Following National Geographic’s (DStv channel 181) Genius bio-dramas about Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, the spotlight falls on singer-songwriter, composer and civil rights activist Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Genius: Aretha tells the story of her life to shine a light not only on her incomparable gift for interpretation and performance (safely in the hands of Grammy-nominated singer and actress Cynthia Erivo), but also on how she was shaped by and transcended her time. It contextualises Aretha’s life in the light of American politics and prejudices of the time and shows how her music fed off – and fed into – the civil rights movement and the fight for racial, gender and economic equality during the 1960s and 1970s.

From her earliest days of finding her feet and her voice in her father’s church choir in the early 1950s, the series takes us inside the recording studio with Aretha as it re-creates pivotal songs and performances, those moments of creative struggle and breakthrough. We’ll see the hair-raising moments of inspiration when Aretha sparks a creative fire in her recording musicians as her songs take shape in front of us.

We’ll see how she fought for control of her career from her first success after she signed with Atlantic Records under producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross) in 1966, to how she grew her relationship with producer Clive Davis (Christopher Redman) at Arista after signing with him in 1979. And we’ll see how hard she had to fight to be heard at all in an industry that could be notoriously exploitative, particularly towards black people, and dismissive towards women.

As well as being a portrait of a remarkable talent, Genius: Aretha tells a story about complicated people. It invites us to understand how someone like Aretha’s father, the Reverend CL Franklin (in a subtle and powerful performance from Courtney B. Vance) could have 1 hand in the light and the other in the shadows. It shows us how he could love, nurture and support his daughter and guide her talent on 1 hand, while getting a 12-year-old girl from his church pregnant and abandoning her to protect his reputation and his family on the other. It shows Aretha coming to terms with her father’s nature, and her struggle with her own complex drives as she was forced into a tug of war between her career and her family.

Aretha had a hard road ahead of her to create the kind of music she wanted to, but like a true Genius she carved out that path until it was something that looked not only natural, but inevitable.

Genius: Aretha will be available on Catch Up on DStv, and the season will build to a Box Set, so you’ll be able to binge it in 1 go from Wednesday, 18 August

Watch Genius: Aretha S3 from Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

NB! National Geographic (DStv channel 181) is available on DStv Premium, Compact Plus, Compact and Family. To get DStv or to upgrade your package, Click here

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Who’s who

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Aretha Franklin (Cynthia Erivo. The child Aretha “Little Re” is played by Shaian Jordan)

Aretha grew up in a musical household and taught herself to play piano by the age of 12. She recorded her earliest tracks at 14 at her father’s Baptist church and toured the gospel circuit with him, signing her first record deal at the age of 18. Her voice lent its power to the civil rights movement, and by the time of her death in 2018 she had 18 Grammy Awards, over 75 million records sold, the National Medal of The Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she was the first female performer inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She was also a child mother at the age of 12, and a domestic violence survivor.


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Reverend CL Franklin (Courtney B Vance)

Baptist minister Clarence LeVaughn Franklin was publicly known as the “Million Dollar Voice.” He broadcast weekly sermons on his radio show and his sermons sold as records. The Reverend CL Franklin was a celebrity on national ministry tours and public appearances. But in his friends’ words, CL was a man who “loves Sunday morning and Saturday night”. While he was sincere in his devotion to the church and worked tirelessly to uplift his community, he loved a good party, great music, and couldn’t resist a pretty face. His infidelities tore his family apart and caused the women around him a lot of pain.


Erma Franklin (Patrice Covington)

Erma was the oldest of the 4 Franklin siblings. While Aretha’s career held the spotlight, in Genius: Aretha, we’ll see how Erma not only worked with Aretha musically as a talented singer herself, but how she reached out to help her personally, too. Erma, her sister Carolyn and CL’s mother, Rachel, helped to take care of Aretha’s children while she was working on her career. Erma was far more than 1 of Aretha’s backup singers.

Carolyn Franklin (Rebecca Naomi Jones)

The baby of the family, Carolyn joined Erma in singing backup vocals for Aretha. Genius: Aretha will show us her struggles in trying to escape Aretha’s shadow and launch an independent career. She was the songwriter on some of Aretha’s hits including Call Me, Ain’t No Way, Angel, and Save Me. While Carolyn shared Aretha’s passion for civil rights activism, as a lesbian, she felt that the LGBTQ+ part of the struggle for equality was being silenced.

Rachel Franklin (Pauletta Washington)

CL Franklin’s mother, Big Mama, came from a background of rural poverty in the American Deep South. She was the stable mother figure in the Franklin children’s lives once their mother Barbara walked out over the Reverend’s infidelities. She was a proud, understanding, and supportive presence in Aretha’s life and helped to raise her children.

Cecil Franklin (Steven G Norfleet)

Aretha’s big brother became an assistant pastor in their father’s church, but he was always there with a sympathetic ear for Aretha, and he stepped in to become her manager after she divorced her first husband Ted White, a role he played until his death in 1989.

Barbara Franklin (Antonique Smith)

Aretha’s mom was a talented musician whose voice captivated CL As well as raising the children, she was the pianist and choral director for CL’s congregation. But by the time Aretha was 6 years old, Barbara had had enough of CL’s cheating and the humiliation of having other women approach her about it, including the grandmother of a pregnant 12-year-old who came looking for the Reverend to take responsibility while Barbara herself was pregnant. Barbara died just 4 years after she left CL

Ted White (Malcolm Barrett)

Aretha married her first husband when she was just 19 years old and he was around 30. Ted was a handsome deal maker and he pushed Aretha’s career with producers and songwriters. But rumour has it that he financed some of his deals by exploiting prostitutes on the side. The couple had a child together, Teddy, who’d go on to become a popular musician himself. Unfortunately Ted’s drinking and violence threatened both Aretha’s life and her career, and the couple divorced in 1969.

Jerry Wexler (David Cross)

Atlantic Records music producer Jerry Wexler, a former music journalist, signed Aretha Franklin to Atlantic in 1967 and helped her to find her sound. They worked together for 12 years and remained friends even after Aretha left Atlantic. Jerry was the guy who coined the term R&B to replace the term “race music”. He signed acts like Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin. Jerry helped to nurture the Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, where a group of session musicians created a funky, soulful Southern sound that worked as well with Aretha as it did with the Rolling Stones and Wilson Pickett.

Ruth Bowen (Kimberly Hébert Gregory)

Ruth was the first-ever black female talent agent and she grew to become head of the largest Black-owned talent agency in the world. After successfully guiding Dinah Washington, who was 1 of Aretha’s major inspirations from her childhood, Ruth took over management of Aretha’s career from Ted White. She helped Aretha to shape her public image and to guard her privacy, and got her the right sort of press in the right publications to support her journey into global fame.

Episode guide

Episode 1: Desperate for a hit, Aretha (Cynthia Erivo) travels to Muscle Shoals to record her first album with Atlantic Records, and in the past, after suffering the loss of her surrogate mother, Little Re (Shaian Jordan) braves her first solo in her father, CL Franklin’s (Courtney B. Vance) church.

Episode 2: Four years before Muscle Shoals, Aretha (Cynthia Erivo) struggles to find her sound and what she hopes will be a break-out performance on the Steve Allen show, just fizzles. But she manages to catch the attention of Jerry Wexler (David Cross) at Atlantic Records. In the past, Little Re (Shaian Jordan) has her first touring experience on the Gospel Circuit with CL Franklin (Courtney B. Vance), and meets her idol, Clara Ward (Tina Fears).

Episode 3: Aretha (Cynthia Erivo) juggles her music career and her commitment to the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. (Ethan Henry). In the past, Little Re (Shaian Jordan) leaves behind her newborn child to return to the Gospel Circuit, meeting music legends James Cleveland (Omar Dorsey) and Little Sammie Bryant (Tonya Banks of Little Women LA).

Episode 4: Aretha (Cynthia Erivo) is featured on the cover of Time Magazine but she is devastated when the article focuses on the scandalous details of her personal life. In the past, Barbara Franklin (Antonique Smith) and Young CL Franklin (Edwin Hodge) struggle to establish themselves in Memphis the year before Little Re is born.

Episode 5: Aretha (Cynthia Erivo), inspired by Angela Davis (Brittany Guess) and the Soledad Brothers, records her protest album “Young, Gifted and Black.” Despite Jerry Wexler’s (David Cross) uncertainty, the album is a success. In the past, Barbara Franklin (Antonique Smith) makes a decision that has a devastating effect on Little Re (Shaian Jordan).

Episode 6: Aretha (Cynthia Erivo) records her best-selling live Gospel album “Amazing Grace” in James Cleveland’s (Afemo Omilami) church, ignoring her siblings' pleas to record instead at New Bethel with their father, CL Franklin (Courtney B. Vance.) In the past Little Re (Shaian Jordan) discovers that she is pregnant with her second child, forcing her to leave school. While pregnant, she records her first album at New Bethel.

Episode 7: As the Queen of Soul enters the age of disco, Aretha (Cynthia Erivo) will do anything to remain relevant – including stealing an opportunity from her sister, Carolyn (Rebecca Naomi Jones). After being snubbed at the Grammys she pursues an acting career with mixed results. She parts ways with Jerry Wexler (David Cross) and meets Arista founder Clive Davis (Christopher Redman).

Episode 8: Season Finale. Despite significant emotional losses including a second divorce and the death of her father, Aretha (Cynthia Erivo) pushes herself artistically and triumphs. She begins a successful career at Arista with the help of Clive Davis. In an unforgettable Grammy performance, she solidifies her eternal reign as the Queen of Soul.

Watch Genius: Aretha S3 from Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

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