I was fortunate to be invited to virtually partake in National Geographic's premier of “Genius: Aretha,” the third series in its anthology franchise. (Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso were the focus of the first two seasons.) For me personally, Aretha Franklin is almost as influential as the Grateful Dead and interestingly, I find that there are quite a few correlations between the iconic musicians. In and after high school a dear friend and I would drive across town to the hustle and bustle of Hollywood to dance the night away at Club 70’s. On the way home, still exploding with excitement, we would sing our hearts out to “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and of course “Respect.” That memory, like Dead shows, automatically produces a smile. As I got older, Franklin’s melodies were the backdrop while getting decked out for dates. It didn’t matter whether the outcome of the engagement was good or bad as I could always count on Franklin to soothe my soul. The Dead also have this pacifying effect. Franklin’s ability to master any genre from gospel, blues, jazz, even pop and hippy rock, allowed me to explore new artists expanding my musical repertoire. The Dead accomplished this too while also expertly taking on varying sounds. Consider their disco period. I also credit and am grateful to Franklin for developing my discerning ear. Most importantly, Franklin’s dedication to philanthropy focused on social justice has paved the way for my work mostly around gerontology, death and dying as well as devastating diseases. I found Franklin’s activism truly inspiring just like members of the Dead who also devoted themselves to a range of important, charitable causes.
Before launching into the sneak peek of the first episode viewers were treated to brief dialogues and stellar performances including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, showrunner and producer Suzan-Lori Parks, trumpeter Marquis Hillon as well as the Detroit Youth All-Star Choir. Following the program Cynthia Erivo, who stars as the Queen of Soul, sang a moving set of Franklin’s staples from the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Erivo’s voice is enchanting. She brings electrifying energy to each showstopper. The performances, not just by Erivo but the entire cast will be the highlight of the series which can also tout having industry heavyweights Ron Howard and Brian Grazer as executive producers. “Genius: Aretha” will premiere Sunday, March 21 on National Geographic with the rest of the episodes airing the following three days. All eight shows will be available on Hulu on Thursday, March 25 to correspond with Franklin’s birthday. (She would have been seventy-nine. Sadly, Franklin died of a neuroendocrine tumor, a rare type of pancreatic cancer.)
For me, the series based on Franklin and her enduring impact both musically and socially couldn’t be more opportune. I’m furious witnessing the atrocious, racist acts of the GOP to stifle Black American voters. I’m horrified by the humanitarian crisis at the border and am stupidly struggling to get my groove back now that I have been partially vaccinated and can regain a bit more normality. Franklin has always empowered, encouraged, and energized me. I’ll be using the series as a springboard to reclaim my fighting spirit which as of late feels a bit beaten down but desperately needs to be reactivated. When not watching the series, Aretha is going to be on constant replay as, “You’re All I Need to Get By.”