By Seun Olowo-ake
Before writing this, I asked myself “what defines soul music?” and found that I could only come up with concepts to try to explain it. I know what someone means when they say ‘this singer has soul’ but I can’t tell you what having soul is. I was curious though, so I went to the dictionary to find the most succinct way to put it.
The Merriam Webster dictionary says that soul music “originated in African American gospel singing, is closely related to rhythm and blues, and is characterized by intensity of feeling and vocal embellishments.”
Personally, I would say that soul music comes from and speaks to the human soul. I would also argue that any music that speaks to the soul soothes it in some way, a fact that is no doubt tied to genre’s origins in the African American community who, not even a century prior, were singing negro spirituals of hope in the midst of slavery. Music, especially soul music, is a space for the human soul in all its complexities to be expressed. Everything that makes the human soul rich is in effect what makes soul music so rich.
RESPECT gives us a glimpse at the rich soul of Aretha Franklin (played by Jennifer Hudson). The film takes us through the joy of her childhood and how it eventually caved in (both of those states of mind portrayed so beautifully by Skye Dakota Turner). RESPECT also shows her journey as a young woman trying to find her sound and the silent frustration of having everyone else speak on her behalf. It explores her dealing with tragedy, enduring abuse in secret, being directly involved in the Civil Rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and finding a haven in her music.
Jennifer Hudson embodies Aretha Franklin exceptionally well, which was to be expected; Franklin herself handpicked Hudson for the role. In hindsight, Hudson theorises that Franklin picked her, not just because of her talent, but because she saw that she could go to the emotional depths that were needed to tell this story accurately since Hudson had also lost her mother tragically. This emotional depth is obvious through the music and onscreen. Jennifer Hudson brought it. Something that I especially loved was how she portrayed Franklin physically, pressing her lips together when she wasn’t speaking, a motion that she explains as ‘almost biting her words’.
To me, the film is a redemption story. It shows the redemption of her voice because she does eventually learn to use it, especially in moments that feel so earned because of how quiet she had been. (One of these moments earned cheers from the predominantly black and female audience I was with.) It is also an example of redemption of her life through song because, as a lot of songs do, they make good out of her experiences. Finally, RESPECT shows a redemption of her soul as she is lifted up from a place of pain and quite literally into worship through Aretha Franklin’s faith in God.
Ultimately, this film is about using your voice. Aretha’s voice was her music. That’s where her soul was, and it called out loudly through song that ‘This is who I am, and I deserve some R-E-S-P-E-C-T”.
RESPECT is out in theatres on Friday, August 13th, 2021, and its soundtrack featuring the powerhouse that is Jennifer Hudson is available for listening.
May they both wash over our souls and help them find the strength and dignity they deserve.