of communities, of collectives. And I think that Aretha always produced this kind of community through her singing. And I’m particularly interested in the way in which she brought a feminist dimension, before the emergence of black feminism, to our consciousness with “Respect” and, of course, with “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves,” the duet she performed with Annie Lennox. I think that her contributions to the creation of a kind of yearning for freedom, a way in which she helped to create communities—one might say, aesthetic communities of struggle—is so absolutely essential.

AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, you’re the author of Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. How do you see Aretha Franklin’s contributions to music history? How do you hear black feminism expressed in her music?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, you know, certainly, Aretha’s contributions are invaluable. And as Mark Anthony Neal and my friend Farah Griffin have already so eloquently pointed out during your program, Aretha was the best manifestation of soul. And that means that her music helped to produce communities, helped to allow us to feel a part of something larger than ourselves. And in that sense, I think she follows in the tradition of the wonderful blues women of the 1920s and 1930s, you know, Billie Holiday later on. Our history over the past decades is unimaginable without the great voice of Aretha Franklin.

AMY GOODMAN: Aretha Franklin placed more than a hundred singles in the Billboard charts, including 17 top-10 pop singles, 20 number one R&B hits. She received 18 competitive Grammys, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994, the first black woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Mark Anthony Neal, you have said that if she hadn’t been black, she would have, oh, had the same stature as Barbra Streisand, though many would say she certainly does, and perhaps beyond, of course. But talk about why you make that comparison.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: You know, Aretha and Barbra Streisand were both at Columbia Records in the early 1960s. Aretha actually covers or records a version of “People” the same year that Barbra Streisand does. I think the record label didn’t understand what to do with Aretha Franklin. On the one hand, they didn’t know what to do with the gospel power that was so much a part of her music.

But when I talk about the comparison to her and Barbra Streisand, Barbra Streisand could have a career where she could imagine herself as more than just a recording artist in the studio. She could imagine herself on the Broadway stage. She could imagine herself making movies. Aretha Franklin did not have those kinds of opportunities open to her, because, in fact, she was a black woman in the recording industry at that period of time. In some ways, the ascent that we’ve seen of Beyoncé over the last decade to do so many different types of cultural work on various platforms is a full realization of the kinds of opportunities that Aretha Franklin helped create for generations of artists who came after her.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of Aretha Franklin being jailed in Detroit? Do you know that story, Mark Anthony Neal?

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: I do not. I was hearing it for the first time, as we all just heard her a few minutes ago talk about it. But, of course, there’s a larger history, you know, of course, of New Bethel. New Bethel, which was critical to the Great March of Freedom that was done in June of 1963, when Martin Luther King first revealed his “I Have a Dream” speech, at least an earlier version of it. So, I could imagine, as a young person growing up in Detroit, given what Detroit was, there might have been many opportunities for Aretha Franklin to disturb the peace, if you will.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Aretha Franklin talking on NPR’s Fresh Air about one of, well, her most famous songs, the song we began with, “Respect.”

ARETHA FRANKLIN: In later times, it was picked up as a battle cry by the civil rights movement. But when I recorded it, it was pretty much a male/female kind of thing and more, in a general sense, from person to person. “I’m going to give you respect, and I’d like to have that respect back, or I expect respect to be given back.”

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to Aretha Franklin singing “Respect.”

ARETHA FRANKLIN: [singing] What you want
Baby, I got it
What you need
You know I got it
All I’m askin’
Is for a little respect
When you get home (just a little bit)
Baby (just a little bit)
When you get home (just a little bit)
Oh, it’s true now (just a little bit)

I ain’t gonna do you wrong
While you’re gone
Ain’t gonna do you wrong
I don’t wanna
All I’m askin’
Is for a little respect
When you get home (just a little bit)
Baby (just a little bit)
When you get home (just a little bit)
Oh, yes, I do now (just a little bit)

I’m about to give you
All of my money
And all I’m askin’
In return, honey
Is to give me my propers
When you get home (just a, just a, just a, just a)
Oh, yes (just a, just a, just a, just a)
When you get home (just a little bit)
What I need (just a little bit)

AMY GOODMAN: Aretha Franklin, singing a live recording of “Respect.” Aretha Franklin, who died this week at the age of 76 in hospice care in Detroit. Angela Davis, as you listen to her singing “Respect,” in this time, in the era of Trump, as he talks about possibly jailing the only senior black aide in the White House, who was just fired, Omarosa, as she talks about his use of the N-word, your thoughts about what, right now, well, Aretha Franklin would say or sing about this time?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, certainly, this is a period when we have to draw on the promises of the past, you know, given the situation that exists as a consequence of the election of Donald Trump. While he has indicated that he wants to move the country in a backwards direction, we have to remember. We have to remember what it was like when Aretha sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” during the first inauguration of Barack Obama. And I think that, you know, music allows us to remember those promises and to recognize that those promises can become agendas of struggle in the present and the future. Aretha will forever animate our collective sense of a desire for change. And Donald Trump cannot do anything about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to end it there. I want to thank you all so much for spending this day remembering Aretha Franklin. Angela Davis, author, professor and activist at University of California, Santa Cruz. Again, that headline, Jet magazine, going back decades, “Aretha Says She’ll Go Angela’s Bond If Permitted,” offering to pay, whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000, to free Angela Davis. Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature and African-American studies at Columbia University, among her books, If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday. And Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University professor, author of many books.

And that does it for our show. As we go out with “Respect,” Democracy Now! has a job opening for a broadcast engineer here in New York City. Find out more at

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