What Did Cynthia Erivo Learn From Aretha Franklin? How to Ask for What She Deserves Without Being Afraid

This upcoming weekend, Cynthia Erivo will be debuting her portrayal of the late Aretha Franklin in the upcoming limited series from National Geographic, Genius: Aretha.

More info on the upcoming series, via NatGeo’s press release sent to The Root:

Genius is National Geographic’s critically acclaimed anthology series that dramatizes the fascinating stories of the world’s most brilliant innovators and their extraordinary achievements with their volatile, passionate and complex personal relationships. This third season will explore Aretha Franklin’s musical genius and incomparable career, as well as the immeasurable impact and lasting influence she has had on music and culture around the world. Franklin was a gospel prodigy, an outspoken civil rights champion and widely considered the greatest singer of the past 50 years, receiving countless honors throughout her career. Genius: Aretha will be the first-ever, definitive and only authorized scripted series on the life of the universally acclaimed Queen of Soul.


Erivo has previously spoken about the fact that Franklin saw her perform before—at an onstage performance of The Color Purple as well as at the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors—so when I recently sat down with her to discuss the honor of portraying the late legend, I wanted to know what she learned from her. It was an especially timely conversation to have during Women’s History Month and as Erivo embarks on her own music career.

“I learned that she was unafraid to stand up for the things that she believed she was deserving of,” Erivo told The Root, noting that she gained knowledge from both meeting her and portraying her. “To be a Black woman in the music industry is a tough thing and it takes a lot of courage to ask for what you deserve. And she did that. She was not afraid to ask for her production rights, to be credited in the way she deserved to be credited. And I learned that from her—I learned that I can ask for the things that I deserve without being afraid.”


Though this is ideally a conversation to be had when provided with much more time and nuance than a fast-paced press junket, I did take a moment to highlight the ongoing, complicated and controversial conversation surrounding Black British actors portraying Black American roles.

“We all have a connective tissue in that we’re all a part of the African diaspora,” Erivo mused. “We all have different stories to tell, but it is a connective space we all live in. So, hopefully, the things that inspire me also inspire you as a Black woman.”

Genius: Aretha debuts Sunday, March 21 at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic. The limited series will air across four consecutive nights (with each pair available on Hulu the next day). The four-night broadcast will culminate in a celebration of Aretha Franklin’s birthday, with all eight episodes available to stream by Thursday, March 25.

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.



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