Madonna’s Aretha Franklin Tribute is an Example of How Not to Eulogize a Black Artist
Madonna and MTV failed to realize that there’s a certain level of cultural sensitivity and stewardship that comes with properly paying tribute to African American artists
The topic of memorializing the lives of Black celebrities during award shows has often been a touchy one. There’s a level of cultural sensitivity and stewardship that comes with properly paying tribute to African American artists. In the rush to put out content that’s responsive to Black celebrity death, it’s important to do the work of connecting the dots so that people understand their living legacy.
And not just any artist can shoulder the burden of this work.
Less than a week after the passing of Aretha Franklin, MTV’s Video Music Awards was caught dangling what was perceived as a misconstrued tribute to the Queen of Soul by pop singer Madonna.
The Material Girl took to the stage to present the award for Video of the Year, while an image of the Queen of Soul projected above her, applying pressure to her words and leading many to believe she was giving a tribute. However, what proceeded left an audience stunned. Within the span of two minutes, Franklin’s name was only brought up once. Instead, Madonna seemed to take the moment to give herself a tribute.
In an Instagram post, Madonna wrote: “I did not intend to do a tribute to her! That would be impossible in 2 minutes with all the noise and tinsel of an award show. I could never do her justice in this context or environment. Unfortunately, most people have short attention spans and are so quick to judge. I love Aretha! R.E.S.P.E.C.T.”
Im with the Winner!! The beautiful @camila_cabello ! So proud of her! 🌈💕🎉. And just to clarify: I was asked to present video of the year by MTV! And then they asked me to share any anecdotes I had in my career connected to Aretha Franklin! I shared a part of my journey and thanked Aretha for inspiring me along the way. I did not intend to do a tribute to her! That would be impossible in 2 minutes with all the noise and tinsel of an award show. I could never do her justice in this context or environment. Unfortunately most people have short attention spans, and are so quick to judge. I love Aretha! R.E.S.P.E.C.T. 🙏🏼. I Love Camilla! Congrats! I LOVE my dress! AND. I love-L O V E!! ♥️ and there is nothing anyone can say or do that will change that. #vmas #postivevibes
Four days after Franklin’s death and the best MTV could do is throw a projector up with an image of Franklin and instruct Madonna to give mention of her name. Even if there were no slated plans, her moment on stage with an image of Franklin projected in the background held weight and Madonna irresponsibly carried it.
Perhaps she should have never been given that weight. Especially considering her history.
In 2016, after Prince passed away, Madonna was employed to give the tribute, once again receiving backlash for her performance during the Billboard Awards. Even before the performance happened, Change.org gathered nearly 9,000 signatures against the planned tribute. After the show, BET used the criticism as a marketing strategy for its network’s tribute, during the 2016 BET Awards. They sent out an ad saying: “Yeah we saw that. Don’t worry. We got you.” However, they were riding off the high of an insensitive moment instead of directing it from the beginning.
MTV ’s irresponsible use of the moment was completely insensitive. Award shows captivate the attention of a diverse audience of viewers, and tributes to African American musicians function as a living archival moment of their lives for future generations to turn to for added perspective. There were plenty of options when it came to choosing a Black musician who might be able to connect the dots. Using white artists to reconstruct a Black artist narrative is damaging. It comes off as an attempt to center a moment meant to acknowledge, celebrate, and amplify the work of a Black artist and reconstruct it so it functions for a majority white audience.
This issue goes beyond the entertainment space, in academic settings and leisurely discussions that involve conversations on Blackness, they are easily realigned in order to appease whiteness. Remaining conscious of this and addressing it is at best what we can do.
When it comes to award shows the decision making process and marketing strategy is not blind sighted, it’s meant for nothing more than to draw black media’s criticism on social media and to catapult viewership. It’s important those who hold positions of power in Black entertainment speak up and direct the conversation, so when it comes to choosing who will pay tribute to Black celebrities it’s not consistently whitewashed.
Priscilla Ward is a celebrated writer whose work has been featured on Essence, Salon and is also the creator of #BLCKNLIT. You can find her tweeting about bell hooks, sandwiches and art shows @MacaroniFRO.