What is Soul? The Artistry of Aretha Franklin

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In 1970, the P-Funk music group Funkadelic asked the question: What is soul? There answer was “I don’t know.” Then they made some suggestions: ham hocks in corn flakes, bathtub ring, a joint rolled in toilet paper; rusty ankles and ashy kneecaps, chitlins foo yung, woman, and funk.
What is soul?
Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, defined it: “Soul to me is a feeling a lot of depth and being able to bring to the surface that which is happening inside, to make the picture clear. Many people can have soul. It’s just the emotion and the way it affects people.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/aretha-franklin-musics-queen-of-soul-dies-at-76/2018/08/16/c35de4b8-9e9f-11e8-83d2-70203b8d7b44_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ee707280b8c8)
What is soul?
I say that soul is a holistic spirituality that “understands that our spiritual person is at once connected with divine transcendence, with the Source, with Divine Love, and it is connected with our fellow human beings, animals, the natural world and all of creation. The spirit also takes us deeper into ourselves. It is the wellspring of emotion. It is the source of our intuitive insights. It celebrates and it mourns. It is within and beyond reason, mind and body. The spiritual self longs to understand itself within the context of ultimate reality and ultimate meaning” (“Just Peace Theory Book One” xxxii). Soul is body, mind and spirit moving through the world in harmony and cohesion.
What is soul?
Soul is, in the words of Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon “Thinking with our hearts; feeling with our brains.” (https://vimeo.com/239890586)
Dr. Cannon taught her students that it is more than a mistake to do our work as if the head and the heart were separate parts of our being. To try to separate thinking and feeling is a violation of our humanity. Soul makes no such violation. Head and heart come together to understand the logic of our emotions and to think with feeling, joy, passion, inspiration, and sensitivity.
Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul because she made our feelings sensible and our thinking passionate. Her voice was a divine force that brought Holy Spirit into our sacred and secular lives if such distinctions even make sense within a holistic conception of self. For those who have ears to hear, we can hear echoes of the field hollers in Aretha Franklin’s singing and we can hear the Holy Ghost shouts that come when the sweet sweet Spirit of God enters into a worship service.
When Aretha sang, she was not present to the music to serve the notes and the words of a particular song. The words and music of the song were there to serve her task of communication and demonstration of the human emotion that the song could convey. She became a conduit of Holy Spirit. Her singing provided a moment of transcendence, and this is why her music made multiple levels of meaning available to us. For example: she took the song “Respect” written by Otis Redding about a man coming home to a wife and asking for “just a little respect” in return for handing over his paycheck and turned it into a feminist and civil rights anthem. The truth that came from her rendition emerged from the depths of her being, from her thinking feeling heart/mind, from her humanity to say that respect is something that every human beings not only wants, but deserves. The song is at once sexual and political. It is a cry for recognition and a demand.
For the fiftieth anniversary of the song, “Respect”, Essence Magazine published a commemorative edition that it has now reissued. In the commemoration, African-American women write about the song’s significance. In her essay – “The Song” – Diane McKinney-Whetstone writes: “With her sister Carolyn and Erma singing, ‘Sock it to me’ in the background and Aretha herself going to church on the piano, she offered up a voice that is both of this world and holy. It has astounding range and an ability to engage, head, heart and soul in a transcendent swirl” (10).
In her essay – “The Icon” – Farrah Jasmine Griffin writes about how Aretha Franklin’s music was the music of black people: “Steeped in the black church but also fluent in the jazz idiom, Aretha put Black genius on full display. And she didn’t do it in the rarified confines of classical music. She did it in R&B and soul, the music of the people. The song echoed from windows and cars, in clubs and on basketball courts. When it was released, she was only 25 years old, but her voice carried and extended an entire tradition of Black singing: the field holler and the spiritual, the blues moans, gospel shouts and jazz improvisations. Bessie, Mahalia and Dinah as well as Sara and Ella. Aretha is their heir” (34).
Aretha Franklin’s music made an impact on individual people’s lives. Writing -“The Impact” – Ylonda Gault says: “Mama taught me many things: God don’t like ugly. Be your own best friend. And never -ever – let anybody play you close. Today that sounds trite, a no brainer. But in the late 1960’s – as a newfound spirit of Black militancy began to emerge from the ashes of Martin, Malcom and Medgar – in many ways, a sister’s outspoken indignation was a revolutionary act in itself. In 1967 Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” simply set Mama’s smoldering vexation – with her husband, with her assembly-line foreman, with her life – to music” (68).
Similarly, when Aretha recorded “Natural Woman” in 1967, a song written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, it became a hit and one her iconic songs. The song makes no sense to me since I consider myself an existential feminist/womanist who is suspicious of the notion of a singular natural woman. I say and say again that I agree with Simone de Beauvoir that women are made and not born. There are so many different ways to be an authentic woman in this world or to be a female who wants to move beyond such thinking altogether. We live in a time when gender nonconformity is acceptable.
Further, in the event that I have defined for myself what kind of “natural” woman I want to be, I would certainly not put the power of me feeling like the natural woman that I am to be in human hands. Such would give far too much power to another person. However, the logic of the emotion with which Aretha Franklin sings the song, transcends a human relationship. I am the “natural” woman that God, Divine Love, the Source created me to be and it is that Love that makes me feel like a natural woman.
One of my favorite Aretha Franklin songs is “Think.” The story goes that she wrote this song as her first marriage was falling apart. Her husband, also her manager, was controlling and abusive. She wrote the song to demand that he stop and think about what was going on between them. The song says in part: “Let your mind go, let yourself be free.” It also says: “You need me and I need you. Without each other, there ain’t nothing neither can do.” Its refrain is “Freedom, Freedom.” Freedom becomes an imperative, but it comes when we stop and think about what we are doing to each other and thereby to ourselves. Our ability to think, our willingness to think is the key to our own freedom. To think implies that we can and will change our behavior, both the powerful and the powerless, both the oppressed and the oppressor. Again, Holy Spirit breaks into the eternal now to make a reasonable, emotional demand.
The phenomenon of spirit possession is nothing new. It is a way for the powerless to speak. The Spirit of God, of transcendence speaks through an individual and says things that the individual cannot say in her own power because of the opposition of powers and principalities that want to see voices demanding freedom silenced. Because Aretha Franklin’s artistry functioned on multiple levels, no one could shut her down. Is she singing about a relationship with a man gone wrong or about the freedom of a people or all of the above?
Spirit possession among women shows itself from ancient Greece, to Japan, to the contemporary African diaspora. The phenomenon exists in various religions including Hinduism, Islam, Hasidic Judaism, Christianity and religions rooted in African traditional religion. In these contexts a non-human being uses a human body as a vehicle for expression. The question is to what extent does this possession either expresses or denies the subjectivity of the human vessel?
Thomson Gale, writing in the on-line Encyclopedia of Religion says: “While anthropologists have invoked performance theory to explore this element of the power of possession, the question of subjectivity is again raised because performance theory largely begins with the assumption that an actor wills herself into a performative mode.” (https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/spirit-possession-women-and-possession)
Aretha Franklin was famous for her preparation. She was gifted, but she also worked at her artistry. Thus, it is reasonable to think that she allowed herself, prepared herself to be a vessel for transcendence. And, as such, she was a willing voice for the subaltern. When scholars ask the question: Can the subaltern speak? That is, can people who do not hold much power within the political economy, who are marginal to the point of near invisibility in the wider culture and the wider world, who are told every other minute of the day that they are by definition ugly, immoral with a low IQ speak for themselves?
I say the answer is yes, and Aretha Franklin’s artistry, her spirit possessed anointed voice, was one way in which the subaltern speak. Returning to Ylonda Gault’s essay: “‘Give me my propers’ and ‘Find out what it means to me’ were not just hollow turns of phrase. They were clarion calls for sisters who would no longer sit back and take the status quo at their jobs and in their homes and communities. It was time to T.C.B. Certainly White women also loved ” R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” but there was no question that Aretha – unlike, perhaps, Martha and the Vandellas or Diana Ross, who may have given us a nod – was repping for the sisters” (72).
We know that Aretha was the daughter of C. L. Franklin a famous preacher and singer in his own right. As a little girl, African-American luminaries of gospel music, blues and jazz visited her home. Her father was friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. When she became a star, she sang for civil rights rallies and gave money to the cause, including bail money for Angela Davis when she was arrested. What we do not know is what she learned from her paternal grandmother, Rachel – Big Mama. The woman who reared her, her siblings and her own children probably had a deep influence on her life. Much of Aretha’s willingness and ability to channel Holy Spirit could very possibly be traced to her Big Mama.
Aretha Franklin’s life was not all blue skies. She had two children as a teenager, dropped out of high school, had difficult relationships with her siblings and with men. There were times when her records were not best sellers, her early years at Columbia Records did not yield hits. She had long dry spells, including toward the end of her life. But, she continued to make music and seek out young producers with whom to work. And, Holy Spirit continued to speak through her voice. She was guarded about her personal life, but, was open to transcendence.
She could bring soul to all kinds of music. Jazz singers wanted her to dedicate herself to jazz. Gospel singers wanted her to concentrate on gospel. At the 1998 Grammy Awards program, she sang “Nessun Dorma,” an aria from Puccini’s opera “Turandot” with 20 minutes notice after Luciano Pavarotti could not perform. The song is about a lover’s determination to win the hand of his beloved. Aretha’s soul emotional logic conveyed the message that love wins. She was triumphant.
In the book “Respect: the Life of Aretha Franklin” by David Ritz, musician Billy Preston says:
“I don’t’ care what they say about Aretha. She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know – you’ll swear – that she’s still the best f. . .in singer this f..up country has ever produced” (409).
The artistry of Aretha Franklin is the skill and the willingness to open herself to transcendence. She let a spirit beyond herself use her body mind and spirit in lamentation and celebration, to dream, desire, command, demand a more human humanity. a more holy humanity.
It is a long drive from Charlotte, North Carolina to East St. Louis, Illinois. I was diving back from my teacher Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon’s funeral and was near Paducah, Kentucky when I heard the news of Aretha Franklin’s death on the local public radio station. I had been listening to some great music during my drive – Nina Simone singing “The Human Touch” and “New World Coming” from the “Essential Nina Simone volume 2” and various Wow Gospel collections. I just happened to be listening to “The Essential Willie Nelson” when thunder and lightning hit just outside of Nashville. The rain brought traffic to a crawl, and I decided to get off the highway. Stopped at a McDonald’s parking lot, the rain let up enough so that I could continue. I looked beyond the traffic to the horizon and saw blue skies.
The sky was late afternoon summertime calm and peaceful and blue when I heard the news of Aretha’s death and started thinking about the question: what is soul? If she is the undisputed Queen of Soul what is the character and the boundaries of her realm?
Driving both to North Carolina and back home again, I listened to Sweet Honey in the Rock “Selections 1976-1988”. In the song “Breaths”, singing a poem by Birago Diop, Sweet Honey in the Rock admonishes us to “Listen more often to things than to beings because the “rustling trees”, the groaning woods”, the crying grass” and the “moaning rocks” are the ancestors’ breath. They remind us that “The dead have a pact with the living.”
Our end of the bargain is to allow ourselves to be used by Divine Love to bring more love and justice and beauty, more sustenance and joy into this world, and to do it with soul.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation”