Mama Aretha was one of us

2018-08-19 07:58
Aretha Franklin

Johannesburg - When news broke on Thursday that the Queen of Soul had succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 76, the planet let out a collective gasp. Then came the outpouring of tears, smiles and memories.

There is not a corner of the globe that was not touched by her powerful voice and her fierceness as a liberated black woman. The reaction has been no different in South Africa, where careers were shaped, struggles forged and family meals eaten to a backdrop of her hit songs.

We asked some of our favourite Mzansi personalities to share their memories:

'She was the soundtrack to my youth' - Gugulethu Mhlungu, radio host and journalist

“Sundays were about a clean house, a beautiful lunch and soul music. The fondest memories of my childhood are intimately wrapped up with the music my mother played. Sundays, especially, were a date with Roberta Flack, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Donny Hathaway, Gladys Knight, Peabo Bryson, James Ingram and the queen, Aretha. It was soulful music that had both the ability to imagine love and God, and also the full spectrum of human emotion. My mother was a huge George Michael fan, so I Knew You Were Waiting was a song I heard often and I loved hearing. From It Hurts Like Hell to A Natural Woman, these were some of my favourite songs at a very young age. Aretha, along with Whitney [Houston], had voices I loved; because they are so powerful, almost all-too-loud voices, they took up space and sounded like voices that couldn’t be humanly possible, and yet they existed. For as long as I can remember, listening to Aretha’s voice always felt special, like a treat or a gift.”

'She defined my career' - Hlengiwe Mhlaba, gospel superstar

“I learnt how to be soulful from her. I learnt that you should not limit yourself to just one genre of music; you need to be versatile and be able to collaborate with other people, to learn to extend yourself through them and expand yourself in different territories. Hence, on my first album, Rock of Ages, I had a fusion of different genres – that I learnt from her. Bridge Over Troubled Water is a song that has carried me since my childhood, which was not an easy one. How she sang that song made me whole and kept me in one piece. One of my greatest childhood memories is when I used to sing it with my dad. Aretha was a woman of respect – in everything she did, she respected other artists. Aretha was an angel.”

'She healed our struggle wounds' - John Kani, actor, theatre director and playwright

“In the 1970s, when I was young, the music that was playing from my father’s radio was mostly Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. We used to sing along with those songs like a national anthem. But when Aretha broke the chart with Respect, we were excited. We didn’t even know how to sing it but her music, the voice, oh it was beautiful. During apartheid times, it was bad and difficult, but when we got home and listened to her music, we found inner peace; we found contentment. Even through the dark days of our struggle, Aretha was there to heal the wounds. She was a woman respected by all, black and white, and she stood tall and made her mark and forced men to reckon with her powerful voice. Aretha was out of this world. She created music for the right reasons.”

'She was a strong black woman' - Kgomotso Matsunyane, broadcaster and businesswoman

“Oh my, show me one person in the world who wasn’t a fan of her music. It sounded so ‘adult’ that I couldn’t wait to be part of it when I grew up. As a kid, you have no idea what the meaning of A Natural Woman is, but when you become an adult, the song starts to make so much sense. The true sexual meaning of it got me really hooked. Aretha was queen of the bustier, she was a style icon. She was fine! This beautiful black woman had her own identity. One thing I respect and that I learnt from her was how she kept her life private. She had no scandal, no drama. She was living her life in peace like a strong black woman.”

'I treasure her rage and stamina' - Athi-Patra Ruga, artist

“In the 1990s I used to stay with my dad in George in the Western Cape. He was a journalist and he used to play a lot of Aretha. It used to annoy me because I wanted to listen to Boom Shaka. But over time, I realised that it helped him to be at ease and prepare for his day. One song that stands out to me to this day is How I Got Over. There is a line in it: ‘My soul looks back and wonders how I got over’, and I just remember that I have been through the most in life, but I am still here. The thing with Aretha is that she had that very rare thing of being able to work with spirituality. As an artist, I treasure rage and stamina. I would say I take so much of my aspiration from her.”

'The greatest voice ever to have lived' - Simphiwe Dana, soul star

“Queen Aretha Franklin is the greatest voice ever to have lived. We are highly honoured to have had decades of her soulful voice. She leaves behind a legacy so vast that I doubt there is anyone alive who can fill her shoes. We have lost a rare talent indeed.”

'She reminds me of coming out' - Mvelase Peppeta, fan

“We used to have her CD in the car, and every time my mother and I would go out, we would listen to It Hurts Like Hell from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, non-stop. As an 8-year-old, you know nothing about love and being heartbroken, but there was something about that song. Later on, I made the connection to the lyrics, but as a child, it was the sound of the voice, the timbre and the way she sang that resonated with me. There is this gay movie that came out in the late 1990s called Get Real, a coming-out story of a guy in high school. And at the end, he is driving off in his red car with his best friend, and they play Think by Aretha. It brings back great memories. I guess it’s the connection to what the character felt at that moment.”

'She taught me self-worth' - Nomzamo Mbatha, actress and media personality

“Any household, especially black homes, grew up listening to her. She created very intimate moments, memories. It is sad, but I am happy that she is resting now. A woman that strong, that courageous and amazing and confident doesn’t deserve to suffer. For me Respect will always be my favourite. This song was about owning your voice. She made it cool to be sassy about what a woman’s worth means. If someone doesn’t respect you, they don’t love you. A Natural Woman reminds me of my aunt. She used to sing along with it a lot. The song says so much about how beautiful black women are. For me it was the first lesson of self-love and self-worth.”

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