The aunty we all never had
Detroit — A few dozen people are waiting on the tarmac of a Detroit petrol station on a Friday morning. Before them is a big-screen television, broadcasting live the proceedings inside a church 100m away.
Some have been sitting here since the early hours to watch the memorial service for the person many here refer to as “Aunty”, though those outside the Motor City knew her as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Access to the church is limited but the service is being watched live by the public, on local TV stations, radio, YouTube and in public spaces in Detroit like here.
Fans of Aretha Franklin watch the singer’s funeral on a giant screen outside Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images/AFP)
One man, wearing a black hat decorated with a marijuana leaf and text reading, “Detroit: Born and Bred”, sits on a green folding chair. He begins to raise his voice over the crowd and the preliminary hymns playing from the television.
“Can we get some cheering for the Queen of Soul!”
“Can we get some cheering for the Queen of Soul!” he shouts again.
A woman cheekily chimes in, asking: “Can we get a moment of silence?”
Silence … interspersed with a few chuckles.
Inside the church, the hymns continue as Franklin’s family, friends — including a “who’s who” of black musicians and civil rights leaders — continue to wait for the service to begin. Former president Bill Clinton is there on the dais behind the pulpit, sitting next to Jesse Jackson, who is sitting next to his fellow reverend Al Sharpton, who is sitting next to Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.
Outside, at the petrol station, the Detroiters are watching the screen, commenting on who’s there, buying Aretha T-shirts from hawkers and sharing stories about their relationship to Aretha. Everyone seems to have an aunt or an in-law who knew her.
A woman in blue jeans, pink shirt and tinted spectacles is standing outside the church doors. Her name is Naomi but gives her last name as “G”. “Just call me a ‘G’,” she says with a laugh.
Naomi G didn’t know Franklin personally, but the singer was a regular sight around Detroit — from concerts to the grocery store.
“Aretha was a person like everybody else; she did her thing like everybody else,” recounts Naomi G. “And she was just Aretha Franklin.
“I just appreciated that she stayed here with us and she didn’t leave like everybody else.”
It’s a recurring theme for Detroiters. Other than Franklin’s music, the one thing they appreciate is that Franklin continued to live in Detroit through its unrest and tribulations.
And plenty of people have left. The city’s population has been in decline since the early 1960s, when infrastructure projects broke up black communities and made access to the city from the suburbs more convenient, paving the way for white flight. This was accelerated by the 1967 riots (known by some in Detroit as the 1967 Rebellion or Uprising), which were sparked when the Detroit police attempted to break up an unlicensed tavern in a black neighbourhood.
The uprising began near the New Bethel Baptist Church, the place where Franklin’s father, CL Franklin, became pastor when the family moved to Detroit 20 years earlier in 1946.
The Franklins were part of the second stage of the Great Migration, says Detroit author and historian Ken Coleman, when black people moved north seeking better economic opportunities and fleeing the endemic racial segregation of the South.
According to Coleman, the black population of Detroit would double in 10 years to 300 000 in 1950 from 140 000 in 1940.
Born the son of sharecroppers in Mississippi, CL Franklin moved his family into a solidly middle class and rapidly desegregating neighbourhood in Detroit after having lived in Memphis and Buffalo, New York.
“The Franklins moved here in 1946 and this was a well-connected African-American community,” says Coleman.
“There were already black leaders in Detroit before CL Franklin, so when he arrives, he’s able to step into organising with the Detroit branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, one of the largest branches in the country at the time. It was one of several black organisations in Detroit at the time.
“It provides a great frame board for Aretha to do great things, in addition to the great talent she possessed,” says Coleman.
“She could have just become a big star some other place but Detroit did help nurture her because it had a large, rising, African-American community.”
Franklin began singing gospel in her father’s church as a child. By 1960, at the age of 18, she had left to pursue her career, living in New York City and Los Angeles. But she always kept up her connections to Detroit, including through her father’s church.
“That’s the classic connection that people have with Aretha. It might be cliché. The reason I say it is that it’s real. I’m 50. It just never seemed to me that Aretha was not a very strong part of our community,” says Coleman.
“Even though there were some years she didn’t live here, she never really left. I’m not knocking anyone else; I’m just pointing out what’s real about her.”
Franklin moved back to Detroit for good in 1982, to a city that had continued to suffer decline and loss of population. An increasingly weakening vehicle industry also played its part, as did a Supreme Court case in 1974 that hobbled school desegregation efforts and had the knock-on effect of encouraging white parents to move out of the city and its majority black school district.
Despite her success, Franklin’s family was not immune to these changes. Her father had been shot and left in a coma by an intruder during a house robbery in 1979. The neighbourhood around his church had become, in Coleman’s words, increasingly economically “challenged”.
The neighbourhood, and Detroit, despite some green shoots, is still “challenged”. In the past 20 years, Detroit has gone through a huge wave of tax foreclosures on buildings, including residential houses. The city’s land bank, an entity created to manage its stock of property, owns about one in five of all houses in Detroit. The area around New Bethel was not spared, though only one in seven properties on the church’s street is owned by the land bank.
At the funeral, the lonesome sound of Stevie Wonder’s harmonica can be heard as he plays The Lord’s Prayer. He gives a short tribute to Franklin, one that can barely be heard above the ambient noise in the petrol station.
“Were it not for God’s goodness, greatness, we would have never known the Queen of Soul; we would have never known the joy that she brought to us we would never have known someone who could express in song the pain we felt,” he purrs.
Wonder then sits down at a piano and, as the first notes of As can be heard, a crowd of Detroiters, some of whom have spent nine hours watching a funeral, rise to their feet and begin to dance. As the back-up singers come in, they smile, shake and sing along.
The petrol pumps, the tarmac, the television, all somehow recede and a petrol station becomes a dance party that’s one part revival, one part family reunion.
The song plays out and the mourners begin to collect their belongings and head home. The man with the “Detroit: Born and Bred” baseball cap packs up his green chair and empties his cooler bag onto the ground. His name is Michael Southern and he has been here since 1:30am.
“Man, this was the best feeling of my life,” he says.
Southern took a bus across town because he wanted to be near the funeral. He went to the public viewing of Franklin lying in repose twice and attended the tribute concert, though he had to ride his bicycle to that.
“I’m 58, so as a young man, you know, I came up with her music. I been to her father’s church. My kid’s mother used to stay … right around the corner there.”
Southern takes off his hat and seems to become aware that it has a graphic of a marijuana leaf.
“I hated that I had that ‘born and bred’ hat. You can see what’s on top. I’m kind of embarrassed by it. But, you know, I was born and bred here.”
He puts his hat back on, shoulders his cooler bag. He continues speaking and his voice cracks with emotion, even while he keeps one eye open for his bus.
“She was like my aunty. She was like my aunty that I never had. I don’t know how you can go no further with that,” says Southern.
“I love her, I love her, I love her and I always will. I miss you, Aretha, and that’s the last I can say.”