An icon. A legend. A superstar. Aretha Franklin racked up plenty of honors when she was still with us, throughout her many years in the entertainment industry. Even her homegoing—her funeral—was more a soulful, celebratory concert than a dour ceremony. And in the middle of that homegoing concert was Oscar-Award winning singer Jennifer Hudson.
Hudson, who is slated to portray Franklin in a film about her life (and who says she is learning the piano just to stay true in her portrayal), was the obvious choice to honor Franklin at Tuesday’s Pulitzer Prize ceremony in New York City at the Low Memorial Library on Columbia University’s campus.
But she almost didn’t make it.
Waylaid by turbulent storms and tornadoes in the Midwest, Hudson’s flight out of Chicago was canceled. But the singer remained undeterred. Making a way out of no way (which might as well be the black woman mantra at this point), Hudson endured a 14-hour road trip to get to New York City to perform for the the end of the lunchtime ceremony. She had no time for sound check. She didn’t even get to experience the awards. But she was there, as she was determined to honor a most honorable woman.
“I drove all night to get here,” Hudson said, talking to The Root about what it meant for her to perform at the Pulitzers for Franklin. “It blew my mind....To be a representation and also be there to witness such a thing, it’s a lot. But I do not take it lightly. I respect it. I understand it and I’m happy and honored to be here. To pay homage; to pay respects, more than anything.”
Hudson, who performed a chilling rendition of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” often sung by Franklin, brought church to the 103rd class of the Pulitzers, something that was done by design, according to Pulitzer Administrator Dana Canedy.
This year, many of the honorees were not just journalists, but victims of gun violence themselves—as was the case of the student journalists recognized from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., which received a special citation for their reporting after a gunman killed five in their newsroom.
“There was a lot of suffering that went into the work that was produced,” Canedy told The Root. “Whether we’re taking about the Parkland kids and the application that they made to the Pulitzers or the Capital Gazette, and I wanted to do something to uplift everyone. My hope was that the musical part of this presentation would be uplifting and healing for people who were suffering but also in the midst of their suffering were doing unbelievable work in support of journalism. I thought that was important, and from the smiles and reactions and how deeply moved some people were, I think we accomplished that—and that makes me terribly proud.”
Hudson wasn’t the only one bringing church to the Pulitzers this year. Soprano Brandie Sutton brought her operatic chops to the stage, bringing the audience to their feet with two incredible performances that led to a standing ovation for the singer. In the audience, cheering both Hudson and Sutton on were luminaries like music industry icon Clive Davis—who accepted Franklin’s award alongside her long-time publicist Gwendolyn Quinn; designer B. Michael and singer/songwriter Valerie Simpson, as well as many prominent journalists, including CNN’s Don Lemon.
Hudson, someone who was deeply affected by gun violence in 2008 when her mother, brother and nephew were all shot to death in a heinous crime, spoke to The Root about the importance of those seemingly unaffected by gun violence to see things through the eyes of victims and survivors.
“It’s something that affects many, but most unfortunately don’t understand until it happens to them, which is after the fact; it’s too late. But it’s too much of a reality today,” Hudson said. “I feel like we can make more of a difference and a change when those who have not lost can look from the perspective of those who have lost.”
Canedy complimented this year’s crop of winners for persevering against the odds—both from the pain in their stories and from the criticism many reporters and writers are presently enduring in today’s combative, and at times, deadly, public sphere.
“My goodness, to be able to produce that level of work through pain and suffering is a testament to journalists and their commitment to a free and open press and to getting the news out regardless of the personal risk and the personal sacrifice,” Canedy said. “And that is exactly why American journalism will endure, no matter what anybody says about fake news. Which, by the way, is not true at all.”