10 Things I Know About Aretha Franklin
The first time I met Aretha Franklin was while working production backstage for the Jazz at the White House event in 2016 which took place on the South Lawn at the White House. During the morning ahead of the show, my team and I were going through the list of logistics and the performers that were confirmed. When we got to Aretha on the list, someone said "Aretha has her body person here at the White House. We need not worry about her. Now, moving onto Sting..." That official body person at the White House that they were talking about is Elias Alcantara, my partner in life and love. He first met Aretha in 2014, when she came to the White House to perform at one of President Barak Obama's events. Over the last four years, we've gotten to know Aretha, her family, friends, and staff very well. We learned even more about her during the last few days in Detroit and grew even more grateful to have been a small part of her life on this Earth.
As friends of Aretha's, we got the call when she was sick earlier this year and again when she officially left us. The second call came with an invite to the friends and family memorial service in her hometown of Detroit which we attended.
Aretha Franklin's Funeral Service lasted roughly 9-hours and included guests like Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ariana Grande, Faith Hill, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Tyler Perry, Clive Davis, Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, and many, many more. We sat in silence together, we prayed together, we fasted, we cried, we laughed, we sang; it all felt like one big huge family. Aretha's family.
The past three-days in Detroit came with so many stories known to few about Aretha including:
1. Aretha turning down a $30M offer to perform in the Middle East for 30-days
2. Her security guard having to tackle a fan that tried to reach Aretha during rehearsal for the lighting of Detroit’s cauldron with the Olympic torch in 2002.
Things you probably didn't know about Aretha straight from the people that knew her best:
3. Her nickname was Riri.
4. Aretha was like those of us who don't know how to keep the same phone number for more than a few months. She changed her cell number all of the time! Ha!
5. Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross were like siblings and spoke every day before he passed away.
6. Harry Belafonte and Aretha Franklin did an 11-city tour to raise money for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights efforts.
7. The Hamptons was one of Aretha's favorite places to vacation and unwind.
8. Aretha’s preferred room temperature, as Tyler Perry joked was somewhere between “85 degrees and hell”. Aretha was known to keep her room warm to ensure that her vocal chords were on point for her performances. She also wore layers, including fur coats, and mink neck accessories to help keep her warm. It was known by everyone that if you didn't like that, you had to figure it out.
9. Aretha cooked for her friends A LOT and made a mean Oxtail pot.
10. No one was EVER allowed to touch Aretha's purse, and it never left her side. One day, during an interview with Don Lemon, Aretha refused to move her purse from the top of the interview desk which made the bag visible on CNN live. Haha. Don Lemon tried it.
While in Detroit, Aretha Franklin's death felt like a celebration of life, but I know it wasn't all rainbows and sunflowers. I feel mostly sad when I think about Aretha Franklin's life and all of the secrets and deep pain she must have taken to the grave with her at the expense of fame. As a black woman in a white man's world, so much could have happened in her life as a teenage star in the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's that she never spoke on. Before Black Girl Magic, before the #MeToo movement, and the Women's March, there was Aretha Franklin, growing up in front of the world as a young black woman with unmatched talent who was making a lot of people a lot of dough.
If Aretha stopped performing, people stopped getting paid. That's the big elephant in the room when it comes to fame and Hollywood; you are not up to you, you are up to someone else. For example, Amy Winehouse's dad could have helped her greatly if he wasn't so focused on making a profit from her appearances around the world whether she felt up to it or not. Britney Spear's parents deemed her unfit to take care of herself, and her father became her conservator. A conservator is a guardian who is appointed by a judge to manage the financial affairs or daily life of another due to physical or mental limitations, or old age which means her checks come in under her father’s name. When Macauley Caulkin was fifteen, he sued his parents over his own $17 million in a custody dispute, which ended with them being removed as his legal guardians, and their control over Macauley's fortune was ended. I say all of that to say that there is evidence that early fame and large amounts of money in the entertainment industry lead to greed, risks, pain, and secrets. Aretha must have had her own.
Unfortunately, I can go on forever, but the point here is that Aretha Franklin, somehow, seemed to have gotten through a lot of what others in the industry could not. She kept her personal life very personal and that in itself, at her stature, is exhausting and painful. I could be wrong and the last 60 years as a superstar could have been very good to her, and she could have never endured any pain or deep fear that so easily comes with this industry, but we all know better.
Rest in so much Peace, Queen!
All photos by Getty Images