What can campaigners learn from Aretha Franklin?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me…

This song’s been spinning around my head these last couple of days since the world lost Aretha and her incredible voice. And it’s made me think about what made it, and the rest of her back catalogue, so enduring across generations and is there anything that we can learn from its power?

Respect was actually written by Otis Redding, a couple of years prior to Aretha releasing her version. If you have a listen to his recording – it very much channels the dominance of male power, mainly in the home. In it, he essentially mourns a failed relationship, making the listener feel anger, sadness and pain.

When Aretha sings that song, with her voice soaring on the word ‘freedom’, and the backing vocals propelling her to shout out ‘respect’ like she means it, she makes it inspirational and assertive in equal measure.

The civil rights movement

RESPECT was released in 1967, 3 years after the Civil Rights Act. That summer, Aretha’s home town of Detroit had seen race riots that left over 40 people dead. Although the act was now law, there was of course still a long way to go to make it a cultural reality. But through the division and pain of the time, this song spoke out like a beacon of hope. It wasn’t angry, frustrated, or hopeless like some of Aretha’s peers – Nina Simone in ‘Backlash Blues’ or Sam Cooke in ‘A Change is Gunna Come’ it was a shout of hope; an inspirational piece of self-determination ringing out across the country, and through it, it became an anthem of power for the civil rights movement. And it wasn’t just RESPECT that fostered this sense of hope – many of Aretha’s songs speak of loss and joy and love and by doing so give us a sense of a better future; they embody a place between where we are and where we could be.

Our movement

In 2019, Save the Children will have been at work for 100 years. We’re using this moment to campaign to redouble our efforts to protect children living in conflict – children in some of the darkest, most politically dangerous places that many in power have turned their back on because the solutions aren’t easy.

We’re working in the hospitals that get bombed and we’re in the makeshift camps, on mud banks on the Myanmar border giving therapy to those who’ve fled atrocities. And so, we’re able to tell the story of the reality for so many children. But that story doesn’t always embody hope for a better future – it often channels outrage…and once the stories have travelled around the world, been adapted through different voices and mediums, they often channel apathy and hopelessness.

Children have the protection of the convention of the rights of the child, but like the civil rights act, it doesn’t mean the world suddenly changes. These laws that govern us are only as good as the people who uphold and endorse them, and to really make these a reality you need a culture that demands, speaks out, understands and doesn’t accept it when children become targets in war.

What we’ve learned

If Aretha has taught us anything it’s that we need to be assertive in showing that people are the ones who have power, that good can triumph over evil, that children who have bombs dropped on their school bus or are shot at when they’re playing on the beach should and can be protected. Aretha’s song was a message of hope in 1960s America that has endured to the present day and is reignited every time people listen to her music. We must speak out in the same way if we’re to make a difference.

Alison Griffin is Head of Conflict & Humanitarian Campaigns at Save the Children

Find out more about Save the Children’s campaigns work.

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