The Sound Made Flesh
It begins with a sonic relay, the buzz of conversation interwoven with the hum of a Hammond organ. Like the first seconds of Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up," the sound of the voices chatting and the organ playing announce life in a lower frequency and register. In those initial moments, one cannot know which came first, the talking or the playing, because they are deeply entangled. This entanglement sets the stage for anticipation, the desire for Spirit to happen and flow and release. The refusal of a border — between the noise of the flesh and the noise of the electrical, mechanical object — might tell us something about how Aretha Franklin thought about black creativity.
The recording that includes this entanglement of flesh and machine was made available on Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings (1999), an extension of the original 1972 hit album. But this extended version is simply the sonic context of the project: What one receives in "The Complete Recordings" was already there, already animates the release that sold over 2 million copies. Like her other gospel recordings, Amazing Grace in both iterations was a set of live recordings attempting to capture the sacred sounds of blackness as not being about individual genius, but always about the social world that makes such sound-making possible.
Aretha Franklin's contributions to American music are well documented. I want to talk a bit about how, listening to her gospel albums — Amazing Grace, Songs of Faith (1956) and One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (1987) — one learns about black life as a sacred practice, and the anticipatory drive of Spirit. These recordings happened in church but are not reducible to church doctrines and protocols: Rather, her gospel works are fundamentally about the feel of being in space-time with others, of the social practices that make the enunciation of her voice felt among us. What we hear in her live gospel recordings is the mysticism of black life she sang with and through, a life that takes seriously the suffering of the masses and attempts to re-deploy sound in order to produce new worlds of possibility. Listen to the way she sings on "Precious Lord" in 1956, how she moans for us worlds to inhabit with our own voices of "All right!" and "Yes!"
Franklin understood blackness to be an epistemology of feeling. What I mean is she understood that the kind of knowledge living a black life produces is one of engaging and practicing, and refusing to renounce deep intense emotion, deep intense feeling. Emotion and feeling are often coded as feminine and irrational, lacking in control and thoughtfulness. Yet black life is not afraid of using feeling as the grounds for telling and witnessing about the joys and the pleasures as well as the pains, the violations of our lives. What one hears when Franklin sings "Amazing Grace" or "The Lord's Prayer" or moans "Precious Lord" (as Al Green would later implore us to "moan for love") is the sound of taking feeling and enfleshing it in the voice. The enfleshment of feeling is then felt by the congregation as melisma and moan, as crescendo and release. With her approach to gospel one gets a sense, a feel, for how she approached life itself — as a necessarily entangled affair.
In Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the narrator recounts a black church service and a sermon on the "Blackness of Blackness." In it, the preacher says, "black is ... an' black ain't ... " and there is something about the intensity of matching is with ain't that Franklin's voice allows us to sense, that her voice both performs and exceeds. The preacher does not say "black is ... an' black is not," but uses the colloquial ain't, a compression and augmentation simultaneously. It is a mode of address that I consider to be an increase in intensity and force, and that is sent out towards the congregation as feeling. This is the antiphony of black worship, the call and response that is not a simple one-to-one relation. Rather, there is ongoing call and ongoing response found in that increase in intensity, which can be loud or soft, but is always held, felt, sent. This intensity and relation to context and congregation is the occasion for each of Franklin's gospel albums. This is why her work is just as important to the black gospel tradition as it is to soul, R&B and pop music.
Black gospel is more than lyricism, though lyrics are important. Black gospel is about a relation to the song as a particular kind of object that carries you as you carry it, a relation to a song as object that one's voice is allowed to inhabit and, ultimately, augment. Such augmentation is what is heard when Franklin sings a standard hymn, or a song arranged by Thomas Whitfield such as "Walk in the Light." James Cleveland said that in gospel music she was not in competition with others, but that what she offered was an interpretation of the tradition. This, refusal of competition in the service of interpretation, is important.
It's something in the way she claps her hands here, in footage from the Amazing Grace performances: quickly, barely there, she doubles the time of the rhythm through her clapping. She looks down, away, keeps — but also breaks with — time. There is a fleshly nonchalance to it, a knowledge of aliveness and Spirit and breath moving in and thus through her, sounded out in the percussiveness of her hands. We learn in that quick movement, in that doubleness and nonchalance, a bit about black life and temporality, about always living most fully in the times but also how such living is against the times, because such times are replete with ongoing anti-black violence.
What she sang were very often songs written for other occasions by other musicians, but she took the occasion to offer her voice as instrument. To be made instrument is to refuse the logic that being used in the service of others is, always and everywhere, to be violated and victimized. Aretha Franklin offered to post bail for Angela Davis when Davis was targeted for being a member of the Communist Party and charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and murder in California. And she offered to be of service to Emory Douglas, minister of culture for the Black Panther Party. She stayed in Detroit and remained a member of New Bethel Missionary Baptist where her father had preached, offering assistance to the church and parishioners. She was, in other words, made instrument in the service of others. She allowed herself to be made into an instrument, into an implement. She acted as a conduit, for black radical care to happen to and through her. This is a wholly holy endeavor.
Each breath we take is different from all that will come before and all that will come after. Each breath is unique, but also this difference is necessary for life. Her voice makes audible the fact of difference. From her textured voice we receive the possibility for life because of the life she lived. A sacred life. A holy life.
Ashon Crawley, an assistant professor of Religious Studies and African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, is the author of Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press) and The Lonely Letters (forthcoming from Duke University Press).