Aretha’s Occupy

mic check! forty years ahead of its time.

I’m about to give you all my money, and all I’m asking is that you return it honey.

So sang Aretha Franklin from the Wall Street sidewalk just outside the New York Stock Exchange. At some point in 1967, or perhaps early 1968, she recorded an Atlantic Records promotional video at the corner of Broad and Wall Streets, singing her version of “Respect,” which was shooting up the charts at the time and would become one of her signature tunes.

Transforming Otis Redding’s 1965 complaint to his lover upon coming home tired from work and wanting a little affection into a rousing anthem of feminism, Black Power, or insert your social movement here, Aretha was having unprecedented success with the song at the time the footage was shot. But, one wonders, why Wall Street? Why this location for the promotional clip when there were millions of other locations she and Atlantic could have chosen?

No one knows. Or at least no one has written about why (at least that I can find). Looking back on the clip now, however, it appears as an intentional declaration of “Respect”‘s political edge. This was not just a song about the bedroom, it was now a song also meant to penetrate the halls of power in American life.

Aretha, looking at once elegant and casual in sweater, horizontal-striped rainbow slacks, and barefoot (I think), sporting awesome dangling gold earrings, sings along live with the recording she had made. With nonchalance, she throws magnificent, unearthly, and entirely new vocal ideas out there, one after another. It’s uncontainable singing. She is a force to be reckoned with.

“A little respect,” she asserts, pointing her finger in the air and raising her eyebrows just so.

Eventually she crosses Wall Street, virtually strutting across the empty street. A few onlookers gaze on, amazed. “You’re runnin’ out, fool, and I ain’t lying.”

The imposing marble buildings stand there silently, ominously, like financial panopticons. But for that moment, they seem like Potempkin Villages of power, pompous and maybe even about to crumble. Aretha owns the place.

It’s a strange kind of anticipation, forty years too early but already singing truth to power, of Occupy Wall Street. The promotional clip, now on YouTube, erupts from its archive. Aretha’s melismas seem to defy time. They demand respect. Struggles for social justice—whether they be about class, race, gender, or where those categories all meet—link across eras, through sound, taking over a contested space, reclaiming a corner. The foundations shake for a moment, and how we wish to value ourselves fluctuates violently, up in the air, up for grabs, on Aretha’s soaring vocals and unstoppable energy.

*Tip of the NYC hat to Kevin L. Ferguson for helping me confirm the location of Aretha’s promotional video. For more see our Twitter thread.

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