On the 28th June 1990 a couple of South African students studying in Cleveland, Ohio and I, travelled to Detroit, Michigan to attend what was billed as a ‘Freedom Rally’ to be addressed by the late Nelson Mandela.
At the time, I was on attachment at the Sun Newspapers in Cleveland, but also serving as a fellow at Cleveland State University. The others were students at the local private school, Case Western Reserve University.
Mandela had just been released from prison earlier that year and was on a 12-day national tour of the United States of America to thank the people of that country for supporting sanctions against the South African apartheid regime, but also to raise funds.
Detroit, also known as Motown, because of its erstwhile famous automobile industry, is also famous for its yester-year prosperous entertainment industry. It was the home of Motown Music, the record label that brought us the Jackson’s Five, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, the Commodores, Lionel Ritchie, Gladys Knight and the Pips, etc.
The music of Motown was a force of social and cultural change throughout the whole world, which just goes to show how powerful popular culture can be on society.
Unfortunately, just like the demise of the motor industry in Detroit, what is left of Motown Music is the museum in the building which used to house the record company situated on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. However, the legacy of Motown projected through its music is immortal.
The event of June 28, 1990 to welcome Mandela was held at the famous Major League Baseball franchise Tigers Stadium.
Of course the Tigers were down at the time, but the city’s National Baseball Association franchise, Pistons – led by the legendary Isiah Thomas, were on top of their game, having won the championships in 1989, which they won again, back-to-back in 1990.
The 49,000 strong crowd at the Tigers Stadium was electric as it welcomed Mandela to their city. Since it was an evening event, there was a police chopper hovering above with a piercing light as it scanned the crowd in and outside of the stadium throughout the entire duration of the event.
Perhaps the most important person present there, at least judging from the intensity and loudness of the acclamation, besides Mandela himself, was the Queen of Soul herself, hometown girl - Aretha Franklin.
The who-is-who of the
So was Rosa Parks - the woman who defied the segregation laws of the 1960’s by refusing to vacate a seat for a white person on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
A whole array of entertainers, from Detroit and other towns, were also there. Stevie Wonder, another Motown Records legend, graced the occasion. And Aretha Franklin was the main act on the day. During her memorable performance that night, she called Mandela to the stage, where he spoke about listening to and appreciating “the Detroit Motown sound” while he was in prison on Robben Island.
I had another opportunity to experience again the impact of Aretha Franklin’s influence on the city of Detroit in 1994 as a fellow at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.
This time around, as part of my fellowship programme, I was attached to the city’s largest newspaper, The Detroit Free Press.
While there, I attended a seminar on newspaper design. The lead presenter, who was the Design Editor at the newspaper, a middle-aged Hispanic man, made a presentation that left a lasting impression on me regarding the role played by designers and artists in packaging content.
It was a slide presentation about 30 minutes long. Right at the end of the presentation, he had the letters R-E-S-P-E-C-T projected on the screen, and as that happened Aretha Franklin’s all-time hit, ‘Respect’ blasted out of the public address system that was being used at the seminar. Of course it was all choreographed.
As the song came to an the end the presenter concluded, “Yes, as we do the lay-out of our newspapers, ladies and gentlemen, we should always remember that it is the readers of our papers who pay our salaries, and we can’t afford to be sloppy. We should show them Respect!”
He was given a standing ovation as he said that.
Aretha Franklin died last week at the age of 76, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She will be buried next week Friday.