Aretha Franklin has lovingly been coined the Queen of Soul. Her decades of music have represented her roots through powerhouse hits and beautiful ballads, and her legacy as one of the greatest vocalists of all time is eternal. Her recent death has left members of every generation remembering the impact of soul on the music industry, but more importantly, the communities that fostered its growth. And no community has celebrated this impact as extensively as Franklin’s hometown: Detroit, Michigan.
As Franklin’s career began to take off, there was never a doubt about from where her understanding of music came. Her early years in the considered “home of blues” were fundamental to her musical elocution and ability. Daughter to a Detroit pastor, Franklin was raised on the music of Baptist churches and quickly became a singer for her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church. These gospel influences are what made Franklin’s voice so memorable and improvisational, and both gospel techniques and jazz rhythms were discernible throughout her six-decade career. Just as these stylistic choices remained based in Detroit, so did her heart and life. While she spent time touring, Franklin shuttled between the various venues across the country and her hometown of Detroit, finally moving back in 1982. Her time spent in Detroit showed love for a city that truly loved her back. She was a philanthropist who donated and gave back to her father’s church, sending $10,000 checks several times a year. She organized annual concerts and holiday meals. She has been recognized for supporting other churches and local food banks in the area. And she always made her presence quiet and humble.
Detroit is the home of the popular American music movement known as Motown, and it is also a center for gospel, R&B, jazz and blues. These musical influences are a staple of Detroit culture and give the city’s artistic world something to look up to and of which be proud.
Despite this rich cultural history and the fact that Detroit has recently been regarded as “up and coming” and “rebuilding,” the city has not been immune to negative coverage and opinion in the last few decades, especially around the time of the city’s well-documented 2013 bankruptcy. Articles with titles like “Detroit: a city in decline” and “Anatomy of Detroit’s Decline” in well-read publications are what have fueled the pessimistic national narrative of Detroit.
Dangerous. Inefficient. Frightening.
These are only some of the descriptors outsiders are used to hearing about the Motor City. People look in on Detroit from far away and question its livelihood. They look at its missteps and make those blunders its entire existence. But a city is so much more than strictly numbers and generalizations. A city is built on people. And the culture of Detroit is something that shows these people to the world. When you see that culture, Detroit begins to mean something to you. Living in Metro Detroit my entire life, I have always viewed the city in a different light than the media would like me to see.
Artistic. Resilient. Strong.
Detroit has a unique energy, and it moves those who care enough to search for it. Franklin made people want to search. She was a mouthpiece for everything Detroit stands for, and a constant reminder of what can come from a place like Detroit. A city with culture, history, heart. A city that makes you work. A city that has undergone hardship and still managed to persevere. Franklin was a perfect example of the type of success a community like Detroit can create. She loved her city, contributed to her city and, most importantly, was present in the community. Her contributions are what make her the epitome of a hometown hero. She was an advertisement for everything Detroit means to the people who live there.
In her death, Detroit quickly turned from a place of mourning to a place of celebration. Her life is being memorialized in every corner of the city, and the Queen of Soul is being treated as royalty. There have been constant reminders of her life, from billboards up and down every Detroit highway to hundreds gathering at her church to have a gospel choir tribute. Her two-day open casket viewing at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History brought in thousands of fans and citizens who wished to pay their respects. What you give to life will come back to you. Franklin gave her community everything she had, and made sure the rest of the world knew it too. In doing so, she will forever be remembered as a symbol of Detroit.