“Aretha helped define the American experience,” the Obamas said in a statement Thursday, after Franklin’s death at age 76 from pancreatic cancer. “In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade ― our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.”
The former president and first lady praised Franklin’s “compositions and unmatched musicianship.”
“Every time she sang,” they added, “we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine.”
Franklin performed at Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. Obama immediately named Franklin when she asked who should perform at his inauguration, former Obama staffer Alyssa Mastromonaco said.
In December 2015, before he left office, Obama was caught singing along and tearing up as Franklin performed Carole King’s ”(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center.
“American history wells up when Aretha sings,” Obama later said, explaining his emotional reaction to the performance in an email to The New Yorker.
“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll ― the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope,” he wrote.
Franklin said she was moved by Obama’s response to her 2015 performance, calling his reaction “stunning” in an interview with Vogue.
“I’ve done the Kennedy Center many times. I’ve sang for Marian Anderson. I’ve sang for Marion Williams. I’ve sang for Lionel Hampton. But never that response,” Franklin said. She added that Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama were always “wonderful” at her performances.
Obama, during his two terms in office, often invited artists to perform at the White House and celebrate black musicians.
Franklin won 18 Grammy awards and was known for powerhouse hits, including “Respect,” “Think” and “Chain of Fools.” She was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
At the height of the civil rights movement, Franklin’s rendition of “Respect” quickly became a rallying cry for women, African-Americans and other marginalized groups.
Former President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 for “helping to shape our Nation’s artistic and cultural heritage.”
She sang “God Bless America” at former President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration, and “I Dreamed a Dream” at former President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration.
Read the Obamas’ full statement below:
America has no royalty. But we do have a chance to earn something more enduring. Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, Aretha Franklin grew up performing gospel songs in her father’s congregation. For more than six decades since, every time she sang, we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine. Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade—our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.
Aretha may have passed on to a better place, but the gift of her music remains to inspire us all. May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace. Michelle and I send our prayers and warmest sympathies to her family and all those moved by her song.