The Obamas Pay Tribute to Aretha Franklin as Trump Faces Backlash for Saying 'She Worked for Me'
Current and former presidents and first ladies paid tribute to the Queen of Soul — with mixed success
Aretha Franklin, the singer-songwriter whose soulful songs became anthems for the civil rights movement, died on Thursday at the age of 76. Since the news broke, tributes filled with love and memories have rolled in — including touching statements from Hillary and Bill Clinton and Barack and Michelle Obama, who describe her singing as “a glimpse of the divine.”
In contrast, President Trump has been criticized for his statement to the press, which said in part, “She worked for me…”
“I want to begin today by expressing my condolences to the family of a person I knew well. She worked for me on numerous occasions,” Trump said to a press pool on Thursday. “She was terrific — Aretha Franklin — on her passing. She brought joy to millions of lives and her extraordinary legacy will thrive and inspire many generations to come. She was given a great gift from God — her voice, and she used it well. People loved Aretha. She was a special woman. So just want to pass on my warmest best wishes and sympathies to her family.”
It’s unclear what Trump meant by his claim that Franklin “worked” for him. He could be referring to the fact that Franklin performed at the Trump’s Castle casino in 1988 and the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in the 1990s, according to the Press of Atlantic City. The White House did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for clarification.
Meanwhile on Twitter, many critics were incensed by Trump’s remark.
According to some on Twitter, the statements from the Clintons and Obamas were noticeably more heartfelt.
“Like people all around the world, Hillary and I are thinking about Aretha Franklin tonight & listening to her music that has been such an important part of our lives the last 50 years,” former President Bill Clinton wrote on Twitter. “We hope you’ll lift her up by listening and sharing her songs that have meant the most to you.”
Hillary Clinton also tweeted a tribute, writing, “Mourning the loss today of @ArethaFranklin who shared her spirit and talent with the world. She deserves not only our RESPECT but also our lasting gratitude for opening our eyes, ears and hearts. Rest in eternal peace, my friend.”
The Obamas were even more effusive in their love and acknowledgment of her legacy. The former president and first lady had a special friendship with Franklin, who famously performed at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
“America has no royalty. But we do have a chance to earn something more enduring,” the former president wrote on behalf of him and his wife, per a statement that was later posted on Instagram. “Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, Aretha Franklin grew up performing gospel songs in her father’s congregation. For more than six decades since, every time she sang, we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine.”
Franklin, who battled pancreatic cancer for years, began her vocal career as a teenager. She sang gospel hymns in her father’s Detroit church. From these humble beginnings she scaled to the very heights of stardom, scoring her first national chart-topper in 1967 with her version of Otis Redding’s “Respect.”
Since then, the artist has notched 77 Hot 100 chart entries, and earned an astounding 18 Grammys out of 44 nominations. In 1987, two decades after her first No. 1 hit, Franklin became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and was later named the Greatest Singer of All Time by Rolling Stone.
Obama made sure to acknowledge Franklin’s historical importance in his post.
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“Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience,” Obama continued, “In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade—our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.
“Aretha may have passed on to a better place, but the gift of her music remains to inspire us all,” Obama added. “May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace. Michelle and I send our prayers and warmest sympathies to her family and all those moved by her song.”
On Thursday morning, Michelle Obama wrote on Instagram: “Watching Aretha Franklin perform at the White House, and on so many other occasions, made time stand still. @BarackObama and I are holding Aretha’s family in our hearts right now. She will forever be our Queen of Soul.”
The Obamas aren’t the only ones from the previous administration who reflected on Franklin’s legacy. Former White House photographer Pete Souza took a break from trolling President Trump to post a photo of the singer.
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T. RIP Aretha,” he wrote on Instagram.