Yet being a member of her communities — of faith, of politics, of geography — wasn’t enough to define Aretha Franklin. She also belonged to her family, to her era and to the utterly singular gifts, discipline, ambitions and regal impulses that make her irreplaceable.
On Thursday evening, a concert called “A People’s Tribute to the Queen” was presented free at Chene Park, with its 6,000 tickets snapped up online in 10 minutes. It stretched to nearly five hours, presenting impressive Detroit locals — all of whom, it seemed, had been nurtured from birth on Ms. Franklin’s music — alongside nationally known singers.
On Friday morning, invited guests and members of the public packed the Greater Grace Temple megachurch for Ms. Franklin’s funeral, billed as “A Celebration Fit for the Queen” and lasting eight hours with music, preaching, reminiscences and testimonials. There were speeches from the former president Bill Clinton, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Cicely Tyson, Smokey Robinson, Clive Davis, Tyler Perry and the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, among others. And there was music from Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Jennifer Hudson and gospel stalwarts like Shirley Caesar and the Clark Sisters. Both the tribute and funeral were live-streamed worldwide.
Together, they honored an artist whose roots were deep, widespread and thoroughly acknowledged, but whose vision and achievement were entirely her own: not a template to copy, but an example of hardheaded freedom from an African-American woman who would not be held back by race or gender. “She was black without apology or excuse,” the professor and preacher Michael Eric Dyson said at the funeral. “And she was American without argument or exception.”
The tribute concert was divided into genres: classical music (reflecting Ms. Franklin’s latter-day dabbling with opera), jazz standards (the beginnings of her major-label career, on Columbia), gospel songs — complete with a 25-member choir — and, of course, the pop and R&B hits Ms. Franklin made on Atlantic and Arista Records. The performances were fervent, eager and sometimes spectacular, like Regina Belle’s rowdy “Rock Steady,” Johnny Gill’s aerobatic “Ain’t No Way,” Dee Dee Bridgewater’s boldly declaimed “Skylark” and Tasha Page-Lockhart’s spiraling, improvisatory “Amazing Grace” and later, on the secular side, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”
At the funeral, classic gospel songs that Ms. Franklin had recorded on her albums shared the lineup with a few pop songs, including “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” deferentially performed by the pop singer with America’s current No. 1 album, Ariana Grande. The finale was also a secular song: Stevie Wonder vowing eternal love with “As.” A funeral is a ritual, not a concert, but with cameras running and a worldwide audience, the performers poured it on: Chaka Khan gliding higher and higher in “Going Up Yonder” (while reading lyrics off a strategically carried fan); Shirley Caesar and Tasha Cobbs preaching and exulting in “How I Got Over,” Yolanda Adams and Bishop Paul Morton riding oceanic surges in “Mary Don’t You Weep,” Jennifer Hudson belting and shouting “Amazing Grace.”
But the church was only part of Ms. Franklin’s education and of the style she would forge. She also grew up hearing jazz, blues and R&B in a home that welcomed visits from touring musicians. And in the 1950s and 1960s her father, like other preachers nationwide, was a civil-rights leader, an ally of Dr. King. Growing up in a segregated era, Ms. Franklin absorbed not only the tenets of faith but also a determination to make earthly life more equitable. At her funeral, there was as much praise for her civil-rights advocacy — touring to fund Dr. King’s payroll, posting bail for Angela Davis in 1970 — as for her music, while some speakers, like Ms. Franklin’s longtime friend the Rev. Jesse Jackson, used the pulpit to get out the vote for this year’s midterm elections.
Ms. Franklin had to move outside gospel music to become a superstar. Her 1967 breakthrough, after years of working in and out of gospel and jazz, was to bring pop concision and impact — “Think” runs just 2:20 — to songs that didn’t confine her voice or constrain her pride. Through the decades, she kept finding them, writing them, or (as with “Respect” and “I Say a Little Prayer”) seizing them to make them her own. She sang about pain to exorcise it; she sang about strength to spread it. She also made herself an example as a tough businesswoman.
Eulogies at her funeral made clear that Ms. Franklin, unlike some superstars, did not isolate herself from the city where she had grown up. She flaunted furs and gowns onstage, and red-soled Louboutin shoes in her coffin, but she understood what others were going through. A Detroit radio personality, Mildred Gaddis, recalled that Ms. Franklin used to call up a local TV news anchor after seeing segments about families in trouble, then quietly send them a check. Ron Moten, a neighbor, said he had asked Ms. Franklin to visit his mother in an assisted-living home on her 90th birthday; Ms. Franklin told him, “I’ll think about it,” then showed up with her band to play an hourlong concert for all the residents.
Beyond charity, many of her friends affirmed that with Ms. Franklin, politics was always a topic of discussion. And while direct protest songs are a tiny part of her huge catalog, there was no mistaking — in her voice, her lyrics and her entire public presentation — her bedrock message that, as she famously said, “Everyone wants respect. Everyone needs respect.”
There’s no formula, no simple set of demographics or allegiances or parameters, to create an artist like Aretha Franklin. Imitating the notes she sang — as some of her admirers did onstage — is just technical mimicry, far from her true lesson of creativity. Understanding what shaped Ms. Franklin only underscores how completely she synthesized and then transcended it all. But let the sacred and the secular, the idealistic and the hedonistic, the political and the aesthetic, the local and the global all affirm their part in her music. There’s enough for everyone.