The Soul of the Queen: Words Inspired by the Life of Aretha Franklin

“What made her talent so great was her capacity to live what she sang. Her music was deepened by her connection to the struggles and the triumphs of the African American experience growing up in her father’s church, the community of Detroit, and her awareness of the turmoil of the South.”

These words of John Lewis about Aretha Franklin speak to how this iconic singer reached well beyond even her incredible range to help transform the lives of countless people and advance the movement for civil rights. Hers was a voice that could tear off the roof or resonate in the deep still places within. Whether singing Gospel, R&B, Rock and Roll or even opera, she was, of course, the Queen of Soul.

Sometimes we think of the word soul as something ethereal, immaterial. But the irony of soul music is how visceral it is, how much it comes from and through the body. Especially tracing the path Aretha Franklin took from singing in the church where her father, C. L. Franklin preached, to performing and recording music that shook with sensual desire, emotion, resilience and love. And yet, the holiness was never absent. Perhaps, if Gospel is the soul taking flight, Aretha Franklin’s music brought the heavens to the earth. Embodied something holy. Soulful.

This connection, rather than separation, of soul and body is echoed in the different meanings of the most common Hebrew words nefesh and neshama. While both can translated as soul, each has a different emphasis. The soul that outlives the body, that is understood as being returned to us each morning and taken back when one breathes their last breath is usually rendered as neshama. On the other hand, the nefesh is the word used for the self, hinting that the division between body and soul is not a necessary line, that the spiritual and the sensual are, in essence, the same. That the very sinews and flesh, lifeblood and vitality, thoughts and passions are all part of the same holy vessel. Soulful.

So sings the Psalms in the name of King David “Bless G*d, my soul (nafshi), with all my innards bless the name of the Holy.”

Like this King, the Queen understood that, as transcendent and transporting as music can be, “being the Queen is not all about singing, and being a diva is not all about singing. It has much to do with your service to people. And your social contributions to your community and your civic contributions as well.”

As a musician and as a person Aretha Franklin was one of a kind. And part of her vast legacy will be imparting the lesson that each person is also irreplaceable, embodied in love and full of soul.

May the Soul of the Queen live on, shaking the heavens and making the earth sing.

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