Rest in Power: Paying Respect to Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul

“Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is dead.”

That line plays in my mind like a badly scratched record, hiccupping at one point—is dead, is dead, is dead repeating itself over and over again.

Aretha’s death marks the passing of a generation of Boomers who grew up singing “Respect”—a song that celebrated women’s independence and became the secular theme song for the Civil Rights Movement—and crying to “Natural Woman,” “Never Loved a Man” and “Until You Come Back to Me.”

But even in the age of Beyoncé and Nikki Minaj, Aretha didn’t disappoint. Her lyrics and melodies were a respite from run-on sentences that didn’t rhyme or words with no cadence or imagery. Aretha reclaimed me with “Forgive but Can’t Forget” and “Wonderful.”

No more nostalgia. If Aretha can die, so can we. Facing mortality is something else. As long as Aretha was alive and crooning, I could ride the rhythms of her lyrics through memory lane, and let them take me back to places of hallway grinds and sweet young boy kisses, men who didn’t do right—people, places, spaces that tried to disrespect me. For every event or encounter, there was an Aretha song.

She was my—our—“Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Seeing Aretha waste away was the first sign that all was not well with the Queen. She’d battled obesity for decades, along with smoking, and later complications from her illness reduced her to just a wisp of herself. Still, she garnered our “Respect.” Regardless of size, Aretha’s voice never faltered, and never failed her or us.

“[Aretha] was like a muse whose songs whispered the strength to continue on,” Rep. John Lewis, an iconic civil rights activist, wrote upon hearing of her death. “Her music gave us a greater sense of determination to never give up or give in, and to keep the faith.”

And now she’s gone.

“The Weight” is upon us. Yes, we have all the songs she wrote and sang—thank God. And all the albums she recorded—hallelujah. And anyone in hearing distance of my house or car is gonna have to suck it up and listen to my Aretha marathon: “Don’t Play that Song Again,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” especially “Respect” and so many more.

For now, just can’t get that scratch out of my head: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is dead, is dead, is dead…

Gone? Yes. Forgotten? Never.

This piece originally appeared at Insight News. It was republished with author permission.


Irma McClaurin is an award-winning columnist, poet, activist, anthropologist and consultant. She served as editor of Transforming Anthropology for seven years and was tenured in anthropology at the University of Florida and the University of Minnesota. An academic entrepreneur, her leadership roles include the deputy provost at Fisk University (2002-2004); the first Mott distinguished chair of women's studies and founder of the Africana women’s studies program at Bennett College (2004); program officer at the Ford Foundation for Education and Scholarship (2005-2007); associate vice president and founding executive director of the University of Minnesota’s first Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center (2007-2010); president of Shaw University from 2010-2011; senior faculty at the Federal Executive Institute (2013-2014); and chief diversity officer at Teach For America (2014-2016). Her book, JustSpeak: Reflections on Race, Culture and Politics in America, is forthcoming in 2022.