Aretha Franklin ‘reflects the best of the best’


The emotional journey of a week in Detroit following the passing of the Queen of Soul.
Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press

Aretha Franklin racked up a towering litany of honors during her 76 years, from the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

On Monday, the Queen of Soul was bestowed the most prestigious prize yet since her death in August, as she joined a lofty list of individuals and institutions honored by the Pulitzer Prize board with a special citation.

“Like people and institutions throughout America, since her death, we’ve been reflecting on her life and work and contribution to American music and society, and it was in that spirit we were really honored to be able to do this,” said Pulitzer Prize administrator Dana Canedy.

Unlike the Pulitzers’ annually awarded prizes in fields such as journalism and drama, special citations are granted selectively and sporadically, as a person or group’s larger body of work essentially forces the case.

Franklin remains a trailblazer even posthumously: The Pulitzers have granted just 43 special citations since 1930, and Franklin is the first woman honored with one.

Canedy said that while “of course” the board was aware of that context, “we don’t award prizes for political reasons. We award excellence. We award the work — whether music, literature, journalism, drama — that really reflects the best of the best. And I don’t think anyone can argue that’s what Aretha Franklin and her work represent.”

A Franklin family representative said she was blown away by word of the prize Monday. The Pulitzer is the latest high-profile honor for the Queen of Soul since she died Aug. 16 in Detroit. Others are an NAACP Image Award, the Stellar Awards’ newly instituted ICON Award for gospel greats and a Phoenix Award from the Congressional Black Caucus. 

“I was just really surprised and excited and thrilled,” said Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Owens. “Even in her death, Aretha is still breaking down barriers and opening doors for women. We’re so happy she’s being honored in this way.”

Franklin “really has left an indelible mark on this world,” said Owens. “We’re just so proud of her.”

Other musicians honored this century with the Pulitzers’ special citation include country pioneer Hank Williams (2010), rock poet Bob Dylan (2008) and jazz greats John Coltrane (2007) and Thelonious Monk (2006). 

More: Aretha Franklin wins 2019 Pulitzer Prize for contributions to music, culture

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More: Aretha Franklin quotes: The Queen of Soul in her own words

Formally, the Pulitzer board hailed Franklin’s “indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.” Canedy cited the singer-songwriter’s wide-ranging, culture-shifting contributions across the board.

“Whether it’s ‘Respect,’ or ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,’ or fill-in-the-blank, people remember the impact of certain Aretha Franklin songs on their lives,” said the Pulitzer administrator. “There are songs that are anthems for women. There are songs that are gospel and jazz influences that move us all. And we felt it was appropriate — indeed important — to honor and celebrate that. And, in that way, the queen lives.”

Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or bmccollum@freepress.com.


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