Skip to main content

Cynthia Erivo on 'Genius: Aretha': 'She does something with music that no one else can'

Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin in the 1960s, wearing a multicoloured jacket, a black turtleneck and three strings of red beads, standing in a recording studio singing into the microphone with her head tilted back and her eyes closed
Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin in Genius: Aretha. (Image credit: National Geographic / Richard DuCree)

Cynthia Erivo gives an incredible performance as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, in Genius: Aretha, which comes to Disney+ in the UK on Friday June 4, and is already available to watch in the US on Hulu. Having already picked up Grammy and Tony awards as Celie in The Color Purple on Broadway, as well as an Oscar nomination for playing abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the 2019 film Harriet, London-born Cynthia Erivo was excited for the chance to play another iconic figure — one who she had been a fan of since she was a young girl...

"I was in my mother's car on my way to school, I think I was nine or ten years old, and Think comes on Magic FM," Cynthia Erivo recalls. "I just fell in love with it, and the way it made me feel — and then later on, for some reason, they played another song by her, Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves with Eurythmics. I just remember feeling like, 'I don't understand how this one person has been able to do these two types of music and both of them connect with me', and I just fell in love from that moment on!" 

The Genius series has already covered the lives and works of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, and Aretha is the latest trailblazer — and first musician — that the show has explored in dramatic form. For Cynthia, Aretha's genius lies in her innate musical talent and her ability to appeal to listeners all over the world.

"She didn't read or annotate music in the practical sense, but she was still able to compose and create with musicians, which I think is incredible," says Cynthia. "She still played like a concert pianist — she learnt to play the piano by ear, which is wild, especially since she was able to create some chords that most musicians wouldn't be able to even fathom. And on top of that, she was able to connect music to real-life experiences and emotions, and connect that to everybody else who was able to listen. There is a reason why she is listened to across the world, and everyone seems to be able to relate — there is something she does with music which no one else can."

Aretha Franklin (Cynthia Erivo) performing on stage in a silver sequinned dress and a silver tiara

Cynthia as Aretha Franklin performing on stage. (Image credit: National Geographic / Richard DuCree)

The series explores several timelines in Aretha's life, starting out when she was singing in the gospel choir at her father's church, and also highlighting the struggle she was having to define her musical identity in the 1960s before hitting the big time.

"In this series we're watching her grow to find out what her voice actually is," says Cynthia Erivo. "In the first years she's singing jazz, and it doesn't quite land because everyone else is singing jazz. It's not really where her voice is, and she has to sort of take it right back to the beginning where she's singing gospel, and pull from those roots and inject that into the music she wants to make, which is what ends up being what we call soul. She really was the Queen of Soul because she took something that was in the church and put that in something we know and love, which was pop and R&B, and that combination makes the sound that we know and love her for.

As a singer-songwriter in her own right, Cynthia definitely has the credentials to play Aretha — but she still found it a fascinating challenge to capture the essence of the legendary performer.

"I'm a visual and auditory learner, so I will watch or listen to something and that's the easiest way for me to learn," she says. "I was lucky because there are loads of videos of Aretha on stage performing. One thing I noticed about her is she's not a woman who does lots of routines, but she will move to the music if it takes her, and I enjoyed watching just how she gets into it. I would listen to her music over and over again, I had a wonderful vocal coach who would help me work through each of the songs so I could get the habits that she would put into music. There are things that only Aretha does with her voice that you have to listen to learn, and I took great pleasure in learning those things so I could put it into my performance. I hope it was okay!"

Genius: Aretha launches on Disney+ in the UK on Friday June 4. US viewers can stream the full series now on Hulu.