Many lives have grown out of Aretha Franklin’s. Her music stirred the souls of those who were thought not to have them as much as the ones who made commerce out of that fallacy. It also made real our wishes and our dreams.
When she bellowed “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” it made visible an emergent intersectional set of ideas, of aspirations. To be male and Black was one thing, but to be a woman and Black was quite another. Franklin hosted leaders in her home. She used her voice and platform for the Civil Rights movement. She was, as poet Robert Hayden said in his ode to Frederick Douglass, “needful to man as air, usable as Earth.”
NAACP President Derrick Johnson knows just how much Franklin meant then and continues to mean to people here in America, especially in Detroit. “Being a Detroit native,” he tells CASSIUS, “many of us in Detroit have always appreciated Aretha Franklin for her songs, but the Detroit branch of the NAACP has always benefited from her activism and her support of the mission of the NAACP.”
It’s this melding of her preternatural talent and consciousness that defined Franklin as not just a visionary of her time, but of all time. Read our conversation with Johnson below.
CASSIUS: What do you think is the meaning of Aretha Franklin’s legacy as an artist and civil rights figure?
Derrick Johnson: She was an individual who supported civil rights causes, but she didn’t want the recognition for what she provided. When you think about the ’70s and late-’60s, the bookend theme songs of the Civil Rights movement were “I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown and “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. There was a level of social consciousness she displayed. [She thought of ways] to use her platform to advance social justice.
C.: Franklin was both housing activists and helping to bankroll the movement. Can you talk about the kind of courage that took at the time?
D.J.: I think for Aretha Franklin as a young person and [having] a father who was a prominent pastor nationally in the midst of the Civil Rights movement it was a lesson learned. Many people may or may not recognize that Martin Luther King first recited his “I Have A Dream” speech in Detroit during the march that he came here for with reverend C.L Franklin, and Aretha Franklin was around during that time. She definitely was one of the many entertainers who supported the movement such as Harry Belafonte, current day Danny Glover and many others who decided to use their platforms to advance social causes. More importantly, [they worked] to display a level of commitment, to ensure that the advantages and opportunities that they enjoyed were something they did not take for granted.
C.: That commitment was part of her music, as well. Can you talk about how much her album Young, Gifted, and Black meant to the movement and to the Black community?
D.J.: For African Americans, coming through the journey of being treated less than human, the art has always played a prominent role in giving our community a sense of self. Her album was a part of that collection of building a self-awareness and allowing people to see us as humans, allowing African Americans to be proud of who we are and what we’ve accomplished despite all the adversities that we’ve been faced with.
C.: Obviously her passing is the end of a special time in world history, but do you think it has allowed a younger generation to re-engage with her art and music?
D.J.: You know, it’s been amazing in the few days since the announcement of her passing to see how many radio stations are playing her songs. People are being exposed to not only her talent, but her message. My children are paying more attention to her talents, words, and passion in a way that I don’t think they would have done so but for this new recognition of the valuable contributions, she made not only the African-American community but to the world.
C.: The NAACP as an organization has meant so much. Do you think people are looking to the NAACP in this time, as well?
D.J.: We are realizing the outcome of an election in 2016, which is presenting us with many consequences and outcomes. The political landscape has been poisoned with levels of intolerance that have [come] from the White House. Which is a clarion call, not only for young people but for all of us to re-engage in ways in which we own the responsibility for the outcome of what is confronting us. So young people are more engaged. Older people are more engaged. Women are stepping up tremendously. And you see evidence of that in the election in Alabama, where African Americans outperformed Obama-level turnout, which was unheard of. You see it in the election in Florida with Andrew Gillum becoming the nominee for the governorship. The first time ever [for a Black candidate]. You see it in Georgia with Stacey Abrams and Maryland with Ben Jealous. There’s just a new awareness of our agency in which we can control the outcome of our destiny.
C.: Activism has arisen in response to our times with police shootings on tape as well as verdicts in the cases of Trayvon Martin and others. Do you think it’s rooted in the blues, soul era as Franklin’s was, or is there something else happening?
D.J.: I think you can put it all in the same historical context. It evolved over time. It displays differently from generation to generation. But there’s still that festering sense of treating African Americans as a commodity. That can be traded and or used and exposed for cheap labor. So whether we call it slavery or segregation or discrimination, the outcome or the impact is very much the same. The resistance that we display against it is crucial. That resistance appears in our art and our entertainment; in our speech, activism and organizing.
C.: How important has it been to see her estate have control over her product in the way that it has?
D.J.: I think it’s important that we are able to transition generation to generation what we’ve built. So to see a family stick together and control the images, the marketing, the use of all of her creativity is something that we need to pass down. Our biggest contributions have been our culture. And as long as we control our culture and continue to not allow others to exploit that culture then we will continue to be strong people.
C.: How important was it, as well, for her to lend her voice to the Obama administration during their presidential run?
D.J.: I think it was important for all of us to play a role to ensure that democracy worked in a way in which we had never seen it work. [To see] the outcome of hard work and labor of so many generations who came before us culminating in the current generations that exist. Leveraging our collective consciousness toward an effort that would create a positive outcome. But her contribution to that, as great as it was, was similar to the average person on the street who saw the opportunity to make democracy work. And that outcome was something that we all celebrated.
C.: What do you think the role of the NAACP will be going forward?
D.J.: I think the role of the NAACP will remain the same. We are 109 years old. We have 2,200 units across the country. We are member-driven and we are a small democracy. We are as relevant as our local units across the country who inform the direction of the organization. We are agile enough to adapt, but grounded enough to be relevant to our mission. And our mission is a proactive mission: To improve the quality of life for African Americans and other disenfranchised communities. It is [also] a reactive mission: To fight against discrimination. So we will always be relevant as long as there is a need to improve the quality of life. We’ll always be relevant as long as there is a need to fight against discrimination. The tools that we use, whether they be social media, protest, or litigation, will be driven by the members that make up the organization.
C.: Who would you say, if anyone, is carrying on the legacy of Aretha Franklin right now?
D.J.: You know, the beautiful thing about the arts is the individual creativity of the artists. So where each generation builds upon the experiences of the last generation, there’s always a piece of each generation in all of our arts. While at the same time there is individuality in each artist. And that’s the most beautiful thing about the arts: It’s not an assembly line of the same thing, it’s a plethora of different things. That’s a beautiful thing.