DETROIT—A stage is a stage, even when it’s a church and the performance is a marathon of a funeral. Clocking in at more than nine hours long for those who showed up at 8:30 a.m. Friday morning to view her body, perhaps Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul and daughter of Detroit, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
At the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit where Franklin had her homegoing, there was a final wardrobe change into all gold everything—a shimmering, golden gown with gold shoes as she rested in her golden casket. There were songs sung in her honor, both mind-blowingly good (Chaka Khan and Jennifer Hudson burned up the stage with soaring vocals and the finest “civil rights widow-esque” stylings) and those that were woefully not quite up for the moment. (The first major performance was by country star Faith Hill and people sort of just politely clapped through it as her vocals were overwhelmed by the choir).
The same could be said for the marquee pastors, religious leaders and political figures on display, many who spoke and got rousing standing ovations while others were politely clapped for and tolerated. (*cough* Gov. Rick Snyder *cough*) The men who had front-row real estate behind the pulpit throughout the funeral included the National Action Network’s Rev. Al Sharpton, the Nation of Islam’s Minister Louis Farrakhan, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition President Rev. Jesse Jackson, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Bishop T.D. Jakes of Potter’s House in Dallas, and many, many more.
Some were barnburners who brought the house down, like Rev. William J. Barber II of North Carolina, who said Franklin sang from “a sacred place,” fueled by our enslaved ancestors.
“Her singing was revelation and revolution in major key,” he said, later turning towards the political—referencing how Franklin fought racism and poverty in America, and telling the audience that “Aretha taught us respect is non-negotiable,” in reference to the current presidential administration.
Others were, quite honestly, a mess, like Rev. Jasper Williams, Jr. of Atlanta who turned her eulogy into a more than 30 minute Bill Cosby-esque “Pound Cake Speech” rant, steeped in respectability politics on the problems in the black “house,” and how it needed to become a “home.” You could feel Fox News commentators potentially salivating over his oratory as he railed against black women’s abilities to raise their sons, despite their strength and how “fine” they are. (Which was especially insulting, considering Franklin, herself, had sons and raised them mostly on her own.) He lambasted black men for their perceived absence. He said black lives didn’t matter because of black-on-black crime. He even criticized Franklin’s religious and civil rights titan of a father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, on his parenting of her and subsequent divorce.
Williams’ eulogy was so divisive, musical icon Stevie Wonder had to play clean-up, coming on shortly after to say, “We need to make love great again because black lives do matter.”
Forget the divas soaring (of which there were many), all the real drama was in the body language amongst the ministers.
Scholar Michael Eric Dyson, who gave a thumping, political speech of his own, seemed the most visibly uncomfortable during Williams throwback takedown of the black family. Then there was Sharpton, who was seated next to Farrakhan during the beginning of the funeral. The New York City-based civil rights activist and TV host was sitting so close to Jesse Jackson, you almost thought he might climb into the aging civil rights icon’s lap just to get away from controversial firebrand Farrakhan, who had prime real estate on the dais but did not speak at the funeral.
Still, it was Rev. Barber who remarked how only Aretha Franklin could bring together these religious, political and musical giants who may, or may not, particularly care for one another.
He urged those seated on the dais to come together again and do even more for the community—by helping motivate people to get registered to vote, which was a theme for many ministers who spoke.
Some, like Sharpton, mixed sweet stories about Franklin’s devotion to civil rights, women’s rights and movement work with calls for action.
“She fought for everybody,” Sharpton said. “She sang a song for all of us,” calling her the “soundtrack for the civil rights movement.”
Then Sharpton turned, and used President Donald Trump’s recent statement about Franklin’s passing, that she used to “work” for him, as a cudgel to beat the president with.
“She used to perform for you, she worked for us!” railed Sharpton. “[She took] orders from nobody but God.”
Dyson shared this sentiment and took it a step further, alluding that the continuing drama of the Mueller investigation was a divine sign that the Queen of Soul was now the “Queen of Souls” in heaven and was at work dolling out consequences and retribution for a morally bankrupt presidential administration. He called Trump a “lugubrious leech” and a “foolish fascist,” among other things, which got a hot, excited reception from the crowd.
“She ain’t work for you. She worked above you! She worked beyond you! Get your preposition right!” Dyson shouted.
During the funeral, there were many moments of levity (like R&B star Fantasia Barrino Taylor taking off her shoes to sing, only to have gospel icon, Pastor Shirley Caesar, dripping in a gold gown, politely pick them up and move them to the side) or weirdness, depending on your opinion, most at the hands of Bishop Charles H. Ellis, III, who was the officiant during the funeral. He called Bill Clinton “the first black president,” something I’m sure Clinton hadn’t heard since we elected an actual black president in Barack Obama back in 2008. Ellis joked how some of the white people in attendance (a personal side-eye from me to Hillary Clinton) were clapping “on the 1 and 3” instead of the one and two. Then things also got really strange when Ellis put his arm around singer Arianna Grande after she performed “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and he compared her to a meal at Taco Bell.
A star-studded affair, Smokey Robinson spoke and sang to honor his “longest friend.” Actress Cicely Tyson recited Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Gladys Knight surprised all by coming on stage to sing even though she wasn’t originally in the program. Tyler Perry, who created Franklin’s favorite TV show, OWN’s The Haves and Have Nots, talked about how Franklin loved his character Madea, even giving the audience one little Madea “hellur” for measure. Ron Isley slow-sang his way through “His Eyes Are on the Sparrow.” Music mogul Clive Davis shouted out Detroit saying, “Detroit, you led the world in loving Aretha.” Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas claimed his spot as Franklin’s “favorite Bad Boy.”
Everyone, it seemed, shouted out U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, who folks applauded as she entered the funeral. (This happened several times—the audience also applauded for The View’s Whoopi Goldberg and Bill and Hillary Clinton.) People were told, repeatedly, at the beginning of the funeral to not take pictures or record on their cellphones out of respect to the family, but in my section, people did it anyway without any real reprisals, other than the occasional dirty look.
I was attending the funeral as a guest of Franklin’s longtime publicist Gwendolyn Quinn. Shocked to receive the invitation, I dropped everything, said yes, and immediately booked a ticket to Detroit. I spent most of my nine-hour excursion at Franklin’s funeral seated between Robin Schwartz, a former anchor and reporter from Detroit’s Fox 2 news who once interviewed Franklin, and Detroit native Pamela Harris, a mail carrier who said she grew up listening to Franklin’s music. Schwartz was attending the funeral with her husband, Jon Goldstein of Wayne State University, while Harris was one of the many locals who came out in full force to celebrate the life of the Queen, thrilling at many of the performances and speeches. We spent the entire funeral chatting about each performance—from the political to the secular to the religious—while sneaking bites of food. Schwartz and Goldstein were kind enough to give me one of their chocolate chip granola bars, which I munched on as I started to feel faint around hour six.
While the funeral was long, everyone who was able to attend—whether inside the air-conditioned church or outside with the news crews watching the proceedings unfold on a big screen in a gas station parking lot—was grateful to be a part of this historic event. After all, this was “a celebration fit for the Queen,” as was written on her funeral programs. And Franklin was a queen who loved to perform, who loved her people and loved the flare for the dramatic.
Considering that her funeral had all three of those things, I think she’d be pleased.