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Remembering the day Aretha Franklin commanded America’s song

Aretha took nearly five minutes in 2016 to make the national anthem hers. In doing so, she made it ours.

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

I imagine I came to know Aretha Franklin the way many other black children have. Growing up in a row home on Philadelphia’s north side, my mother provided soulful concerts each Sunday. She twirled through our kitchen, the scent of cleaning supplies wafting the air, jamming to music from the queen of her youth. Drives with my father yielded spirited yells for his “propers” when Aretha’s “Respect” blared over the radio. The only problem with Aretha’s inconceivable croons is they controlled your body. Wherever you were, wherever you will be, if Aretha belts, you bow.

Seeing the joy she brought my parents led to my own discovery. During the 1990 Detroit Tigers season, Aretha shot a promotional video where she gave her upbeat, holy rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” — a 30-second exercise in unrepeatable voice control. In 1998, she wooed fans at Wrestlemania III when Vince McMahon, in a poor-fitting tuxedo, introduced her with a howl as “Theeee Queeeeen of Soul!” and Aretha passionately sang “America The Beautiful.”

Aretha was the finest American example of musical exceptionalism. Her rich voice, robust delivery and empowering lyrics represent some of the world’s greatest recordings. The way I remember this most is Thanksgiving 2016.

The Lions played the Vikings in another meaningless game. Aretha was meant to sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” After an introduction, there was a brief silence at Ford Field. There she was: the Queen of Soul, garbed in a perfect fur, Lions hat and church socks, beside a glistening piano. From the first key played there was no resemblance to what some could consider America’s song. What ensued was an unparalleled exhibition by one of the world’s treasures.

Aretha had performed this song several times in Detroit. For Super Bowls, for Tommy Hearns’ scraps, for Game 5 of Detroit’s recent NBA Championship run. Midfield in Detroit held a specific finesse; one of the last edifying, indelible displays of the Queen’s voice, candor and soul for which there is no equal. Football broadcasts during holidays are cleanly cut. But Aretha dared you to look away. It was an audacious chastise of football’s standards. So, of course Aretha took five minutes. Shit. Aretha should’ve taken 10.

After one minute, she was still at the beginning of the song. Her talent for the piano shined. Aretha commanded attention. She deserved her pedestal. If every song revered in her sacrosanct discography can be adored for its longing runs, melodic ad-libs, fervent harmonies, the replacement of words and original feeling when she covers a track, how could we not lionize the same passion on a football field? Maybe it was America’s song, the white missive, that some felt shouldn’t be tampered.

Yet that made the bliss more enjoyable. Aretha’s notes have always captured divinity. Her minks were always the attire of the immortal. But to watch whiteness bend to her breath, officers salute her sound, to see players confused at her might, was the hidden blessing. At a moment when football reckoned with its own indiscretions — radical activism entrenched on the sidelines — Aretha redressed America’s anthem and made it her own.

If we think of protest as a disruption, a momentary or long upheaval of the status quo, why look any further? What Aretha — the woman who pined for Angela Davis’ release from jail in Jet Magazine, who wrote the Black Panthers letters of support, whose music lineage was a call for the respect and adoration of black womanhood — performed was a stunning rebuke. In a moment during which many opposed black athletes stand for justice, Aretha’s delivered a revolutionary gospel.

As CBS’ cameras captured the instance, one can see the difference in player response. Some unfurled classic confused faces. Some continued a usual prayer-filled ritual, heads bowed. But many black players stood in awe. Monitors held useless reminders of the lyrics to the strain. Aretha didn’t need them. I didn’t want them. The cuss and groans from fans because football was put on hold were petulant. They were missing the point. I was mystified and wondered how this moment could last forever.

As Aretha finished, several Lions players pumped their arms through the air, and clapped for dozens of seconds. The jubilation was unmistakable. The crowd cheered early, thinking the song ceased. Once more, Aretha got the respect she always chanted.

One of the last times Aretha stood on a sports stage could’ve been the most unbelievable capturing of her overwhelming excellence. For five minutes of undisturbed ecstasy, there was the sound of my Sundays and the cap of six decades of decadence. It may have been the only time during America’s song that I’ve actually felt free.