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Two black stars take a final bow

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(FILES) This file photo taken on December 6, 2013 shows Singer Aretha Franklin performing during the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB

In the third week of August 2018, two Black stars took a final bow from the earth after successful careers that made them international figures. One of them, the first to take a bow on August 16, lived and died in America after a long battle with pancreatic cancer; the other lived around the world, an international diplomat and a glorious career at the United Nations (UN). He died in far away Switzerland after a short illness. They were in different fields of human endeavour. It is possible they never met. It is possible Aretha Franklin and Kofi Annan never met. It is possible they met at official ceremonies. But like all of us, no authentic Black man of 40 years and above could say they didn’t hear and fall in love with the voice of the inimitable Aretha Louise Franklin, Queen of Soul Music.

They both died in the same week. Of course we (the progressive world) were pleased and excited by the attention which they received from the international media. CNN ran an all night tribute the day she died as if they were prepared for her death. They took the world back memory lane to remind everyone how far Aretha had come, how much gain the world had made and how these gains must be preserved. In these days of walls created by the fierce forces of extreme conservatism, the liberal world press went to town to celebrate excellence, not minding the colour of their skin or their ancestry. It was a poignant message, not lost to those who could see behind the ugly curtain of the politics of exclusion now championed from the most unlikely quarters- the White House.

Aretha Louise Franklin was an unlikely hero. Born on March 25 1942 to Rev. C.L. Franklin in Detroit Michigan, she discovered her talent very early and began her singing career as a gospel singer. She had her first child at 12years of age. Daughter of a pastor, she grew up in Jim Crow America. She first sang inside her father’s church as a child. Motown records founder Goody said something about meeting her as a child playing the piano inside her father’s house and called himself ‘stupid’ for not signing her on. Aretha had all the encouragement from her father who must have seen in her what others did not see. One of the remarkable things about her was her voice.

This she put to the service of humanity. She was an entrepreneur. But she was also an activist. She sang for the Civil rights Movement in the days of Martin Luther King Jnr. She performed at his funeral and the funeral of another Black icon Rosa Parks. Thus she became long time friends with icons from that Golden age of the Black struggle for recognition in racist America. House Representative John Lewis (an icon from the Martin Luther days), the Reverend Jesse Jackson and others knew and related with her personally. Personal testimonies from Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson took us back to the early days in Detroit. At her funeral Bill Clinton, Smokey Robinson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder, the 91 year old Cicely Tyson and Ariana Grande and many more all gathered to honour her memory by celebrating her life.

Her song “Respect’ which was originally composed by the late Otis Redding became the signature tune for feminists and the Civil Rights Movement. We knew her songs before we got to know who sang them. For six decades she kept singing. Indeed she performed at the inauguration ceremonies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. She had other hits and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

Kofi Atta Annan was born on 8th April 1938 to Ghanaian parents. He was a twin; his twin sister died in 1997. After education in Ghana and the United States he joined the United Nations and rose through the ranks to become the Secretary-General. He was at the centre of tumultuous events during his long stay. The Rwanda genocide and the crisis in the Balkans were events that happened while he was the helm. When Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali could not secure a second term as Secretary-General, Kofi Annan stepped into the contest and beat his opponent Amara Essy a diplomat from Cote d’Ivoire. France vetoed his appointment four times before she abstained and on January 1 1997 he started his first term. He was able to get a second term through a deal that the African delegation would support an Asian candidate at the end of his tenure. To his credit he won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2001 which he shared with the UN. He was honoured for the reforms which he brought about in the UN by giving impetus to human rights and HIV.

The two characters were international citizens. Poignantly as earlier observed, Aretha sang for Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights Movement, and also performed at his funeral. She also witnessed and sang for Barack Obama the first African-American to become President of the United States. Indeed in one of her performances she was able to bring tears to the eyes of Obama. Annan distinguished himself and has been said to be the best Secretary-General ever of the UN. They gained international acceptance through a brilliant display of charisma, hard work, integrity, open-mindedness and skills. Aretha was Black in a White-dominated country; she was an independent-minded but loving woman, and an activist for the Black cause. The odds were against her in hostile America. But she persevered and later became an icon. How she was able to stay up there for sixty odd years is a miracle. She was a positive influence to many young singers, generously giving her time.

From the lives of these two we learn lessons: with perseverance, hard work and foresight we can go far in the world no matter the colour of the skin. They broke artificial boundaries which men and institutions created. Those who honoured them did not mind their ethnic origins. If in our homeland we still practice quota system in football or in competence-required fields, then we are yet at the starting point of civilisation. I join the bereaved families to honour the memories of the departed and pray for strength to carry on.


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