How Aretha Franklin became an unwitting icon within drag and queer performance
From singing at the inauguration of President Barack Obama to countless sold-out venues across the world, Franklin was an icon of popular culture, but also a stalwart for strength and empowerment within subculture.
Every week within drag bars and cabaret clubs Franklin’s songs are blasted out by performers, singing her anthems to amplify her voice of empowerment and protest.
To share their experiences, PinkNews spoke to drag queens and LGBT+ cabaret performers who paid their tributes for the Queen of Soul.
Bebe Zahara Benet, the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 1, said: “For me, Aretha Franklin was the embodiment of power and Black excellence. She used her artistry as activism and inspired me to do the same.”
“Each time I’ve had the pleasure of performing one of her songs, it’s been an incredibly empowering and challenging experience—her songs are notoriously difficult to perform because of the raw emotion and the way she sings. This is a major loss to the music community and the world as a whole and I will miss her dearly,” Benet added.
Iconic drag comedienne Lady Bunny, said: “Of course, Aretha’s major hits ‘Respect’ and ‘Think’ are drag queen lip-synch staples, but an off called ‘School Days’ was also very popular as a pageant production.”
“The song was typically performed by queens in 1950s poodle skirts and no heels, but flat saddle oxfords,” Lady Bunny told PinkNews.
“It contains a dance break with Aretha whooping in a quasi-Latin style throughout. Why Aretha decided to perform a song about her childhood hijinks at school, I’ll never know. But I’m so glad she did.
“Aretha also united blacks and whites to some extent during tense racial times, because black, white or green, her talent was undeniable a celestial gift—the kind which doesn’t come around too often,” Lady Bunny added.
London-based drag artist Son of a Tutu spoke candidly with PinkNews about their thoughts on the late singer.
“Although known globally as the Queen of Soul, I often refer to her as the Queen of Queens: she is probably the only female singer-songwriter who pioneered a whole genre of music – soul.”
“As a strong uncompromising black women who transcended the cause(s) of the mysterious sorrow of her early private life, defying norms and conventions to carve out her own triumph and, whose voice and music served as a soundtrack to the civil rights and broader intersectionality movements of the 20th Century, she was a symbol of hope and strength to the female liberation and gay community at large and the black LGBTQI community particularly: she was and always will be our queen,” Son of a Tuto said.
Other drag queens and performers from drag and cabaret also shared their thoughts on Franklin’s impact.
Jiggly Caliente (from RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 3 and who is performing at Drag World London) explained why she was inspired by Franklin.
“Aretha Franklin showed me what a powerhouse entertainer is all about. She commanded the stage and audience with just her presence. Then that voice that can shake the rafters,” Caliente told PinkNews.
“Performing ‘Respect’ requires an extensive amount of respect for the song the power of those lyrics and the voice of the woman that sings it. There’s only a few songs that transcend time and is powerful for any generation,” she added.
Sadie Sinner, founder and curator of the Cocoa Butter Club and a London-based cabaret performer, said: “Aretha Franklin taught me to take up space. Fearlessly. Because of her I know o can grow old and happy as a big black woman who loves to sing.
“Maybe I can even wear a faux fur or two, but the point is I can do it, I can do anything, because she did. I’m grateful to her spirit her tenacity and her music. To have shared time and space. (We never met but we shared the same earth!) To be born in the time when she was still gracing this earth, it’s lit,” she said.
Darienne Lake from RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 6 said: “The queen of soul Aretha Franklin was able to powerfully sing the words in my heart. She blasted emotion with every song she sang for generations to come. You feel some of her majesty and presence when you perform her songs. R-E-S-T-I-N-P-E-A-C-E.”
Peppermint, who is currently starring in Head Over Heels on Broadway, added: “It’s no secret that Aretha’s [talent] was absolutely transcendence, it soared, even above the music. It’s difficult not to feel every emotion when listening to her music, which is why it makes for a perfect drag lip-sync. I’ve been performing her songs for years. Hopefully we will hear more people celebrating her music this week. it might be a very refreshing break amongst all the pop music impersonations that are constantly on rotation.”
Blair St. Clair, from RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10 and who is performing at DragWorld UK, said: “Aretha Franklin is the epitome of not only soul but of passion. I think the best performances come from the passion you’re born with and the life you live. Aretha was a pioneer in not only the music business but also in American culture itself for sharing her voice and spreading her passion throughout the world. She has been an inspiration to my budding music career in a business where sharing your literal voice has become a way to share your internal voice.”
The Vixen, from RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10, said: “I first became obsessed with Aretha Franklin in her cameo of the movie Blues Brothers. Her performance of RESPECT was so powerful and reminded me of the strong women I grew up with. From then on she’s been a strong example of the type of performer I wanted to become. She is a legend and role model to all Queens. Forever Black Girl Magic!”
Shangela, star of RuPaul’s Drag Race Seasons 2 and 3, said: “Aretha Franklin was one of the greatest vocalists and musical influences of our time. As drag artists, many of our performances are inspired by the divas, and Aretha will forever live on as one of the most legendary divas who taught me to always aim for R-E-S-P-E-C-T!”
Dusty Ray Bottoms, from RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10, said: “You’d be hard pressed to find a drag queen who doesn’t have an Aretha Franklin song in their repertoire. She gave us some of the most iconic music there is, and her voice and stage presence are legendary. Aretha wasn’t afraid to be herself; powerful, sexy, and soulful all at the same time. Thats everything. Thank you Aretha!”
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Alaska Thunderfuck, from RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 5, said: “I remember years ago I performed to a backing track of “Until You Come Back To Me” by Aretha in a show where about six people showed up. But her music has always been a part of me. Jeremy and I were already planning on doing a version of her ‘Say a Little Prayer’ in our Christmas show this year which will now have an even more special resonance. I can’t believe she’s gone because I thought she would always be here. Her impact as a black Soul female artist who crossed over to the mainstream will always be remembered and her memory will always live on in all of us.”
Gia Gunn, from RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 6, said: “I never actually performed any Aretha Franklin songs but I’ve always had a great amount of respect for her. Any woman, especially of colour, who performs from the heart and soul is my hero. Growing up I always admired strong woman and especially ones who make you believe what they are preaching! RIP Aretha, bless you.”
Many of the drag queens mentioned in this article will perform at DragWorld UK this weekend. Will they pay tribute to Aretha?