Aretha Franklin (1942–2018)

Aretha Franklin, ca. 1972. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy.

WHERE I LIVE NOW, Respekt! is what we say to express surprise, admiration, and, well, respect, for a person’s achievement. In my country of origin, in the 1970s, “Respect” was my infallible litmus test for culling those with whom friendship was possible from those who didn’t know who Aretha Franklin was, or who looked with distaste or condescension on her magisterial achievements, or who openly derided them as “jungle music.” Among those who passed that first test, those with whom friendship was likely had to either move to the beat spontaneously, or at least be willing to learn. That learning process cemented several long-term friendships over the years. It always culminated in that joyous moment of moving to it—or jumping to it, as Aretha would put it in the 1980s, clapping to it, stamping to it, singing to it, and meaning it. That is the way her voice, her music, and her meaning gave meaning to my life, providing even in the most parched and deadening moments the narrative of rhythm, syncopation, movement, and song that helped me make sense of what was happening to me and celebrate my detachment from it. I often danced to her albums, taped onto cassettes in my Sony Walkman, for solace, in the privacy of my living room.

By the time I saw her live on Cape Cod in the late 1990s, we both had been through several rough patches, and her eyes were empty. By that time, she had perfected her instrument so thoroughly that her voice could sing her songs automatically, with heart and soul and that addictive polyrhythmic inflection to all of the instruments that supported her, through all of her greatest hits and more great songs that hadn’t been hits for arbitrary reasons, while her spirit stood by and watched with detachment. Her self was in her voice, not in her body. And by that time, her voice had so thoroughly become my voice, speaking for me as well as to me, that I was able to take it with me in the 2000s when I left, successfully sneaking it through customs along with the rest of me. She spoke for all of us for whom the collateral damage of our personal lives is a mere succession of footnotes to the persistent and all-engulfing stream of self-expression that propels us through, above, and beyond the beginnings of life, up to and past the end of it. None of those personal collisions ever made even a dent in her artistic brilliance. She always had her priorities straight.

In recent years, I have heard her voice less frequently. I am more attentive now to the tonal and rhythmic flowerings of experimental collaboration among digital composers from widely different cultures in Europe, Africa, and Asia, many of whom draw their own inspiration from Aretha’s musical tropes. When I do hear her, I am reminded of all she embodied in her work as well as her life, and all of the historical moments at which her work gave embodiment to mine. And I can’t avoid reiterating a question the answer to which should be self-evident but is not, as to whether the extraordinarily original and potent contribution of African-American music to global culture justifies the pain and brutality of American racism without which it would not have existed. I cannot imagine how a world without Aretha could possibly have been a better one.

Adrian Piper is an artist and philosopher based in Berlin.