Cynthia Erivo’s Aretha Franklin Gives New Meaning to the Word Genius

Presented in partnership with National Geographic.

Cynthia Erivo is—finally—stepping into the Queen of Soul’s heels. After nearly a yearlong delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Genius: Aretha—the third season of National Geographic’s anthology series, this time charting the life and times of Aretha Franklin—is slated to premiere over the course of four nights, beginning March 21. Fittingly, all episodes will also be available to stream on Hulu on what would have been the late Franklin’s 79th birthday, March 25. 

In partnership with Vanity Fair and Essence, the series celebrated a special world premiere event March 11 both virtually and at drive-ins around the country, including in the singer’s native Detroit, Michigan.  

Jumping on a call with Vanity Fair the afternoon of premiere day, Erivo emphasized just how important it was for her to do justice to Franklin while shining a light on the person behind the icon. “I had an appreciation for her before, and I had a love for her, but now I’m sort of in awe of the work that she was doing and in awe of the way that she powered through a lot of tough times to make music for everyone at all walks of life,” she said. 

“The odds were stacked against her a lot of the time, being a woman, being a mother as early as she was, and working through the music industry at that time. It meant that she was consistently having to fight and stand her ground to get where she wanted to get to. And that’s sort of an impossible thing that she was able to achieve: to get to the status that she was at, to be able to create the way she was whilst being a mother at 12, and learning how to become a woman at the same time as becoming a star. I don’t think people realize just how close those things were working together at once.”  

The Oscar nominee and Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner remembers the first time she heard an Aretha Franklin song. She was about 10 years old on her way to school, and London’s Magic FM was playing. “Think” about knocked her sideways. “I thought, I don’t know what this is, but this is amazing,” Erivo recalled. “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” Franklin’s 1985 song with the Eurythmics, came on shortly after, “and I was enamored by the sound of her voice, and I was enamored by how different these two songs were.” With some guidance from her mother, Erivo began listening to Franklin in earnest. Today she credits the music titan’s ability to tell a story through song with shaping the way she communicates as a musician herself. 

“I’ve listened to her so much that I’ve almost learned the art of storytelling through songs from her,” Erivo said. “I realized, because of listening to her, that singing a song is not enough. Communicating through it is really the job of someone who is singing—telling a story, telling an emotion, sharing a feeling is really the job of someone who sings, because she did it so well. And that’s what I wanted to do with my music too.” 

Virtual guests of the Thursday evening premiere got to see Erivo in action, enacting that passion as a performer. Not only was the first episode screened for both East and West Coast audiences (the first screening’s comment section had viewers hailing from Detroit, Brooklyn, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, and everywhere in between), but the evening ended with an exclusive premiere-night medley performed by Erivo from the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. With Will Wells on the piano, Erivo—clad in Schiaparelli Couture, with Jimmy Choo shoes and David Webb jewelry—sang “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” “Border Song (Holy Moses),” and an extended, emotional rendition of “You’re All I Need to Get By.” 

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