A Lack of R-E-S-P-E-C-T at Aretha Franklin's Funeral
The world has been mourning the loss of Aretha Franklin, fondly remembered as the “Queen of Soul,” since her passing on August 16th. An eclectic crowd of musicians, family, friends and politicians gathered at the Greater Grace Chapel in Detroit this past Friday to partake in a funeral truly fit for a queen. For the most part.
The youngest of a star-studded cast of performers that included Jennifer Hudson, Faith Hill, and Stevie Wonder, was Ariana Grande, whose latest studio album sweetener has received rave reviews. Grande’s image has been carefully sculpted to project a sense of unapologetic sexuality and confidence as she has embraced her role as one of the most visible young stars in the music industry. Many would agree that Grande was a perfect choice to pay tribute to the late queen—making it all the more ironic what would unfold.
Shortly after she belted out the classic "Natural Woman" (as personally requested by the Franklin family), she was joined on stage by Bishop Charles H. Ellis, the pastor of the Detroit mega-church. Attempting to inject a bit of humor, Ellis noted his unfamiliarity with the songstress, stating "When I saw Ariana Grande on the program, I thought that was a new something at Taco Bell," as he put his arm around her in a tight squeeze that many have seen as groping. "Girl, let me give you all your respect," the pastor quipped as he moved closer.
Multiple viewers noticed his grip inching higher as he eventually appeared to be nearly squeezing her breast. Visibly uncomfortable, Grande laughed at his jokes and at one point even attempted to wriggle free of his grasp. Shortly after, the internet was buzzing with criticism toward his actions.
It is widely believed that the bishop blatantly crossed a line—and perhaps the most shocking aspect of all was that it was at a live-broadcasted funeral. A handful of commentators were quick to see the occurrence as Ellis taking advantage of both his high-ranking position as a religious leader and the unique circumstances at hand. What choice did Ariana have other than to tolerate the uncomfortable moment? An instantaneous reaction would have undoubtedly caused even more of a scene. She had little option but to grin and bear it.
What should have been a drama-free tribute to celebrate The Queen and her legacy was quickly overshadowed by the controversy. The moment quickly made the front page of Reddit under the r/Cringe category with a post titled “Ariana Grande groped by pastor.”
“You can tell by her body language she was clearly uncomfortable. Squirming, wiggly, trying to find a low key way to change positions and hoping to break free without causing a scene,” remarked one user. Another chimed in, “If this weren’t a funeral she probably could’ve said something. It’s a shame but he probably knew what kind of position he was putting her in. No one wants to be the one to cause a scene at a funeral.”
Ellis was quick to apologize and defend his actions. “It would never be my intention to touch any woman's breast... I don't know I guess I put my arm around her," he told the Associated Press. "Maybe I crossed the border, maybe I was too friendly or familiar but again, I apologize."
Furthermore, he stated “I personally and sincerely apologize to Ariana and to her fans and to the whole Hispanic community,” referring to his less-than-tasteful Taco Bell reference. “When you’re doing a program for nine hours you try to keep it lively, you try to insert some jokes here and there.”
In an attempt to downplay the inappropriate nature of his actions, he stated that he had hugged multiple performers that day, regardless of gender. “I hug all the female artists and the male artists," Ellis said. "Everybody that was up, I shook their hands and hugged them. That's what we are all about in the church. We are all about. The last thing I want to do is to be a distraction to this day. This is all about Aretha Franklin."
While Grande has yet to speak out about the occurrence, the hashtag #RespectAriana began trending worldwide within hours. And while the vast majority are on her side, some have bashed her choice of dress for being ‘too short’ and ‘inappropriate’ for a funeral—a form of victim-blaming that the #MeToo movement strives to address.
It’s unfortunate that the physical interaction has indeed been a distraction from honoring Franklin. In modern times, the importance of open conversation regarding sexual harassment incidents is a pressing matter. While it’s necessary to recognize that Bishop Ellis certainly “crossed the border,” whether or not that was his intention remains subjective. One thing is for certain: The Queen of Soul most certainly would not condone this behavior, and neither should we.