The following is an essay from Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson:
Today, the words don’t feel big enough in my mind or my mouth to talk about the loss we are all sharing, the truth that our collective voices are a lot weaker today because our most powerful voice, Aretha Franklin, is no longer with us.
And let’s not hesitate. That’s what Aretha was to us, as Detroiters. She was the power behind our voices — the one who gave shape and definition to the certainty of who and what we are. And just like a Detroiter, she never, ever backed down. Not from anything.
She was a rock star, yes. And so her voice was what carried her to all the glorious places she found, all around the world. And in a way, she was the quintessential rock star - troubled and quarrelsome not just with others, but with her own demons.
But long ago, Aretha became way more than just the sounds that filled my mother’s house on Sunday mornings.
For those of us who grew up here, and especially for African Americans and for women, she was a vessel for our sense of greatness, and the way we want the world to think of us. Aretha became a huge part of the way Detroit introduced itself to everyone else.
In the early 2000’s, I applied to be the local columnist at the Baltimore Sun, and at the end of the interview, the editor asked me how I’d begin, how I’d introduce myself to readers in Baltimore.
I told him I’d write about Aretha, and the way her music and her career had given purpose and power to my own. And I told him the first line of my first column would be something we Detroiters have said about our biggest star for a long, long time.
We don’t talk bad about Aretha. Ever. For any reason. And if readers in Baltimore could understand that, we would get on just fine.
I didn’t get the job, but I remember smiling, quietly, after I said what I did about Aretha.
There isn’t another Detroiter I would have wanted with me in that moment. Not then, not even now, as we try to find footing in a world without her.
We’re going to spend the hour today remembering Aretha, talking about our loss, and celebrating the things she gave us while she was here.
Click on the audio player above to hear Stephen Henderson speak with WDET’s Ann Delisi, as well as writer, historian, and speaker Marsha Music, whose father recorded some of Franklin’s earliest records here in Detroit.