God Bless Aretha Franklin: A Letter from Paul Stephen Benjamin

A large television screen, center, shows footage of the singer Aretha Franklin. This large TV is surrounded by several smaller TVs stacked showing vague blue and red lights.
Benjamin’s video installation God Bless America at {Poem 88} in 2016. Photo: Robin Bernat.

The great American singer Aretha Franklin died at the age of 76 on August 16, the same day my appointment as interim editor of BURNAWAY was announced. One of the first people I thought of after hearing the news of Franklin’s death was Atlanta artist Paul Stephen Benjamin, who used footage of the singer’s 1977 performance of “God Bless America” in his video installation of the same name, which was first shown at {Poem 88} in Atlanta in September 2016 before subsequently going on view at institutions including the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center in Savannah and the Studio Museum in Harlem, where it was included in “Fictions,” the fifth and final installment of the museum’s groundbreaking series of “F-shows” spotlighting emerging artists of African descent. For  BURNAWAY, I asked Paul to reflect upon Franklin’s cultural legacy and her influence on what he calls “the sound of Blackness,” and he responded with the following letter to the late Queen of Soul.

— Logan Lockner

 

Aretha,

I ask the question, “If the color black had a sound, what would it be?”

Of course, your voice came to mind.

In 1977, you performed at President Jimmy Carter’s Inaugural Gala and sang one of the greatest versions of “God Bless America.” You sang this song so many times that you, in fact, owned it.

I was too young to remember this performance, but when I came across it, I thought, “How could this not be the sound of the color black, or of Blackness?” During this time in the 1970s, Black people continued building momentum toward experiencing the American Dream and began getting a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

In my continual investigation of the color black and its sound, I paired your version of “God Bless America” with Lil Wayne, whose song “God Bless Amerika” was recorded over 40 years later.  Although the two of you make an unlikely pair, I was interested in juxtaposing two different styles, contexts, and eras. Combining your powerful vocalization and his pounding verbalization evokes joy and anger, patriotism and dissent.

You transformed a nation with your gift.  While I was saddened by your death, I will always remember your impact on my efforts reinterpreting the sound of Blackness.

Honoring how you lived your life through your expressions of faith—I hope your desire comes true and that you go on to be with the Lord.

Always loving you, your talent, and your gift to humanity,

Paul Stephen Benjamin

 

Watch a video including footage of Benjamin’s installation God Bless America below. His 2014 video installation Black Is the Color remains on view at the Tacoma Art Museum in Tacoma, WA, through September 30.

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