Although the performances and many of the remembrances at Greater Grace Temple church that day were excellent, and everyone’s hat game was super on-point, a pair of scandalous incidents has left a lingering fog of unpleasantness over the funeral. Aretha Franklin deserved better than this.
Let’s start with the handsy, culturally insensitive bishop. While interacting with Ariana Grande after her performance, Bishop Charles H. Ellis III decided to make a hacky joke about her name. “When I saw Ariana Grande on the program,” he said, “I thought that was a new something at Taco Bell.” Even if he had somehow been unaware of Grande’s household-name status, Ellis probably should’ve been able to infer she was a person of note from the fact that she was there to perform “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at Aretha Franklin’s homegoing, and not made a juvenile joke about her name. (As a general rule, though, maybe don’t make ethnic jokes about anyone’s name during a funeral?) Ellis wasn’t finished awkwarding up the event yet, though, it soon turned out. Once he pulled the singer into an embrace, some eagle-eyed viewers couldn’t help notice that his hand was clearly resting on Grande’s right breast.
— Newsweek (@Newsweek) September 2, 2018
Although the bishop eventually apologized for both the Taco Bell joke and the groping, it wasn’t until after the image of him with his hand on a squirming Ariana Grande circulated heavily around Twitter for a full day. The mini-scandal even spawned its own micro-scandal when actor Mike Colter (Luke Cage) responded to a Trevor Noah tweet about the incident thusly: “Now THIS is how you shoot your shot! Zero F***s!” The actor quickly realized his tweet was not going over well and deleted it, eventually apologizing that his intended sarcasm had come off as an explicit endorsement of the bishop’s inappropriate touching. Who could have predicted any other interpretation of his tweet?
The other moment that threatened to overshadow the rest of the funeral was the eulogy by Rev. Jasper Williams Jr, which went on for an excruciating 51 minutes. Not only did Williams go way off-topic, but at times he expressed beliefs that seemed antithetical to Franklin’s, whom he only mentioned intermittently. Williams, the pastor of Salem Bible Church in Atlanta, at one point described the idea of children being raised without a “provider” father and a “nurturer” mother as “abortion after birth.” One person who might’ve disagreed with this diagnosis and phrasing is Aretha Franklin, who was a single mother of four.
Elsewhere is in his eulogy, Williams blamed integration and the civil rights movement for gutting the system where black-owned small businesses can thrive. His controversial comments hit a fever pitch, though, when he regurgitated some stale Republican talking points regarding “black-on-black crime,” four words that had no business being uttered at all during Aretha Franklin’s funeral.
“When we kill 100 of us, nobody says anything. Nobody does anything. Black-on-black crime. We’re all doing time. We’re locked up in our mind. There’s got to be a better way. We must stop this today… Do black lives matter? No, black lives do not matter. Black lives will not matter. Black lives ought not matter,” he said as the crowd applauded. “Black lives should not matter. Black lives must not matter. Until black people start respecting black lives and stop killing ourselves, black lives can never matter.”
The staggering impropriety of these words was not lost on the crowd, where Stevie Wonder reportedly yelled back, “Black lives matter!” or on social media, which was flooded with tweets like this one.
Reverend Jasper Williams Jr, pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, is a homophobic, sexist, misogynist, ableist, uneducated bigot who is disrespecting Auntie Aretha Franklin at her funeral. She wasn't about nonsense#ArethaHomegoing #ArethaFranklinFuneral #BlackTwitter
— A'Ja Lyve (@ajalyve) August 31, 2018
The bereaved were outraged as well. Vaughn Franklin, Aretha’s nephew, spoke for the family on Monday when he deemed the pastor’s eulogy offensive. Apparently, Aretha Franklin never requested Williams eulogize her, rather the family chose him because he’d spoken at other family memorials in the past, including that of Franklin’s father 34 years ago. Although Williams has since attempted to clarify his remarks, so far his apologizing has been restricted to more of a “sorry you feel that way.”
Despite the disastrous aspects of the funeral, some good Aretha Franklin news did emerge this weekend. In response to the groundswell of DIY tributes to the singer at the Franklin Ave. subway stop in Brooklyn, the MTA has installed a permanent tribute to the late singer. Small plaques that read “Respect” now adorn every “Franklin Ave” sign on both platforms of the subway stop, located on Fulton St.
RIP to a true legend. May her upcoming further tributes go off hitch-free.