Confession time: for a good majority of my two decade existence, I had never heard of Aretha Franklin despite her status as the ‘Queen of Soul’. Even worse is that the first time I first properly noticed her during the news coverage of her death in the Summer of 2018, and even then the main thing I remember was her being sampled on a Kanye West track – ‘School Spirit’ off The College Dropout. I remember hearing an anecdote that the entire track had to be censored for Kanye to sample her in it, and only then did I realise she must have been a fairly important figure to be able to get an artist as strong-willed as Kanye to comply with her requests.
In all fairness, I didn’t really engage with or listen to much music as a child. Primary school music classes and concerts focused on popular caucasian artists such as The Beatles, Oasis, and Elvis, rather than – well – any artists of ethical minority for that matter (although admittedly to the parents in the audience the idea of a primarily white middle-class private school playing ‘Yellow Submarine’ was more palatable than ‘Strange Fruit’). While the work of Black musicians was acknowledged in my music lessons, it was mainly for the technical accomplishments, such as for teaching the 12 bar blues, rather than any meaningful discussion of the artists or the context of their work.
When I got older and started getting into more music, I used a lot of online music forums as reference points for finding new albums and artists to listen to. It was at this point that I was finally introduced to albums such as Maggot Brain by Funkadelic, Illmatic by Nas, or Bitches Brew by Miles Davis; all of which have stayed in regular rotation ever since. However, I was still being met with a disproportionate lack of Black female artists, aside from the occasional Lauryn Hill or Alice Coltrane shout-out. Not that there is any lack of notoriety among Black female artists; just take a look at Franklin’s accomplishments, but because contemporary acclaimed Black female artists such as Megan Thee Stallion still face increased scrutiny from thousands of music fans, despite their sheer talent.
In recent years, however, there has been an increased focus on bringing many of the often marginalised or under-appreciated Black musical voices back into the spotlight. Recently, director Leisl Tommy’s enjoyable if occasionally shallow Aretha Franklin biopic Respect was shown at the Dukes theatre in Lancaster. The film aimed to convey Franklin’s story, whilst also acknowledging many of the struggles she faced for who she was. Setting the film against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, the film follows Franklin’s opposition to the male figures in her life. Tommy’s direction tirelessly imposes the duality of everyday life as a Black woman; with society persecuting Franklin for her individuality.
It’s a bit of a shame that for such an extraordinary figure, the film often is content to follow the generic beats of most Hollywood biopics. If only the film had taken on more of a stylistic identity of its own. However, one aspect that makes the film somewhat stand out from other Hollywood biopics is the authenticity that Tommy, a female black director, brings to the film, primarily seen through the empathetic way she portrays her main character confronting issues of race.
Hopefully, this is a sign that focus will finally be placed on bringing re-awareness to musicians of colour and the impact they’ve had on popular music.
It’s always worth considering how to expand your artistic intake beyond the familiar. I’m glad I did.