I was in Chicago when I heard the news of Aretha Franklin. First came the headlines reporting her hospice care. On August 16, she was gone.
As a music reviewer and Detroiter, I needed to witness her legendary soul surrounded by fellow Detroiters. I knew there was a slim chance I would retrieve a ticket to the Chene Park tribute concert, which sold out within 15 minutes, so I arranged to attend the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History memorial.
On Aug. 29 just before 6 a.m., I arrived at the barricade-encircled museum. No more than 30 people, mostly elderly, were seated in lawn chairs before the museum’s doors.
The light morning breeze was much more suitable for long lines and lawn chairs than the previous day’s blazing heat, and celebratory sentiments reigned higher than sadness.
Many wore Aretha Franklin T-shirts and others wore red, the Queen of Soul’s favorite color, which she wore the previous day. Some speculated whether she underwent an outfit change for the second day of her memorial.
Besides myself, there was one other young person present, sporting American flag colors.
Korion Wilson, 31, traveled to Detroit from Cincinnati with his mother to celebrate her birthday by visiting relatives and honoring the woman whose music she grew up on. He recognizes the clear influence of Aretha’s legacy on our generation’s music and stances on social justice.
“If it wasn’t for Aretha, a lot of artists wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “A lot of people try to mirror her, like Beyoncé. She’s now taken her stance on justice and rights. It’s something that Aretha fought for back in the ‘60s—respect, equal rights, and women’s rights.”
His mother’s connection to Detroit is special because her mother and aunt attended Rev. C.L. Franklin’s church. Hermenia Wilson, 58, moved to Cincinnati at age 12 after her father was killed in the 1967 Detroit riots. Franklin’s music carried her through those rough times.
“Just the gospel part of her voice, she was very spiritual inside and it came out in her singing regardless of what song she sung,” she said, her black and gold sequined apple cap shimmering in the sun. “She was in-tune with her inner self and her inner peace.”
As we stood in line, the historic Swanson Funeral Home white hearse pulled up alongside the line. The crowd cheered and hurriedly snapped photos of the car and the Queen’s gold-plated casket minutes before a classic pink Cadillac arrived at the scene, receiving an equally merry response.
Some visitors stepped onto the grass to take photos before a banner on the Museum’s façade. The banner boasted a classic 1960’s photo of a veil adorning a beaming Aretha alongside the all-caps phrase, “Honoring the Queen, an International Detroit Treasure,” the city’s name emboldened. The city has always been proud and protective of its own.
This pride carried through the phone speakers of one woman singing off-key at the front of the line. Detroiter Wendilyne Adolph, 64, chuckled, “If you gon’ represent, do it right.”
Adolph, a cousin of the Wilsons of Cincinnati, is representing her mother who turned 85 the next day. But she is just as jubilant about the opportunity to see the Queen on her own accord.
“It gave me the chills just thinking about it,” she said. “Just her name alone, to see her casket pull up and she’s being driven in the casket that Rosa Parks was in. That C.L. Franklin, her father, was driven in. That is tradition. Those are rocks, that’s a foundation.”
I feel those chills whenever I hear or merely daydream the hook of “Think,” ringing “Freedom!” in my ears, and when Aretha reaches the climax of that classic operatic performance at the 1998 Grammy Awards where she stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti with 30 minutes to prepare.
I feel mighty and capable seeing Aretha’s staggering beauty, pain, and joy on her album covers, like on 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You where the singer’s equally demure and luxurious pout could convince any heart-wrenched person that they are worthy of love. Aretha Now, released the following year, features a gleeful, full-faced black woman—wearing lime green at that—reassuring black Americans that we can experience ecstasy in the face of adversity, too.
Fifty years later, black Detroiters are paying homage to the Queen’s legacy of love and community.
As Aretha’s tunes played from a nearby radio station booth, from “Respect” to “Rock Steady,” the Museum doors opened promptly at 9 a.m.
The minute-long moment was difficult to take in all at once—Franklin’s casket in the center of the foyer, flanked by long-stemmed pink, purple, and blue roses, a large red rose heart and at least 12 watchful guards.
Franklin donned a baby blue dress, silver shoes, and red lipstick on her smiling powdered face. She doesn’t look as small as I imagined in her casket whose white padded lid featured a sparkling golden sash and “Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul” in gold embroidering.
It felt heavenly, the sun shining through the glass ceiling. As I exited the building, I was satisfied having beheld Detroit legendry in person, however brief.
But my witnessing was not over yet: the local news announced later that day that 1,000 people would be allowed into the previously invite-only funeral. Seconds after watching the announcement, Jimm Tuffy, whom I met in line, texted me that I needed to go.
We arrived at West Seven Mile Road and Shiawassee Drive at 3:15 a.m., dreary-eyed yet ecstatic. I was maybe 100th in line.
Some people, mostly elderly, had been camping out at the intersection’s Sunoco gas station since the previous night.
The early hours didn’t stop funeral-goers from wearing their Sunday best, including a man sporting a pink sequined suit jacket, several women donning Aretha-style church hats, and one woman wearing a giant wig and lavish black gown and cape drawing the attention of photographers and fellow visitors.
Tuffy and I accidentally wore matching pink button-ups. I shielded myself from the morning cold in a seersucker sport coat. My mom had twisted my locs the previous night, ensuring that my crown would be fit for a royal presence.
The peaceful gathering became chaotic around 7 a.m. when police officers abruptly instructed the line to move to the opposite corner of the intersection, many leaving their lawn chairs behind. As no barricades or admission wristbands were distributed and we were not allowed into Greater Grace Temple until all dignitaries and family were accounted for, line-cutting and rising heat fueled anger, confusion, and a few fainting spells.
Commotion, however, was defused by the pink Cadillac processional and the constant wave of dignitaries entering the church, including Jenifer Lewis, who received cheers as she waved from her vehicle window.
We began filing into the building with wristbands by 10 a.m. Wonderment replaced heaviness as the spirit of the Queen was palpable and the drama was worth the wait as nothing short of a monumental production (and, funnily enough, air conditioning) could be expected of the Queen’s homegoing.
Spotted from the highest seats of the sanctuary, Aretha’s white dress, gold heels, and gold-plated casket gleamed beneath the podium’s bold red cross. She was flanked by two armed state police officers and five large bouquets of pink, purple, and yellow roses and orchids; a red rose heart to the pulpit’s right; and an assorted bouquet and white tulle bow-topped wreath to the left.
The room lit up as the Aretha Franklin Celebration Choir and Orchestra opened the ceremony with a medley of Aretha’s songs. At the outset, the homegoing service was set to match Franklin’s blackness and churchiness—in, as Professor Michael Eric Dyson put it, “the blackest city in the world.”
Following Richard Smallwood’s rendition of Walter Hawkins’ “Marvelous” leading the family processional, Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones’s announcement of the renaming of Chene Park to Aretha Franklin Park set the tone for a triumphant service.
From there, the Spirit of the Lord took center stage and almost every performance struck a chord in my, and everyone else’s, soul.
The Clark Sisters received a standing ovation before they even began singing; the mere mention of their seminal hit “Is My Living In Vain” was enough to cause an uproar.
Fantasia Barrino-Taylor delivered a powerhouse tribute proving that her voice must be appreciated live as studio recordings don’t do her justice.
Praise-breaks sustained the energy of the service, from the “60 seconds” (or three minutes) of dancing let loose by Bishop Charles H. Ellis, III, following a riveting performance by Vanessa Bell Armstrong and the Williams Brothers and later, Chaka Khan’s rendition of the Walter Hawkins classic “Goin’ Up Yonder.”
Born from a line of ministers, I couldn’t resist participating in the old Pentecostal stomp-clap myself. Looking to either side of me and around the room, neither could anyone else.
The ceremony was not without moments of profound sorrow, from Ron Isley fighting back tears as he sang a “soft” version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” to the speeches of the Franklin family. While Aretha’s niece and granddaughter delivered lightly humorous remarks, her grandson and nephew spoke more somber words.
Nephew Vaughn shared the dreariness of watching his aunt’s health deteriorate, bringing me to reflect on the moment I saw headlines announcing the singer’s turnover to hospice just days before her death.
Later in the service, as Pastor Marvin Sapp serenaded us into heartfelt bliss, I froze watching Franklin’s grandchildrens’ raised hands and solemn hearts. The inevitable pain following the Queen’s death was electric, as though we could feel her soul progressively departing into heaven.
Emotions emanated far beyond Greater Grace Temple. My grandmother, Carra Lightfoot, 72, told me of Aretha’s music blasting from cars and her funeral being watched on the smartphones of Meijer employees during her grocery shopping trip that day.
“The spirit of love and unity was in the atmosphere, bonding people who never even spoke before,” she said. “Race didn’t matter. It was one big ol’ love party.”
The party didn’t stop at the funeral. In the 8 p.m. dusk, hundreds of fans waited along West Seven Mile Road for the pink Cadillac, white hearse, and family processional to enter the gates of Franklin’s final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery. Cheers, music, and flashing phones brightened and clogged the street as we watched the Detroit legend end the long, memorable day.
Sitting at my kitchen table at 1 a.m. eating fish and chips with my mother, 52-year-old Kim Lightfoot-Ford, I stared at the obituary’s famous photo of Franklin peering above rounded sunglasses and felt like I was communing with her.
“Matt went but it felt like we had all gone to the funeral,” my mother told my brother on the phone days later as we watched a DVR recording of WDIV Local 4’s commemoration.
Hearing her words, I had never felt more like a Detroiter.