Respect for all

January 15, 2009

Rick Warren and Aretha Franklin will both take the stage at Barack Obama's inauguration, but they could not have more different messages.

Dear Ms. Franklin,

First thing's first: much respect to the Queen of Soul! To be even writing a letter addressed to you is something of an honor. I remember the sounds of your songs wafting through my house as long as I've had a memory.

My parents were children of the 1960s; they were there for the musical upheaval you helped usher in, and even as a little tyke, I remember thinking, "Damn, these songs are flat-out amazing." To this very day, my opinion remains the same.

I'm far from the only one with that outlook. Since you took the music world by storm, your influence can be felt in soul, R&B, rock, pop and rap. Show me music that doesn't have your fingerprints all over it, and I'll show you music that is neither heartfelt, righteous nor fun.

However, I simply can't hold my peace on this one. It's no secret by now that you will be singing at the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama this Tuesday.

Far be it from me to think of anyone else who might be better suited to do so. Your songs were a soundtrack for the civil rights movement. While Blacks protested on the streets of America for their basic human dignity, your songs called clearly and definitively for a bit of that "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." You were there for history before, and you should be again.

Aretha Franklin performs in 2008
Aretha Franklin performs in 2008

That moment in history will be undeniably tarnished, though, by the presence of such unadulterated hate and bigotry. I am sure you know to whom I am referring: Pastor Rick Warren. Ms. Franklin, to share the stage with this man is to turn your back on the very ideals your music aspires to.

Obama's selection of Warren--a right-wing, anti-gay, anti-woman preacher--to give the invocation at the inaugural ceremony has left many of the President-elect's most fervent supporters scratching their heads.

Warren's Saddleback Church in Southern California publicly denies membership to gays and lesbians unless they renounce their "sin." He equates a woman's right to choose to the Holocaust. And he was among the most vocal supporters of the recently passed Proposition 8 in California, which makes it illegal for same-sex couples to marry. How is this the "change" that Obama promised ordinary Americans?

Since Prop 8's passage two months ago, a new movement has captured the imagination of thousands in this country, codifying the long-felt anger at the rampant inequality that today faces the LGBT communities.

THE MOVEMENT against Prop 8 is about a lot more than marriage, though. It's about the same basic civil rights that your generation fought for in the 1960s and 1970s. Let's not forget that before that era, it was illegal for two people of different races to also marry in many of the United States.

The civil rights movement was an inspiration to the gay liberation movement that sprung up in 1969. In fact, Martin Luther King, a great friend of yours (so influential is your music), was also opposed to oppression of gays, and his longtime ally Bayard Rustin was openly homosexual.

Obama's invitation to Warren flies in the face of this. It has given legitimacy to the idea that it's okay to hate. It has implicitly communicated that Obama has no problem with gays riding in the back of the bus. It's something that we have to oppose. Remaining silent on this gives the president-elect a free ride. Wide swathes of people have already made it clear that they don't intend to remain silent. If I may be so bold, Ms. Franklin, neither should you.

There is another sinister layer to this surreal juxtaposition of you and Warren. Ever since the passage of Prop 8, there has been no lack of established media figures ready to place the blame on the Black community. They have used the 70 percent Black vote for the proposition as a way to make African Americans out as backward, self-serving and downright bigoted.

A glance at the anti-Prop 8 marches--Black, white, Latino, Asian and Arab--shows that this is simply not true. Polls and studies show that African Americans are more likely than whites to support gay rights laws. One of the most common slogans at these same marches is "gay, straight, Black, white--Same struggle, same fight!"

All of this is why it seems so wrong to myself and many of your other fans that you share the stage with Rick Warren. The message and legacy of your music embody the notions of freedom and inclusiveness. Warren's ideas are the exact opposite. What sense does it make for you to lift your voice in the ever-climbing crescendo of "Freedom! Freedom!" when there is a man sitting right behind you who wants to restrict the freedom to love who we want to?

Should you release a public statement? Should you say something from the stage on January 20? Perhaps even withdraw your performance? I don't know. What you do is up to you. But it seems to me that now is a time for artists and musicians to take a stand. You have gladly taken a stand before. Maybe you can do so again.

Alexander Billet

Alexander Billet's music blog is Rebel Frequencies.

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