Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul” who created anthems for the civil rights movement, died on Thursday at the age of 76. Tributes full of love, memories and respect for her contributions to society flooded the internet and television screens.
And then there was President Donald Trump’s homage, which raised a lot of eyebrows.
In addition to tweeting about Franklin’s death, Trump gave a statement during a Cabinet meeting Thursday morning. He reacted to the news by offering sympathies to the singer’s family as well as a rather more suspect sentiment. The president’s remarks, as released by the White House press office, were in full:
I want to begin today by expressing my condolences to the family of a person I knew well. She worked for me on numerous occasions. She was terrific — Aretha Franklin — on her passing. She brought joy to millions of lives and her extraordinary legacy will thrive and inspire many generations to come. She was given a great gift from God — her voice, and she used to well. People loved Aretha. She was a special woman. So just want to pass on my warmest best wishes and sympathies to her family.
It’s true that the “Respect” singer performed at the Trump’s Castle casino in 1988 and the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in the 1990s, according to The New York Times and the Press of Atlantic City. But the fact that Trump chose to mention that she “worked for [him]” in praise of a woman who fought long and hard for equality rubbed many the wrong way.
“I find it disturbing and sad, and a reflection of his endless narcissism,” David Ritz told The Washington Post on Friday. Ritz helped Franklin write her 1999 autobiography and then wrote his own 2014 biography of her.
The writer suggested that Trump’s comments were an attempt to claim “some type of bond” with Franklin, who Ritz said considered herself a Democrat. He added, “Though I’m certain there was none.”
Trump’s words also stand in stark contrast to the heartfelt tributes from other leaders, such as the Obamas and Clintons. Franklin performed at Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s inaugurations in 1993 and 2009, respectively. But their tributes did not attempt to subordinate her.
Civil rights advocate Al Sharpton also noted the impact of Franklin’s activism on Thursday.
“Aretha Franklin was the soundtrack to progress [in] America when it came to race,” Sharpton told TMZ.
“She was on the cover of Time magazine before most black artists could ever get there,” he said. “But she never lost grounding, her roots, she brought gospel, a kind of flavor to the pop culture and never compromised it. … She never stopped being that preacher’s daughter. Even with the 18 Grammys, even with all kinds of awards, she was always Aretha, which is why we always loved her because she was us. And she took us to another level.”
Franklin grew up in Detroit in the 1940s and 1950s and worked with some of the most famous faces of the civil rights movement. Her father, a Baptist minister, organized the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom, according to the BBC. When she was 16 years old, she went on tour with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who visited her father frequently. She also sang at King’s funeral in 1968.
“Part of why [Franklin’s] songs have such an anthemic tone to them, why they seem to be such big songs, is because she imbues them not only with that kind of gospel optimism, praise and worship, but also anger,” Ritz told the Post. “There’s a righteous indignation.”